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    The Heavens Wept with Me by Caitlin Connolly. Painting of a woman cradling a tear drop.

    Notes on a Miscarriage

    A mother contemplates the inadequacies of language to describe her love, and her loss.

    By Kayla Beth Moore

    January 27, 2023

    Available languages: Deutsch

    7 Comments
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    • Ann

      Your paragraph on grief early in the piece is the best I've read in a long while. I lost a set of twins in late miscarriage 32 years ago. The sorrow eases, yet still remains. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Monica

      Your writing here honors "it," and honors all of us why have grieved these losses.

    • Sharon Lunden

      Thank you for sharing your love for your baby, not an it, a someone loved and longed for. I wrote this Haiku a week after surgery to terminate an abdominal pregnancy, having overheard that my child had a heartbeat of 170, despite being located in an impossible spot for thriving and developing. This loss forever changed me. My heart still mourns my beloved. 170: Pieces of my heart broken, like your precious pulse. Tiny hope, no more.

    • Bekah

      Thank you for sharing your story. Your words touch me. We miscarried in 2021, and I also struggled (and still struggle) with how to talk about the life that began and ended in my womb. My lack of clarity was directly tied to language. A miscarriage implies that I was at fault—I did not carry my baby well. I prefer framing to say that we lost a baby in utero. I also found comfort in naming our baby. Praying you find comfort in your grief.

    • Ab

      Well that was the loveliest expression of the pain of this loss. Having known it, deep calls to deep.

    • Janice Zieke

      My heart resonates with your pain. Your words make it real.

    • Anna

      I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing about the importance of poetry. I too had an early loss, with one week from the positive pregnancy test to miscarrying, and I wrote several poems of my own to try and make some sense of a bewildering event. Such a strange thing to feel like there were so few witnesses to the magnitude of what had just happened. I do believe that "it" was a human person with an eternal soul and it was so important for me to honor him or her, no matter how short the life. I found some comfort in naming my child and sharing the name with a few close friends. This felt to me like a concrete way to claim my right as a parent and acknowledge the brief life of someone I loved without knowing, simply because he or she was mine. We may have very different beliefs about these things, but I'm glad you are wrestling with your grief, and I hope you continue to trust your own intuition without worrying too much about politics or how others (including in the medical field) speak of early miscarriage. It's so very personal, isn't it?

    I don’t know what to call that which we lost.

    A wise person tells me to focus more on what it meant to us than on what to call it. And again that terrible word: “it.” Once a professor marked out every “it” in a poem I’d written. He called it a lifeless word, one without gravity. He was correct.

    The problem with this advice is that we can’t really know a thing until we have the word for it. This concept is foundational to my teaching. When we learn a word, we expand the boundaries of our known universe. I teach children. I try to convince them that words are magic, that both meanings of “spell” are at play when they learn a new word. Yes, they are learning to put letters in the correct order to form a specific word, but when they do this they are also conjuring, calling forth, something that before did not exist for them, and they can use it whenever they need it.

    I am learning to question myself socratically the way I question my students. I believe this is the best way to get to the greater concern that lies beneath any given decision or thought. Doing this has helped me reject shallow ways of discussing the miscarriage. It helps me throw out the words and ways of thinking that do not work. For instance, when the nurse called to deliver the news that I was no longer pregnant she said: “Consider this a mark of good health. Your body recognized something was wrong and took care of it.”

    What is care?

    Attentiveness, protection. It connotes tenderness.

    And was your body showing tenderness toward that which was growing inside of you?

    She went on to say in a consoling voice, “You were barely pregnant.”

    What does “barely” mean here?

    It is an adjective that answers the question, “To what extent?” For instance, “To what extent were you pregnant?” “You were barely pregnant.” It means only just, or almost not.

    But you were pregnant?

    Yes. “Were” is a linking verb. It links the subject “You” to the subject complement, in this case, the predicate adjective “pregnant,” which completes the meaning of the subject in the sentence. In this sentence, the meaning of “you” is not complete without the adjective “pregnant.” The tense of the verb is the real problem.

