Journalist Kathy Donaghy: ‘I couldn’t have known just how far from myself miscarriage would take me’
I was falling apart. It was like looking into a cracked mirror and seeing pieces of myself. It felt like I was fragmenting and taking over less space in the world. I stopped recognising this woman in front of me. Who was I? Peel away the trappings of your life — what you do, where you live — and you can get lost. Here I was, lost in a place I knew so well. Every inch of this place is carved into my soul and yet I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing here.
f I was lost before, I couldn’t have known just how far from myself miscarriage would bring me. “It’s never nothing, it’s always something and sometimes it’s everything” is what I’ve heard a bereavement midwife say about it. For me, miscarriage became all-consuming.
Having another baby seemed like a great idea. My thirties were ebbing away, but I’d had two healthy pregnancies and births that were like falling off a log. My obliviousness now causes me some embarrassment. How many women did I meet in my pregnancy journey who saw my swollen belly and longed for their own child? How many people crossed the road to avoid me because they were desperately trying to have their own baby? I was so proud of my baby bumps. The bigger they became, the happier I was. I don’t think I’d ever be intentionally insensitive to someone else’s feelings, but I have no doubt that I was so caught up in my happy baby bubbles that I was immune to the pain and suffering of others.
I looked at the midwife’s face. There was nothing. Only silence
One thing I have learned is that, when you roll the pregnancy dice, or try to, you have no control over how it lands. It can go any way — all we can do is see what happens. And so, early in our move back to Donegal, I got pregnant again. Another baby on the way. Three children. That’s how I saw my life going. Did it seem selfish to long for one more child when you already have two healthy children?
I got pregnant in the spring of 2012. The line showed up weakly on the pregnancy test, not that I paid any heed. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. On a trip to Dublin, I started to bleed. I went into the Rotunda Hospital, where I’d had my two boys. The first thing the nurse did was a pregnancy test. It showed up negative. I hadn’t a clue what was going on. How could this be? It happens, they told me, and I sadly put myself on a bus back home. I hadn’t been symptomatic. The pregnancy ended almost as soon as it started. My boys were in bed by the time I got home and I smelled their sleeping selves and soothed myself that it was early and that it wasn’t meant to be.
I went into the woods and consoled myself in the company of my big oak tree with the twin boughs. I cried into the earth and named the baby that wasn’t meant to be. My husband Richard’s heart was low too, but he told me not to worry. When I’m afraid, I look to him to reassure me. His calm is the perfect antidote to my habit of stressing easily. I had no reason to doubt him.
In late summer that year, I found myself pregnant again. This time, it felt like a real pregnancy. All throwing up regularly and nausea, mixed with feelings of being ravenous with hunger. I was starting to show early. I bought a red blouse, wide and flowy but not screaming maternity, to celebrate this mini bump growing.
It was November when Richard and I drove to Letterkenny Hospital for the 12-week scan. I’d had a scan at eight weeks and seen a little heart fluttering. All was well. We went into the scanning room. I remember a student being there on placement and being asked if I minded if he sat in for the scan. The lights were dimmed and my belly exposed as the cold liquid to make seeing the baby easier was squirted on. The sonograph moved easily across and around. I looked at the midwife’s face. There was nothing. Only silence. I looked to my husband’s face. Richard has a habit of stepping from one foot to the other when nervous. I noticed him doing that.
I’m spinning and silent and I can’t quite take in what I’m being told. “Go home, wait to bleed, come back” was the advice. I can still hear the midwife saying our baby looked perfect. Perfect. But this baby isn’t moving. It’s perfectly still. No sound, no movement. Just a deafening silence that fills the dark room. Some part of me ascended off the table and watched from above, hovering and looking at my prone self. I felt immense empathy for myself and my husband but I was separate somehow from what was going on beneath me. I even felt sorry for the student who now didn’t know where to look.
