The Face Of Stillbirth

By Lucia Allamandi Schwenker

mindshare and the Author of this work wish to advise that “The Face of Stillbirth” contains themes that may be distressing to some readers. Content follows themes of stillbirth, infant loss, and grief. 

If you feel you may be affected by this piece, please reach out to someone you feel safe with, or a mental health service.  Feedback may be directed to mindshare@mhcsa.org.au .

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I woke up to hair starting to look like dreadlocks. My eyes puffy, a permanent cry face on, framed by dark circles. Stoned red, half-mast from the swelling. Another morning consumed by grief.

I was still in bed when someone called to discuss my baby’s funeral arrangements. In South Australia, all miscarriages and stillbirths over twenty weeks require a funeral, the government shoving their religious and patriarchal ideologies into women on the most traumatic day of our lives. Powerful white men deciding what to do with the body I made with MY body.

My son’s little five-months-gestation frame took so much.

The caller explained we could still see him but warned us that his body was deteriorating with each day. I sat there letting it sink in, the words echoing.

I was sick of talking about my dead son’s body. He was gone, his little blue body decaying, bacteria eating his flash, each of his unfinished organs reverting back to what it was five months ago: nothing.

I searched for stillbirth baby photos on Google, wondering what my baby would have looked like. I don’t know what I expected, but it surprised me. The babies looked red, as if their skin was irritated. I expected them to be blue. I imagine my baby blue, coming out of me. Lifeless, a stiff doll being pushed from a toboggan. No cry, only mine.

At the time I birthed him, I didn’t expect a baby’s cry, already used to the idea of birthing a dead body. At that very second, I wasn’t sad. I didn’t register him, his presence or the nurses and midwives dealing with the practicality of the situation: him being respectfully wrapped in a sheet then taken into a separate cool room.

My husband Scott came into our room wearing the same clothes as yesterday, weight of the world on his shoulder. He tells me his cousin and aunt, who we had seen a few days prior, had tested positive for COVID-19. We were double vaxxed and at that point symptomless, yet immediately got into the car to get a PCR test done.

Early January in South Australia, average temperature reaching 35C and all clinics were shutting down early due to the heat. We drove to the Mile End COVID Clinic and waited in line, sun scorching the dark Grey paint of the 2003 Mazda we had bought second hand from Scott’s mum.

While waiting for the PCR results (24 to 48hrs), the funeral staff called again. We were told our baby had mould growing in parts of his body, and his little chest was sinking into his body.

I paused to process the new information. At least superficially anyway, I’ll likely be processing those days for the rest of my life.

‘I still want to see him’ I told Scott.

But I would not.

We both tested positive for COVID-19, both ticking multiple symptom boxes in the days to come. By the time we finished isolating it was too late and we would never meet our son.

Months later I saw the photos taken in the hospital when he was born, a photoshoot done by volunteers, both macabre and beautiful.

I expected a recognisable baby, which was not the case. He had been dead in me for several days by the time he came out and his little face and body were swollen from built up fluid. His skin was purple and peeling off his thin limbs, chunks missing, glowing red, raw underneath. His lips were large lumps, distorting his face. He looked big, like he would have been a strong baby.

There were multiple photos of him, three, maybe four. At first, he was wearing a little white gown, like the ones children wear in old photos from ghost movies. The satin looking white dress did not suit my boy and he looked like a confused alien wearing a doll’s dress. A dressed body part. And that was what he was, a body part, my body part. He was part of me and I loved having him there. How I wish I could have birthed him alive. Have him healthy with me forever.

But I didn’t and that day I saw photos of how he was. How he WAS and IS no more.  Those photos only a medical record of my son, lovingly and forever referred to as Paçoca*.

 

*a peanut base Brazilian dessert

 

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