    A colleague is questioning the value of our work as teachers. He is upset because he visited a class of ninth graders, and while many of them could recite the first few stanzas of “The Road Not Taken,” none of them could recall who had written it.

    “This is not a problem,” I say. “One day when they are lonely and have a decision to make, they will think to themselves ‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood,’ and they will have words, a beautiful set of them, to correspond with their experience and they will feel less alone. What they need will come to them.”

    “Upon what do you base this assertion?” he asked, head tilted.

    “Intuition. Experience. The wisdom of certain poets I’ve known.”

    The Heavens Wept with Me by Caitlin Connolly. Painting of a woman cradling a tear drop.

    Caitlin Connolly, The Heavens Wept with Me, oil on canvas, 2015. Used by permission.

    I wrote these words one afternoon while my students were studying their Latin:

    “I miscarried my first pregnancy on a Thursday afternoon. I only knew for certain I was pregnant for five days. Earlier in the day, my husband had asked me how I felt. ‘Less pregnant,’ I said. Hours later came the blood, sharp pain, and helplessness. Desperation doesn’t know logic. I wanted to pour the blood back inside of me, to drink it if I had to. I knew the blood meant death. I felt like I was in a red nightmare.

    “After a call with the doctor, there was nothing to do but carry myself to our bed and beg the night for sleep. In the depths of that night, my husband woke up laughing. I thought the sounds were sobs. When I touched his shoulder and asked if he was alright, he replied, ‘Yes, just something funny in my dream.’ The laughter was contagious. The two of us lay there delirious, half-dreaming in the very center of our loss, giggling until we fell back asleep. In the unspeakable rivulets of deepest sleep his soul was rinsing itself off, and I got to splash a little in the spillover.

    “In the midst of death, we are in life.”

    After writing this I went home, picked up Fanny Howe, and found this, her translation of Hölderlin’s “Bread and Wine”:

    We’ve come too late to know what the gods were, only that they live in another sphere, way off in the universe now, passing sometimes like the sound of thunder. We might at night receive guidance from them in our dreams. But we humans rarely contain them for long.

    In the morning, my husband had no idea what had been funny.

    Grief is a holy time. It rips your chest wide open, and in that state you wander around rooms that ought to be familiar, but are now charged. Every object, even words themselves, vibrate with significance. It’s as if your eyes, your very rods and cones, are now super-charged, able to perceive more than was ever there before.

    On a walk at dusk a couple days afterward, the moon was nearly full. The wind was blowing the tall grasses in the fields near our house. We walked up a hill along the edge of those fields, my husband and the dog in front of me. He was a dark shadow, the sky was lit behind him, the grasses swished and swayed and the stars glowed above us, and in this very normal occurrence I was more alive than I have ever been, more awake. I could only just stand it.

    The risks of love are terrible. We have faith and poetry to help us cope.

    In my first class with the poet Christian Wiman he told us we would be required to memorize a good deal of poetry. His reasoning was simple. He said of poems: “You need them in your body. You need them for your life.”

    In the bathroom, dealing with what must be dealt with, I recite to myself a poem I learned in that class, Kay Ryan’s “Blandeur”:

    If it please God,
    let less happen.
    Even out Earth’s
    rondure, flatten
    Eiger, blanden
    the Grand Canyon.
    Make valleys
    slightly higher,
    widen fissures
    to arable land,
    remand your
    terrible glaciers
    and silence
    their calving,
    halving or doubling
    all geographical features
    toward the mean.
    Unlean against our hearts.
    Withdraw your grandeur
    from these parts.

    I showed this poem to a group of friends once, and one’s response to the speaker of the poem was, “Stop being such a weenie.” I felt both envy and sorrow for her, that she has never been so truly seared by life that she has crawled on her knees toward her best guess at what God is and begged for a break.

    A wonderful thing about this poem, though, is that it displays for us the tragedy of what the world would be if our desire for less actually came to fruition. None of us, I hope, would actually choose a blander Grand Canyon over the real thing. The poem gives voice to our plea, while proving the value in its never being answered.