On the way home, we stopped at a popular pull-in spot overlooking Lough Swilly and Richard rang my mum. I was numb. Everything was hyper-real. “Remember this moment, Kathy,” a voice inside my head was saying. I looked out at the lough and the mountains of Inishowen and home in the distance. I wanted to head off into those mountains because going home would make all this more real. I would have to acknowledge it and sit with it and I just wanted to disappear into this expanse.
The next day was Sunday and it was cold and stormy. Richard said he was going for a walk to the shore. Not long after he left, I felt like I was going to be sick. I had a contraction and rushed to the bathroom where I passed our tiny little baby. Dots where eyes would be, tiny little buds where fingers would grow, this little being fitted in the palm of my hand.
Richard walked back in to find me holding her or him — we’ll never know. I was sitting on the bathroom floor holding this tiny piece of us, looking in awe at this little being. I will never forget Richard’s face. He just stared before breaking down beside me on the floor.
By then, I was bleeding and it didn’t feel normal. Blood was gushing out of me and wouldn’t stop. I was haemorrhaging. We called my mum to mind the kids and made a dash for the hospital. The evening was dark and cold and it was lashing rain. I thought I’d never make it to Letterkenny. When I stood up to walk into the hospital, it was like a dam breaking inside me and I gushed blood.
I don’t remember getting to the treatment room where I was given injections to stop the bleeding. In a ward afterwards, I passed my baby’s placenta, the size of a small dinner plate. I remember one of the nurses crying. I couldn’t cry I was so scared. I’d lost my baby but I also felt like I had nearly lost my life, that I could have left my boys behind.
I was sitting on the bathroom floor holding this tiny piece of us, looking in awe at this little being.
In our rush to the hospital, we had left our tiny baby with my mum. By the time I made it home again, the little fragment of a human had dissipated. We found an ornate box and buried the remains at the back of the garden.
Over the years, the little grave has become a place for ornaments; there’s a fox and a badger and a small flagstone where I have scratched out our little person’s name with a stone. Beside the grave, we planted a winter apple tree. It’s in full flower now, some of the pink petals have fallen onto the grave. Pio, we called him or her. A tiny name for a tiny being whom we loved and wanted to be with us in our home.
Christmas was just around the corner after the loss of Pio — our very first Christmas in Donegal — and I remember it as a hateful time. The world was getting ready to celebrate and I simply couldn’t participate. I’d had to have surgery after the miscarriage. Despite all the bleeding, some fragments of our little one had remained in my womb and these had to be removed. I returned home wondering how I could continue to put one foot in front of the other.
As if the miscarriage wasn’t bad enough, I was traumatised from what had happened. I knew it wasn’t normal. For months, the sight of blood was triggering. My fight-or-flight mechanism had been pushed into overdrive and now even the slightest thing — the boys having a fall, a loud noise — could set me spinning. I felt shell-shocked.
I’m not proud of how I got through that Christmas. I drank too much. I wanted to numb the feelings I was having. I went through the motions of being excited to see the boys’ Santa toys but all I could think of was how the baby I’d been carrying wouldn’t be around to see a Christmas with us. The future stretched ahead and all I could see was an ocean of pain, of trying to come to terms with this. The new year that I’d envisaged — preparing to welcome our new baby — felt like an expanse of emptiness.
The only way I could see to make sense of this was to try for another baby. I’d had two textbook pregnancies. But life doesn’t go according to plan and textbook twice doesn’t mean that what comes after will go to plan.
When we found out we were expecting twins, it felt like a miracle.
That summer, the evenings seemed to be never-ending. I would trail my fingers along the long grasses growing along the side of the road and feel my belly growing by the day. Twins. I was getting back what I had lost.
The night they left me was one of the longest of my life. I was at home in Donegal and the sickness I had been feeling all those weeks had dissipated. I tried to swat away the worry that came creeping back into the edges of my mind like a dying fly. Earlier on that evening, I’d been at a meeting and someone brought out tea and scones after the work was done. Why wasn’t I feeling nauseous? I tasted a scone, mainly to see if it caused my stomach to somersault as was usually the case. Nothing. A silent dread crept over me. I wasn’t really present for any more of the conversation at the meeting. I went home and had an early night.
