Sarah McBrien Keast's Story
1) What is your personal experience with infertility/miscarriage?
My first pregnancy ending in a miscarriage. It was discovered by ultrasound at 11 weeks, but the baby had died at 7 weeks. I delivered my second baby, my son Ryder at 21w 5d on June 29th 2010, after severe brain damage was discovered at 20 weeks. We choose medical termination due to his brain damage, and I was induced into labour. He lived for 3 hours in my arms. My husband and I chose the unthinkable. We chose this so that we would carry a lifetime of pain, and so that our son would be spared it. My fourth pregnancy was conceived via IVF and PGD, and although we did not experience difficulties as our IVF attempt was successful, we were plunged into the IVF world and bore witness to the emotional trauma it can wreck on a woman and on a couple.
2) How has it made your life worse? How has it made your life better?
It’s hard to say. I think it’s brought both to my life; goodness and terrible-ness. I buried my first born son in a tiny white casket on a boiling hot day in July 8 years ago. That pain hasn’t faded. But losing Ryder brought me to the pregnancies that were healthy and which resulted in my beautiful daughters, Brooklyn and Piper. Their existence in my life is pure goodness (well, most of the time) So it’s weird and strange place to be…one foot in the grief filled world of my dead son, and one foot in the bright, energetic world of my living daughters. Just another example of the randomness and the unfairness of life. I want all my children alive and healthy, but I simply can’t have that.
3) When & how did you realize that you were going to be able to carry on after infertility/miscarriage?
To be totally honest (and I’ve just come to this place in therapy recently: grief work is long!), I was only able to carry on after I got pregnant again. I feel weak and sad saying that, but I was so grief stricken with losing Ryder, after having already miscarried a year before, that I felt that I could only be ‘fixed’ if I was pregnant again. It wasn’t healthy and it added extra, complicated layers to my pregnancy and my grief. It’s only been just recently, in grief counselling, that we have overturned that rock, and shone light on my unresolved grief at losing Ryder. I was pregnant again so quickly after his loss that my grief over him has been swallowed up by pregnancies and parenting young children as well as coping with my husband’s addiction and ultimately, his death. That didn’t make it go away though. It just stuffed it down inside me, where its been bubbling away. It’s rising to the surface now and I’m working on it.
4) What have you learned through this experience?
Still learning! Grief work is long and you don’t ever ‘get over it’ or ‘move on’. The main things I’ve learned so far are that you truly don’t know what pain another person is carrying. The struggle to become a parent affects so many and yet we don’t talk about it. In my subsequent pregnancies, I was very conscious and careful about how my pregnant state might affect others. I didn’t post bump pictures or ultrasound pictures on social media as I knew first hand how hard you got punched in the face when you were innocently scrolling your feed and were faced with so many baby related things. I’ve also learned that grief doesn’t get smaller or go away and you don’t “get over” it. Your grief stays the same size but your life gets bigger around it. I also try and cultivate gratitude and mindfulness and being in the moment with my living children, knowing the painful road I took to get to them. But truth be told, they are 7 and 4 and high spirited balls of energy and fire, so sometimes I’m not grateful for the moment, I want them to leave me alone and give me a moment of peace!
5) What do you hold on to for hope/courage/strength on your bad days?
I hold on to the knowledge that grief comes in waves. What comes must go. The on your knees, broke open with sadness days eventually recede and let in the standing tall, heart open with love days. As my late husband always said, ‘It’s always darkest before dawn’. I also hold on to the idea that true, raw, open vulnerability brings peace, power and contentedness. I don’t hold it in my grief, I let it out.
6) How do you feel about your experience with infertility on your good days?
It’s made me a better person. More empathetic, more grateful, more present. I trust in the universe that somehow this fucked up path I’m on makes sense.
7) In three words describe yourself before/during/after miscarriage?
8) Tell us about you. What are your hobbies/passions/pursuits?
As a widowed mom of two young kids, I have zero me time, therefore zero hobbies. That said, in an attempt to manage my grief I’ve been blogging about my life after death and that has been quite amazing. If I actually had time, I would embrace yoga, wine tasting, cooking and photography. For now, I’ll just daydream about the day when I can do those things.
9) What is your favourite quote?
These days, anything Cheryl Strayed on grief. Especially this one:
“You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by offering comfort to others who can't go on. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.”
Below is an excerpt from an essay Sarah wrote with her writing group on going home from the hospital without her son. Sarah also writes a blog on her experience as a widowed parent at: http://adventuresinwidowedparenting.wordpress.com/
I stood at the edge of the sidewalk, desperately clutching a white, quilted package that an elderly, grandmotherly type had probably quilted as part of her volunteer work for the hospital. I remember thinking, ‘This is what fish must feel like inside their bowls’. I could see the world around me, but I couldn’t quite hear. Everything looked familiar, normal and real; cars honking, a delivery truck parked illegally, people walking by talking on cell phones. A totally normal Wednesday morning in the early summer. And yet, I felt like I had just arrived here from a foreign country and nothing around me made sense.
As the horns honked and the pedestrians on phones veered around me, I clutched my white, quilted package tighter. The thought ‘it’s not supposed to be like this’ rang out in my head. I probably actually mumbled it out loud, as tears dripped down my face, but given I was outside a hospital in downtown Toronto, nobody batted an eye. Where was my husband with the car, I thought. I don’t want to hold this stupid, quilted package anymore, I muttered to myself. Again, there was no reaction from the pedestrians around me. I wanted to sink into the car, hold my husband’s hand while he drove us home so I could disappear into the quiet, safe sanctuary of my house. But most of all, I wanted to scream “I don’t want this fucking quilted memory package. I want my baby!’ The night before, at 8pm, my son Ryder had been born, weighing barely one lb. Three hours later, my sweet, tiny first born son, died in my arms. And now here I was, 16 hours later, discharged from the hospital, standing on a sidewalk. The world continued to turn while mine fell apart. And instead of a holding a brand new baby, I was holding this stupid, white, quilted package in my arms, filled with pictures and momentos from my baby’s birth. Right. My baby. The one that isn’t in my arms like he is supposed to be, but the one that is dead. It’s not supposed to be like this, my brain yelled.