    Odysseus didn’t want to go to war. I remind my students of this often. It’s a week after the miscarriage, and I am still bleeding, standing in front of the room reading aloud to them the scene where Odysseus feigns madness to avoid being drafted into Agamemnon’s service, and how it doesn’t work.

    Agamemnon’s messenger sniffs him out. He does so by laying the newborn Telemachus on the ground before the wild plow team Odysseus is driving in his pretend insanity. Squirming, pink-mouthed babe, arms flailing. Odysseus had no choice. He stopped the team. Love, and the recognition of its weight and measure, are always marks of sanity.

    We are all afraid of saying the wrong thing, and for good reason. The wrong thing hurts, and most things are the wrong thing to say.

    I tell myself this when I feel insane for wanting to scream at my body for making and then killing… what? That For Which We’d Longed. That Which Was Of Us.

    I wrote the word “kill” in the sentence above with confidence and ease, but you can only kill that which is alive, and “alive” and “life,” of these I am more afraid. I have been afraid to say that That Which Was of Us was alive, but the equation cannot be solved without the word “life.” You cannot lose that which didn’t exist, and nothing can exist that does not have being, and to have being, is in some sense to live.

    I am afraid of sounding like an ideologue no matter which words I choose. More than this, I am afraid of the weight of loss that exists on the other side of words like “alive.” “Alive” is a word before which I tremble.

    My maternal grandmother bore fourteen children. She was pregnant for over ten years of her life. Two daughters did not survive childhood. She had eleven children still in the house when her husband died in a logging accident. By the numbers, she must have certainly also had miscarriages, but I do not know.

    Once I heard her talking on the phone to a fresh widow. She said very simply to her, “There will be days you will not want to get out of bed, but you will.” Labor and creativity were her daily responses to grief. She was always moving. She sewed pockets on men’s shirts at a factory and came home and grew vegetables and flowers and fed people and loved many children.

    Her life is an attestation to what the poet Muriel Rukeyeser has said: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”

    For five days I was aware of no longer being just myself. A life had residence inside me. My body swelled so quickly. I knew in my body what was happening before the test was positive. I also knew in my bones that this somatic knowledge was irrevocable, that no matter what happened – whether we welcomed a child into a flourishing life, or whether we lost the pregnancy and never met what was flowering – my life would never be the same. There was no going back.

    In the days preceding my positive test, we were in the Never Summer Mountains in Colorado. I walked miles and miles of mountain trails past alpine lakes and fields of wildflowers, some of which only bloom every thirty years, repeating the Jesus prayer. I knew I was at the limit of what I could know or control, and I prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner,” over and over and over again for a week.

    Once a spiritual director asked me if I did not find that prayer too servile. I did not. I do not.

    When God shows Ezekiel the valley of dry bones he asks him, “Can these dry bones live?” Ezekiel’s reply is, “Oh Lord God, you know.” When confronted with matters of life and death, of what will and will not be, we must always position ourselves beneath the work of Mystery. This is what it is to be fully human. This is what God means by showing up at the end of the Job and asking him where he was when the stars were strewn across the heavens. I see the Jesus prayer and Ezekiel’s response as two ways of saying the same thing, of acknowledging that our chest is as open as the wide sky.

    “It” or “them”? An “embryo,” a “blastocyst,” a “spark of life”? A “person,” a “proto-person,” a “she” or a “he”? A “not-yet-she” or “a-not-yet-he”?

    I am no longer concerned with the politics of this question, which is not to say that I deny that the question is political, or that I believe those politics do not matter. The truth always matters, and the truth is always political, but I am living inside of this question now, and so the politics are not, at the moment, my purview. I hope that once I’ve reckoned with how to name what happened, I can move forward accordingly.

    No word seems to suit. One reason we are so silent as a society about pregnancy loss is that talking about it is terribly clunky. We are all afraid of saying the wrong thing, and for good reason. The wrong thing hurts, and most things are the wrong thing to say. My husband and I saw this problem early on. We also knew that we had to keep talking about it or our hearts would rot. We promised to each other that as we talked about it, we would always assume good will on behalf of the other person. And so we talked and stumbled in our talking, and hurt each other’s feelings, and forgave each other, and kept talking.