It took me a long time to fall asleep and, in the middle of the night, I woke to a feeling of a leave-taking. It couldn’t be described as physical but some essence of being was leeching from me. The silence had a sound, a frequency just perceptible. It wasn’t frightening, but I knew what it was. My twins were going. I’m not overly religious but I am deeply spiritual. Their spirits were leaving my body.
In those moments, I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t sad, although the sadness would come. I lay there and bore witness to a profound happening that looked like nothing at all was happening. While the birth of my sons was visceral and raw and life-affirming, this was quiet and beautiful and I remember every second of it as vividly as I remember the birth of my two boys.
It was no big drama or happening, just a deep understanding of their lives leaving me. The next day, I knew I wasn’t pregnant anymore. The scan two days later confirmed it. Shocked, the obstetrician said it must have happened only in the last 24 hours. I told her I could pinpoint the very minutes.
I had to return to the hospital where I’d brought my two boys into the world. The doctor who I’d attended for my pregnancies with Dallan and Oirghiall had booked me in for an ERPC the day after the scan confirmed the twins were gone.
ERPC — evacuation of retained products of conception — an awful medical term for removing the remains of tiny lives. Richard and I returned to the hospital, a place of such joy for us, and waited for me to be called for my procedure. I had a strong sense of how I shouldn’t be here. Why was I in a maternity hospital? I wouldn’t be giving birth to anyone. The women sitting around me, their bellies swollen and full, were there for a different reason. I felt like death among them and I wanted to run away. I felt like an aberration in this place.
Panic started to set in as these feelings grew stronger, but then Richard said something that I will never forget. He told me that what I was going through, what we were going through, was as much a part of life as giving birth to a child. It wasn’t abnormal. It was just life and every bit as much a part of the fabric of it as bringing a child into the world. I felt myself relax. I could do this.
I put on a hospital gown and was just about to go for anaesthesia when I made a quick visit to the bathroom. I stood in front of a full-length mirror and looked at myself. My belly was swollen under the gown. My twins lay still nestled beside one another and I had to let them go now. I have never felt more utterly alone. I wasn’t even afraid anymore. It was worse than fear. It was desolation.
I didn’t recognise the woman in the mirror. She was so far from the woman I wanted to see myself as. And yet she was me. I can be kinder now. What would I say to her standing there all alone? I would have more compassion for her. I’d say, “Let it go now. It’s not your fault.” I’d tell her that this will pass, that there’s so much love in your life that you have to know you did nothing wrong. I’d tell her that not all lives are long, some little lives are lived fully and completely in your heart. But I didn’t know any of that then. I just wanted it to be done.
I just looked at the red-eyed woman in the mirror and I told her to hold on. It was like some part of my brain removed from my physical self was looking on and telling the physical part not to be afraid. It doesn’t sound rational, but then I wasn’t rational.
We planted two white hydrangeas in the garden, right beside one another. They grow along the fence beside the river. They are nine years old now, the same age as my twins. One bush is bigger than the other and stronger. I like to think the bigger one is sheltering the smaller one from the winds that blow up the river.
I suffered two more miscarriages. These happened earlier into the pregnancies, but even then, I had already pictured these tiny buds nestling down into the folds of my womb, their hearts beating strongly inside me — hearts that would beat for many years long after I was gone from this world. But instead of beating hearts, there were regular visits to the early pregnancy unit, there was talk about fetal poles and gestation sacs and how it was too early to tell at this stage. More theatre, more surgery to remove what was left of the little lives that couldn’t be.
By now, an almost madness had descended on me. I had become obsessive about becoming pregnant. I snarled and shouted and resented anyone who was pregnant. Social media became the most hateful place imaginable. I was rabid with a rage that I couldn’t contain. At one point, which in its own way marked the end of the pregnancy road for me, I believed that once again I was pregnant. So sick of pregnancy tests, I trusted the bodily signs of pregnancy I was showing. I was feeling sick and nauseous and my lower back was sore — all the giveaway signs for me.