12 days earlier, we received the call no expectant parent want to hear. My midwife called and gently said, ‘something abnormal has shown up on your anatomy ultrasound’. A few minutes later, she said, ‘I can’t promise you it will be okay. But I can promise you, I will do my best to get you an appointment with the genetics team at the hospital as quickly as possible.’ She was true to her word, and two days later, I was at Mt Sinai surrounded by what seemed to be a bajillion joyfully pregnant women, all excitedly waiting for appointments in which normal, happy results were being discussing. After the end of the longest ultrasound ever, the radiologist came in to the exam room, put her hand on my arm, and said softly “I’m so sorry, I have to confirm what the first ultrasound showed. I am seeing significant brain damage’. The room went dark, I fell into my husband’s arms and I was swallowed up by the sound of my own deep, guttural sobbing. It’s not supposed to be like this, my brain and my body screamed at me.
The next few days were a whirlwind of tests, ultrasounds and appointments with doctors who had titles I couldn’t pronounce or even understand. Words like ‘X-linked hydrocephalus’, ‘grave prognosis’ and ‘profound disabilities’ were used, and intellectually, I knew the definitions of these words, but despite this I could not make sense of what was happening to me, and to my baby. Our genetics team spelled it out for us, gently and with profound kindness. I knew they were not new to explaining the unimaginable to other shell-shocked couples, and eventually, the words and the outcomes began to become clear to us. Our baby was missing parts of his brain due to a genetic condition that affects 1 in 35 000 babies. It was very likely he would die before his due date. If he did make it to his due date, he most likely would be born still. But he could also live, and this is when the terrible, ominous words got used. As I stared at the doctor with the overwhelming title, it became clear to me. They were asking me to choose. Choose to end the pregnancy or choose a life of pain, suffering and turmoil for my baby, my first born, my sweet son. And this moment of clarity happened while rubbing my pregnant belly as my son kicked me insistently from the inside. Sitting there, on that hard, upholstered armchair in the geneticists’ office, I choose the unthinkable. I choose to be induced into labour at 22 weeks gestation. I choose to give birth to my baby, my sweet, broken, dying baby so he could die a peaceful death in my arms. I choose to do this, so that he wouldn’t live out his life in profound pain and suffering. Although clarity and peace came with this choice, my brain and my baby still violently screamed at me, it’s not supposed to be like this. It is not supposed to be like this.
I clutched that white, quilted package every night for the next month. I would lie in bed, looking through all the mementos...his pictures, the blanket my mother knit for him, the certificate filled out by the hospital chaplain who performed a naming ceremony for us hours after he was born. I would lovingly look at all of them, tuck them back into the quilted package before putting it back on my night table and rolling over to cry myself to sleep. It’s now been 8 years since Ryder was born. I don’t clutch that package of memories before I go to sleep anymore. It’s still on my bookshelf though, and I’ll see it out of the corner of my eye occasionally, and my brain will still want to scream ‘it’s not supposed to be like this’. But then, one of my two beautiful daughters will say or do something profoundly beautiful (or not, because you know...7 and 4 year olds), and I’ll wonder, ‘was it supposed to be like this?’ Without Ryder’s short little life, we wouldn’t have gotten pregnant with Brooklyn so quickly. My brain starts to whisper at me sometimes ‘Maybe. Maybe. Just maybe it was supposed to be like this’. But then I want to punch myself in the face because anyone who says ‘things happen for a reason’ to a person in the throes of grief should be punched. It is such a strange, mixed up place to be. I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want all 3 of my children, alive and happy. But this is simply not possible. Ryder’s death bought me to Brooklyn and Piper’s births. I can’t have him and my daughters all alive. When I scoop up my two beautiful, healthy, unbroken, living daughters up in my arms, and pack them into the car to go have a picnic at their brother’s grave site to celebrate his birthday, my brain whispers to me ‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but it is like this. Bittersweet. This is so bittersweet.’
As the horns honked and the pedestrians on phones veered around me, I clutched my white, quilted package tighter. The thought ‘it’s not supposed to be like this’ rang out in my head. I probably actually mumbled it out loud, as tears dripped down my face, but given I was outside a hospital in downtown Toronto, nobody batted an eye. Where was my husband with the car, I thought. I don’t want to hold this stupid, quilted package anymore, I muttered to myself. Again, there was no reaction from the pedestrians around me. I wanted to sink into the car, hold my husband’s hand while he drove us home so I could disappear into the quiet, safe sanctuary of my house. But most of all, I wanted to scream “I don’t want this fucking quilted memory package. I want my baby!’ The night before, at 8pm, my son Ryder had been born, weighing barely one lb. Three hours later, my sweet, tiny first born son, died in my arms. And now here I was, 16 hours later, discharged from the hospital, standing on a sidewalk. The world continued to turn while mine fell apart. And instead of a holding a brand new baby, I was holding this stupid, white, quilted package in my arms, filled with pictures and mementos from my baby’s birth. Right. My baby. The one that isn’t in my arms like he is supposed to be, but the one that is dead. It’s not supposed to be like this, my brain yelled.