Changing The Conversation Around Pregnancy Loss
Written by Molly Anne Coogan
Photography by Photographed by Larkin Clark
October is Pregnancy, Infant, & Child Loss Awareness Month, and all month long we will be bringing you essays from mothers who have experienced this devastation first-hand. Today’s story comes from Molly Anne Coogan, a Los Angeles-based writer, actor, and mother who recounts not one, but two experiences with pregnancy loss. This is not Molly’s first time exploring the topic—her short film Avalanche is a dramedy based on her miscarriage experience, and is currently playing at film festivals around the world. Before watching the film, be sure to dive into her touching and very important personal account and takeaways below.
There are lots of things about womanhood no one told me about when I was growing up that I had to figure out on my own. Like that sound your cooter makes when it farts is actually called a queef or that chin hairs will start randomly appearing once you hit your mid-30s because that’s apparently when you start becoming a witch.
But the one that really knocked my socks off was the fact that no one gave me the skinny on how bumpy the road to starting a family can be. Growing up, I’d heard rumblings of people having a hard time getting pregnant, whispers of miscarriages, and IVF. I knew those struggles existed and even had a few people close to me who went through them, but they mainly went through them behind closed doors. They seemed to be in the minority. I had no idea that one in four recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage (meaning the number is most likely much higher), or that miscarriage is a very natural process and doesn’t always signal infertility. And I didn’t know that someday, it would happen to me.
I lost two pregnancies in the span of six months. I was totally unprepared for the physical and emotional trauma that came with them. Now that I have had time to process my experience, I deeply believe the suffering families endure as a result of their losses can be lessened through two simple things: access to information and informed care providers.
My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage at 7.5 weeks, which we discovered during a sonogram. None of the practitioners in the room made eye contact with me when they told me there was no heartbeat. I had to leave through the waiting room of big-bellied women while they all stared at my red eyes, raw from crying. And at my follow-up sonogram four days later, I was brought to the same freezing exam room where they’d told me I’d lost the baby.
I sat there alone for more than an hour as the phrase, “I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat” played over and over in my head as my heart thudded in my chest. No one came to check on me. I started feeling dizzy and began to sweat; I felt like I was losing my mind. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore—so I stormed out of the room wearing that stupid exam gown with my butt showing and told the nurses that if I wasn’t seen in the next five minutes, I was going to scream. Only then did they pay attention to me.
After declaring my uterus “beautiful” and that “everything was gone,” the male OBGYN looked at me and said, “Well! Circle of life!” and walked out of the room. I honestly was too stunned to cry. The dude had just quoted The Lion King in response to one of the most heartbreaking losses of my life.
I got pregnant again right away and then, at 15 weeks, we discovered there was a medical issue with the baby and ultimately decided to terminate the pregnancy. I had what I imagine was the best case abortion scenario one could have—access to high-quality health care near my home, unaffected by racial bias because I’m white, costs mostly covered by my insurance, and support from our immediate family members—and it was still one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life.
I had to wait a full week to be seen, which meant I had to carry my pregnancy another excruciating seven days. And then, two days after my abortion, I woke up with throbbing, burning breasts that were leaking profusely because my milk had come in. It was yet another thing no one told me might happen and it was a horrifying indignity to suffer after losing my baby. I couldn’t get in touch with my doctor for more than four hours and the on-call nurse told me that my uncontrollable tears were due to my “being sensitive.” I spent the next several months grasping at straws, depressed, isolated, and struggling to get through each day.
No one can prepare you for the many layers of pain one experiences with pregnancy loss. What it feels like to have the remains of your baby leave your body or the overwhelming, guttural grief you feel for someone you never technically knew, but who you did know and loved so intimately. That the grief never goes away and stays with you forever, changing every fiber of your being. But there are still many ways in which you can be prepared and supported, should you be forced to join this heartbreaking club.
I cannot help but think about how different that experience could be if we made education and openness around pregnancy loss a priority. Imagine if miscarriage and abortion were incorporated into sex ed so that everyone was informed starting at an early age, therefore eliminating the secrecy that breeds stigma. If our doctor’s offices had easily accessible resources on statistics and how to be supportive of someone going through pregnancy loss we would all know where to go for help instead of having to scramble around Google in the dark. OBGYN’s and midwives should have referrals to mental health experts and practitioners specifically trained in guiding you through the experience. Even simple things like connecting patients and their partners to support groups could make a huge difference; access to these services is critical healthcare. What if, instead of treating patients like they’re overly “sensitive,” health care providers looked patients in the eye with empathy and acknowledged that what they are going through is not only difficult, but normal?
Our cultural responses could use improvement, too. It’s common practice to take time off for the death of a parent or a loved one, but that doesn’t seem to apply in the same way to pregnancy loss. Companies should have a leave policy around pregnancy loss so you and your partner can take time to heal.
Studies have shown that trauma is mitigated by how it is responded to. With support and intervention, people who experience trauma can overcome it and incorporate it, in a healthy way, into the fabric of their lives. But, the research also indicates that most people go without the supports and services to help them process their trauma in a healthy way. Too often the person who has experienced a trauma is the one responsible for figuring out how to navigate it and ask for help. That is backwards and I believe it can be different.
So what does trauma informed care look like? Studies have shown that patients who feel empowered and collaborate in informed decisions with their care providers and who have practitioners who actively avoid re-traumatization have better outcomes. Re-traumatization is, simply put, creating an environment that inadvertently reminds the patient of their traumatic experience, creating emotional and biological distress—exactly what happened to me in that sonogram room.
As a society, we perpetuate the habit of making women’s health issues taboo. From yeast infections to periods, we’re supposed to make our vaginas smell like fairy dust when men’s balls can stay sweaty. We have to hide tampons up our sleeves when we walk to the bathroom and cramps are embarrassing instead of being recognized as debilitating, which they are for many. The shame around what our bodies naturally do starts so early in life, so it is no surprise that miscarriage and pregnancy loss fall into that category later on. But the shame lies not on what our bodies do, but on the ones who make us feel it.
These changes, which have been proven effective through research by our very own government agencies, can be put into place, but it requires advocates from the top down. It requires officials making laws and policies to enact them and those officials get their jobs by being voted into office. This means we must elect candidates on local, state, and national levels who value women, our right to choose, and our right to comprehensive health care.
There were so many things I wish I had known about pregnancy loss that I had to learn the hard way. But there were also graces in that process. I learned what it feels like to be lovingly supported by people who know how to hold you when you are completely broken. How it feels when someone recognizes your pain and takes caring action to lessen it, when someone shines the light in the dark place and helps you through it. No one tells you the power you hold in telling your own story, how it creates healing and spreads knowledge, and how it empowers the people around you. But I am telling you: that things can be different, that things should be different, and if we keep speaking up they will be.
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Thank you for this piece. I think this impacts more women than you know, and specifically when you find out you’re having a pregnancy that has medical issues and you make the hardest choice to end a pregnancy. There’s such stigma and many walk away feeling horrible. Not an easy at all. And the trauma is real and devastating. Thanks for being candid and making other moms feel less alone.
I shared my story of a mother of choice and later a miscarriage with you all months ago as a single mother of choice. You said you would do a story then you never wrote back after I followed up two times. I was really excited to share my story as a form of healing. Great you are sharing stories, perhaps you should start with yourself and your organization. You will never know how much you hurt my feelings telling me to write a draft and then you never responded.
The way you treat people matters.