I booked an appointment at the hospital. I lay down for the scan, hopeful that all would be well. There was nothing there. I had to acknowledge to the doctor that I hadn’t in fact done a test but the feelings were real. The doctor was very understanding. He explained that what I was experiencing was known in the medical world as a phantom pregnancy. Only recently have doctors begun to understand the psychological and physical issues that are at the root of what is known medically as pseudocyesis. Although the exact causes are still not known, doctors suspect that psychological factors may trick the body into ‘thinking’ that it’s pregnant.
All I could think to myself was, “He thinks I’m stark raving bonkers” and “I need to get out of here.” I made my apologies and almost ran to the car. The doctor was being kind, but I couldn’t bear to hear his sympathy or the explanations. This felt like I was losing the plot.
And so I read, I did yoga, I got counselling. I talked. I ran. I went to Lough Derg, where I stood in bare feet in the rain and made all kinds of deals with God. Somewhere along the way, Richard and I decided that we couldn’t do this anymore. I was killing myself. My life had become obsessive to the point of awful. I had a life I needed to live, if not for me, for my two boys. I had been going through the motions of motherhood, but I was a mess. I needed to honour my sadness, but I also needed to stop making myself sad. The third child I’d longed for wouldn’t come. I’d already torn up the script on one life. Now life was teaching me that actually you control nothing. It was time to stop suffering and live. But how?
How do you get on with the day-to-day of living when you’re so angry? I was raging against everyone and everything, including myself, mostly myself to be honest. If I had to see another baby announcement I knew I’d crack, so when Richard quietly told me someone close to us was pregnant, I picked up a plastic dinosaur and threw it so hard at the door frame that the foot fell off. This pattern was repeated often. I’m not proud of how I behaved. Thankfully nobody got hurt in the throwing of things. My heart was the thing that was hurting.
I wasn’t just heartbroken for myself. I was heartbroken for Richard and the boys too. I’d wanted another baby for them too. I wanted my boys to be the wonderful big brothers I knew they’d be and for Richard to be the amazing father he is to another little person of ours. Every corner of my mind that I turned over seemed to make the feelings heavier and sadder.
The miscarriages also made me feel shame. I was heartbroken at the loss of the future we’d planned. But I was also so ashamed of my body for letting these babies down. I asked my body to do a job, to carry these babies for me, and it didn’t; it couldn’t. When I peel back the layers of what was going on, I realise that I blamed myself. Blame and then shame. A lethal combination.
I understand now that this is a natural part of grieving. Anger is a stage. I wasn’t so much angry at the world as angry at myself. How could I have let myself believe that it would work out? How could I have let these babies down?
There was no medical test that proved conclusive as to what was going on. Just one of those things. The thinking was that I had conceived and carried two healthy pregnancies and brought two children into the world, that this was just bad luck. There was no answer, and so, in the absence of something concrete, I blamed myself.
I kept all my sons’ baby clothes and my maternity clothes. I was so convinced I’d be needing them. I packed a bag with brand new baby clothes, among them little knitted shoes I’d bought in Italy. The woman behind the counter had looked at me, smiling knowingly, as if she believed I was in the early stages of pregnancy. I wasn’t, but I believed I would be, and these shoes would one day slide over the feet of our newborn.
We are so alike, this imagined daughter and I
I sometimes imagined a girl. I saw her in pink in my dreams, although I could never have seen me overdoing the pink. Her hair is black like mine once was and she has big feet, just like me, feet that will mean she is teased about them when she’s young. I see her face and her thoughtful eyes like her dad’s. I see her growing, her head always in a book, dresses always torn on barbed wire. We are so alike, this imagined daughter and I.
