It was January 2011. I had just learned I was carrying a life inside me. Such a beautiful gift, and one whose true value I couldn’t yet begin to fathom.
A few weeks later, at the 12-week mark, I went in for an ultrasound. That’s when I found out that something was wrong. The news came as quite a shock. My baby was strong and alive, but there was an underlying condition that would prevent the pregnancy from going to term. They scheduled me for a medical termination three weeks later.
This heartbreaking first brush with motherhood did nothing to dampen my desire to have a child. My partner and I still dreamed of starting a family. It was fall when we found out that I was expecting once again. And not just one baby, but two! Two little boys, who were due to come into the world the following summer. It was like I was being given a double dose of happiness to make up for what I had lost.
My prenatal appointments at Sainte-Justine were frequent, as they always are with twins, but everything seemed to be going well.
Until 17 weeks into the pregnancy. On February 9, 2012, something was off. I could tell. We headed straight to Sainte-Justine. “Your water is breaking.” It was more than a shock this time: it was a full-blown earthquake.
I couldn’t believe life was doing this to me. Again. It was so cruel and unfair. One of the greatest sources of comfort at that point was my doctor, who treated me with such kindness and compassion. In the middle of all the turmoil, it was a relief to say the least.
An emergency ultrasound showed that the amniotic sac around little Emmanuel had torn. But there was still enough fluid in there to support his growth, so a plan was put in motion to take into account the various scenarios that might come to pass.
It was like I was preparing to go into battle.
I was on bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy. The risk of infection, a common complication associated with premature rupture of the membranes, hung over our heads. And in addition to the stress of my situation and my condition, I had to accept that my babies’ fates were now inextricably linked. No matter how many weeks of gestation or how much fluid remained in Emmanuel’s amniotic sac, both of our twins would have to be delivered at the first sign of infection. I was plagued by doubt and fear every single day, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. I’ve never felt as vulnerable as I did during those four weeks I was confined to my bed.
At 21 weeks, I woke up in the middle of the night. My body was telling me that the battle was getting harder and harder to wage. So I talked to both boys: I want to see your faces. I want to hold you in my arms and marvel at every last detail. I’ll keep fighting as long as I have to. But more than anything, I want you to be happy and well. I yearned to be a mother, but even that was outweighed by my desire for both of them to have a nice, easy life. My maternal instinct was already on high alert: all I wanted to do was protect them.
The next day, I got my reply. An infection set in. It was time for them to go.
That day, we knew it was the end. That was the last time we heard the heartbeats of our babies, all together with our families by our side. We began to say our goodbyes.
I was induced the next morning. March 9, 2012. The first day of my new life. The life of someone who brings two lives into the world only to let them go. We knew their birth and their death would happen in close succession.
Emmanuel didn’t make it through the delivery, but we had a few fleeting moments with Nicolas. I held him next to me before he passed away peacefully in the arms of his father, Philippe, who was overcome with emotion.
Time stood still for a few hours. That moment will be etched in our memories and our hearts forever. Like with every delivery, seeing our babies for the first time was so special, so unique, even if it was also the last time. Emmanuel and Nicolas were a part of our lives. Our time together was riddled with problems, hard to wrap our heads around and far too short, but it was real. As was our grief.
I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to see my babies that day. Maybe it was out of fear or self-preservation, but I’m so grateful now to Philippe for nudging me in the right direction. I hold onto that today as the most precious thing I took away from the experience.
I left the hospital feeling lost, with an empty womb and empty arms. In my hands were two small lace pouches with the only keepsakes we had: a blanket, some hats, their footprints and a few pictures. We’ve stowed these pouches away in a box, along with other mementos of their brief time with us and a slew of letters from friends and family members. Every once in a while, I open up the box and hold these precious items up to my face and breathe them in – like a parent smelling their child’s head.
A birth is something you dream about. You cling to it, you visualize it, you wait for it with great anticipation. It may not have actually happened yet, but as parents you project yourself into the future. In your heart, it is very real.
Through it all, what made all the difference was the staff at Sainte-Justine, especially Dr. Sandrine Wavrant. Everyone’s sensitive, caring, attentive approach, and all the big and little things they did for us, helped put us on the path to healing.
Life took our two little boys away from us. It also robbed me of my innocence and naivety when it came to motherhood. But what I lost there, I gained in awareness of how precious a child’s health is and what a miracle life can be. I’ll never look at either the same ever again.
Despite the misgivings we had about getting pregnant a third time, we decided to go for it. I eventually gave birth to two beautiful, healthy children – Jeanne and Louis – who probably would not have survived had their brothers not blazed a path for them.
Today, my family is here. We have our past, our present and our future – and that includes the first baby we lost, Nicolas and Emmanuel, and Jeanne and Louis.
They are all very much part of our lives.
*The remarks expressed in this article reflect the opinion solely of the author and should not be considered as representative of the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation.
Taking Care of Bereaved Parents
With an integrated prenatal diagnosis clinic and OB/GYN department – the largest high-risk pregnancy unit in Canada, Sainte-Justine caters to the needs of expectant parents experiencing prenatal complications. In any given year, we are here to provide support for approximately 300 families who lose a baby between the 15th week of pregnancy and the first month after delivery.
Perinatal grief isn’t something society is familiar with. It can be such a difficult thing for people to talk about. Some people think that a parent can’t really bond with a child in such a short amount of time, or that the loss of one baby can be erased by the arrival of another. But it’s so much more complex than that.
Sainte-Justine produced a documentary series entitled Revenir les bras vides (in french only) to help parents living with the loss of an infant. Funded by the Pathy Family Foundation, it is intended for all those living with the direct or indirect impacts of perinatal grief.
This initiative means a lot. It provides helpful informative medical information, but it also lets parents and their loved ones express their loss. When you’ve been through an experience this traumatic, you need something to hold onto so you can feel a little less alone in the world. When I lost Emmanuel and Nicolas, I didn’t have anyone to turn to for that. I would’ve loved to have had a series like this one to watch.
Perinatal grief is often accompanied by isolation. As parents reel from the shock of their loss, they want answers, before they can really articulate their questions. This often leads them to multiple sources on the web, not all of which are reliable. In an effort to build a high-quality source of information for both parents and healthcare professionals at Sainte-Justine and in other hospitals, we now offer an online platform (in french only) with a curated selection of perinatal grief resources. This platform is also funded by the Pathy Family Foundation.
addition to these initiatives, we also offer handprints and footprints as a keepsake for bereaved parents, as part of a program known as the Juliette's Gift. The program is to open to all parents who lose a child anywhere between the second trimester of pregnancy up to 18 years old.
I’ll always be grateful to Sainte-Justine, Dr. Sandrine Wavrant and the entire medical team for their expertise, their kindness and their TLC. Our story is both a sad and a happy one. The years we have spent between these walls has made us realize what the most precious things are: life, love and empathy. I give to the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation as my way of saying thank you and doing my part to help parents and children who are going through a devastating experience like our own.