    I no longer believe in coincidences. There are only (1) our limited powers of attention and (2) the universe constantly hurling signs and signals past our eyes. Sometimes we see these in their naturally occurring patterns and call it coincidence, sometimes we see them in our periphery and call it intuition.

    Once as a child I was playing with the dial of the television by turning it in circles over and over again. I would pause for half a second on each channel, feel the satisfying click of the dial, and turn it again. In these half-second flashes, three different, consecutive actors said the word “goose egg” on three different channels right in a row. When I asked my mother what this meant she said, “Nothing.”

    In a state of grief, our powers of perception are heightened. Our peripheral vision expands.

    My husband and I work together with our friends at a small school. It is the first day back from summer break and I have just received the call from my doctor confirming that I am no longer pregnant. We are sitting on the playground. The friend who is our principal steps out of the building. A few weeks before we were all together on vacation at the beach – him, his wife, their two kids, and us – skipping over waves, spotting pelicans, and reading out loud to each other. As he walks toward us he hangs up his phone. His wife has just called to say that the doctors will induce her labor in the morning. Our phone calls happened at the same time. The next morning Winifred joined us here in the known world.

    In the midst of death we are in life, and friendship is the trellis that helps us bear the weight of this life.

    We met Winifred a few days later. I was still in physical pain, still bleeding. Our friend sat down beside me with Winifred in his arms. I touched her pink toes as we cried together quietly. Then he offered her to me. I was dumbfounded by the softness of her skin, her eyes opening and closing, her fingers moving, reaching for something, anything to grasp. Holding her my grief grew solid, cracked down the middle, and half of it fell away.

    We are owed nothing. Just as What Was of Us never came to be, Winifred in all her fullness did not have to be. But she is! She is. No subject complement, no predicate adjective, nothing needed to complete the meaning of the subject in the sentence. She exists, has being, is uncomplicatedly alive and breathing and reaching. This fact is stunning, and changes everything. Winifred’s life is a gratuitous, unearned gift, and she – named for the maiden saint who knew life after death – belongs to all of us. She is a miracle. The fact that she is not a miracle that happened to me changes nothing. It diminishes her, or my wonder for her, none at all.

    One of my first lessons when I teach creative writing is the difference between connotation and denotation. The example I typically begin with is the difference between “murder,” “kill,” and “execute.” By denotation, these mean nearly the same thing (i.e. someone ends the life of another), but by connotation they are worlds apart. One carries intention, one obfuscates it, and the other is an act of the state.

    Miscarriage. I wrote the word over and over again in my journal trying to wrap my brain around the word.

    What is its denotation?

    The expulsion of a fetus from the womb before it is able to survive independently, especially spontaneously or as the result of accident.

    And what is its connotation?

    Death. Blood. My body killed a not-yet-baby-for-which-my-soul-longed.

    “Kill,” as you’ve stated, carries volition. I’m sure you would agree there was no volition in what happened, in what your body did, so how might you rephrase this?

    My body let die a blastocyst.

    This is bad writing and grammatically incorrect. Can you try another way?

    I miscarried.

    Is the verb so easily intransitive? You miscarried something.

    Yes I did.

    Do you worry about how to talk about it because you're afraid of dishonoring it?

    Yes. I am afraid of dishonoring it. Or rather, I want desperately to honor it.

    It had no feelings. It doesn’t matter to it or they or That-for-Which-You-Longed whether it is honored.

    You don’t know that. And it matters to me.

    I sense an alternate problem. Are you afraid of over-honoring it? Are you afraid of saying that it was more than what it was?

    I don’t want to call it something it was not. It was not yet a baby. Winifred is a baby. I was ‘barely pregnant,’ remember?

    But you loved it?

    Oh yes. There was love.

    Where do you put that love now?

    Into trying to find a way to talk about it.


    Kay Ryan, “Blandeur” from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, 2011). Used with permission.

    Contributed By KaylaBethMoore Kayla Beth Moore

    Originally from the mountains of east Tennessee, Kayla Beth Moore is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and the MFA program at the University of Florida.

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