As time went on, the madness of grief lessened. For the sake of our relationship, my husband and I had to stop this constant hoping, loss, hoping cycle. We had two boys who needed us. It was time to stop trying.
How do you know when the time to stop comes? I don’t know. You just get so tired of trying and realise that you want to live again. It was an uneasy decision to come to. We had given it so much but it was taking so much from us. Enough, we said. It brought a peace of sorts, a sad kind of peace.
Despite letting go of so many things, there is something I can’t bear to part with. I still keep it in the bottom drawer of my bedside table and it’s so exquisite that I will never let it go. It’s a baby girl’s dress. It’s made of antique peach silk and it comes in its own silk patterned bag. There’s a tiny collar and short sleeves that I always imagined podgy baby-girl arms sticking out of. My sister-in-law Eimear bought it for me. Is it wrong that some nights when my heart is heavy, I take it out of the drawer and hold it up to my face to feel the softness of the silk against my skin?
It’s the most perfect little dress. I can hold it now without crying, but I can’t ever part with it. It belongs to my dream girl. When I hold it, it’s like holding gossamer wings. I imagine her flying away in it.
In my dreams, we are swimming underwater. I am holding her hand and she is wearing her dress, looking into my eyes with hope and trust and love. In my dreams, I see her and I say to her: “Someday my love, but not yet.”
The world after miscarriage had become an unsafe place for me. I felt let down by life. I felt I had let myself and my family down. I was afraid of so many things, and so a kind of inertia had taken over. I remember sitting having a cup of tea at the kitchen table one day when I had the sudden and stark realisation that I was fed up being afraid. I picked up my keys and got in the car, knowing I was heading to the ocean.
I pulled into the car park at Culdaff Beach. The beach stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s bound by rocks on one side and a river flowing into the ocean on the other. On this day, not a soul was in sight.
I started to peel off my clothes. I strip to my underwear and keep walking. I couldn’t care less if there was a cast of thousands on the beach. I just know I need to feel these waves.
As I walked into the water, I could hear the words, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” ring out in my ears.
Diving under a wave is a moment of pure feeling. It’s not a thinking kind of moment. It’s like a feeling of being swallowed whole. The sound is muffled. You are in the middle of something you can’t control, something that feels a bit like a large and powerful jaw. You don’t know which way’s up or which way’s down.
My heart was pumping hard, but in those moments, I felt so alive. As the water glistened on my skin, I wasn’t grieving. I wasn’t feeling sad. I was living in the moment, and in that moment, in those waves, I felt good. It felt good to be here in this beautiful place, immersed in cold water and drenched. I ran out of the waves, my body tingling, my skin pink all over.
I looked back at the ocean and gazed at it in awe. I’d been in there. Something of its deep energy still thrummed in my veins. I was part of this vast cycle of life. I couldn’t control what had happened to me any more than I could stop a wave from crashing into me. The correlation of the two was immensely comforting to me even as I stood there all alone on the beach. I didn’t feel lonely. I felt happy in my solitude. Happy to have had this experience by myself.
You can’t stop the tide. Why would you want to? The wildness of this day infused itself into me. I wanted more of this feeling. I wanted to find more of that wild and to live it if not every day, then as many days as I could. I looked at the ocean again. I said ‘thank you’ to the great vast ocean as another wave lapped at my feet.
A peace offering, an invitation to return. I will always return, I promised the ocean that day. I made that promise quite a few years ago now and it’s one I have honoured as many times a week as I can.
How many times have I entered the ocean to find exactly what I’ve needed? My tears have joined with the vast ocean, salt water meeting salt water. In this place, I’ve found an acceptance of myself.
Helplines: If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, click here for more information
‘Finding My Wild’ is published by O’Brien Press on Feburary 6
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/baby-loss/journalist-kathy-donaghy-i-couldnt-have-known-just-how-far-from-myself-miscarriage-would-take-me-42314310.html Journalist Kathy Donaghy: ‘I couldn’t have known just how far from myself miscarriage would take me’