By Nonkululeko Shibula, Umzanyana Birth Services, from the Stillbirth Advocacy Working Group.
I ran into a neighbor as I entered the elevator, and she unintentionally triggered a breakdown I tried my best to avoid. “Congratulations! Is it a boy or a girl?” she cheerfully asked, not realizing that I had had a stillborn baby. I was torn and conflicted by those kind words. I could only muster a soft reply, mentioning that “it” was a girl. A stark reminder of the loss I had experienced was the silent tension that overwhelmed us during the uncomfortable elevator ride. On the sixth floor, I left in a hurry because I couldn’t handle the weight of the situation.
When I got home, I was greeted by the cozy warmth and appealing scent my mother had lovingly infused into the house. I sought peace in the safety of my room because I was emotionally spent and exhausted. I lay in bed, trying to find peace of mind, longing for the quiet to let me work through my loss. The sound of a baby crying from a nearby house crept through the walls as I closed my eyes. I desperately attempted to block out the haunting sound by hiding my head in a pillow, but the cries continued in the distance. My full breasts—which were now aching—and my empty arms only helped to worsen the pain in my broken heart, as my breasts started leaking immediately after I woke up from my sleep.
My mother sensed my suffering and offered encouragement to ease it. She suggested using cabbage leaves to alleviate the discomfort of my engorged breasts, a small but tangible step towards reclaiming some sense of control over my postpartum body. She also went to the pharmacy looking for medicine that might assist in reducing my milk production. Later, I noticed my postpartum body in the mirror while dressing after my bath; the sight left a lasting impression on me as a tragic reminder of the mental and emotional changes I had gone through.
I’ve been tortured by a lot of unanswered questions throughout my experience with death. It is a constant reminder of my dreams and hopes for my child, which were brutally crushed when I was at the tender age of 18, a time in life when dreams are still forming and hopes are held high. Yet my journey took an unexpected turn, just as I was starting out on my own path, in my first year in University; I found myself grappling with the haunting specter of death. The pain and grief of that loss have never truly left me, but they have also driven me to find meaning and healing in the midst of darkness.
The journey through the abyss of loss and the subsequent process of recovery transformed me in profound ways. It was a process that demanded resiliency beyond measure, as I learned to navigate the complex of grief while still trying to find my way in the world. This experience cultivated within me a deep well of empathy, not just for my own pain, but for the struggles of others as well. I discovered firsthand the power of human connection in times of profound suffering, as my family offered solace and understanding.
Through sharing my story, I hope to shed light on the often silent and invisible pain of stillbirth. I want to raise awareness about the challenges that come with losing a child before they even take their first breath, and to provide a source of comfort for those who have endured similar losses. My journey has taught me that despite the darkness that life can sometimes cast upon us, there is always room for growth, healing, and the potential to help others find their way through the shadows.