It's Been 16 Years Since My Daughter's Stillbirth, But My Body Still Remembers

[Warning: This post contains emotional reflection that some of our pregnant or once-pregnant audience may find triggering.]

Two days of every year, my body grieves for the child it once grew.

Sixteen years ago on August 2nd, I walked into the hospital pregnant, and sixteen years ago on August 3rd, I walked out of the hospital with a small box of keepsakes respectfully prepared by volunteers, so that grieving mothers wouldn’t have to leave the hospital with no tangible thing to carry out the door with them after experiencing second trimester miscarriages or stillbirths.

The box is oval and hand-painted lavender, because many women will never know if their child was a boy or a girl. My child was a girl. Her name was Aura Lin, and her ashes are buried along with the ashes of other anatomical donors at a cemetery located about 45 minutes from my home. Some years, I visit the plot and leave a present, some years, I don’t.

Late tonight, just after the clock moves us into tomorrow, I will wish Aura Lin a happy and sweetest 16th birthday silently, in my own mind, and no one will hear it.

Three hundred and sixty three days out of the year, for many years, I have been fine. It’s been quite some time since I’ve shed even one tear of grief over my child’s stillbirth randomly throughout the year. Still for some reason, every August 1st, in the evening, whether I consciously realize the time and date or not, my body remembers.

I don’t deliberately think about how the night before my labor was induced, I arrived at the quiet hospital as the sun was setting to get seaweed sticks inserted into my cervix in order to soften it for the trauma of the next day, but my body remembers, and makes the mental memories more easily accessible for two days.

My hospital bed faced west. It was dimly lit. The ultrasound machine was to the right of me, and I begged the doctor (through tears) to use it just check again, just to make sure that there really was no heartbeat… no movement… before starting the process of softening my cervix for labor. He acquiesced.

Last night, as it does every year, my body worked through the memories. Emotionally, I felt healed and at peace with my loss, but my body still remembered… like clockwork… around sundown.

This morning, I had errands to run, and I was emotionally at peace and content. Sixteen years ago at the same time as I was running errands today, I was pleading with God to somehow help me as I was about to head back to the hospital for my appointment to birth my first child still. This morning, though I was mentally content, my bowels remembered the effects of the Pitocin, and my nose smelled the unique fragrance of the wet wipes that I used in the bathroom of my hospital room sixteen years ago today.

Incidentally, that is not a smell that I can recreate from memory on any other day of the yearly calendar.

It might be a physical manifestation of some kind of buried emotional grief, but consciously, I’m not experiencing any emotional upset. It took years to mentally work through my grief, don’t get me wrong, but not sixteen years. Not even five years. At least, not that I’m aware of.

Integrative health experts might say that my body locked the grief up, so that my mind didn’t have to deal it with any longer. Take this excerpt from an article on the subject of body memory by Nicole Cutler L.Ac..

“When trauma occurs, our bodies activate a protective mechanism. A stressor that is too much for a person to handle overloads the nervous system, stopping the trauma from processing. This overload halts the body in its instinctive fight or flight response, causing the traumatic energy to be stored in the surrounding muscles, organs and connective tissue. Whenever we store trauma in our tissue, our brain disconnects from that part of the body to block the experience, preventing the recall of the traumatic memory.”

Though, they also say that that would lead to disease, and I have no diseases of my reproductive system that I am aware of. I’m certainly not claiming Ms. Cutler to be incorrect. I’m just pointing out that in the case of pregnancy loss, there could be another mechanism at play, especially given that women have routinely experienced pregnancy loss since the beginning of humankind. Perhaps the trauma is different, or perhaps it’s something separate but similar to trauma.

Perhaps our bodies have discovered another way of handling this unique, but not uncommon experience. I couldn’t tell you for sure, and have had a difficult time finding science on the specific topic in order to create a lens with which to view my own experience through.

Though I’ve had two successful pregnancies since delivering my stillborn daughter, the sensations and memories of their births are lost to time and faded, while the birth of Aura Lin is still vivid for two days of every year.

I experience those memories through memory-fabricated smells and sensations. Those fabricated smells and sensations feel virtually real to me, though they have no present cause, and they trigger mental memories of images and sounds that feel as though they happened far more recently than sixteen years ago.

These scents and sensations, I suppose, would be called somatic sensations by trauma experts, because the visual and emotional memories they trigger feel like not-too-distant memories normally do, but my body recalls the sensations and scents of my saddest birth story in a way that I can only liken to virtual reality. I don’t have a better choice of words with which to label it, because on one hand, I can tell the difference between these scents and sensations and the intensity with which I felt them sixteen years ago. They are there, but muted, but not foggy like decades-old, important memories usually are. On the other hand, the trips to the potty actually happen and even my menstrual cycle can be displaced by several days at this time of year.

Most years, the somatic-like recall is isolated to excretory symptoms, scents, and aching in my back muscles, but some years, on August 2nd, my uterus will cramp, and I will feel as though I might throw up. Thankfully, I never actually vomit, but it does remind me of the kindness from and appreciation I felt towards the medicine that I can still recall swallowing sixteen years ago to prevent my continued throwing up and diarrhea. And when my back hurts, I can still recall the comfort of my mother rubbing my feet to expedite my delivery and save me from my back labor pains.

I’m not alone in my body memory of pregnancy loss, though some women experience it differently from others. For some people, it’s the season that brings the body memories, and they can culminate for weeks. For others, it’s the anniversaries.

Maria, from Adventures With Baby Baluga, wrote about her body memory experience after a stillbirth.

“Body memory is something that I have heard a lot about in the loss community. It happens very often after a loss. And I had it too. The weeks and months after Elisa was born still, the phantom kicks I would feel reminding me of what was, what should have been …What I wasn’t prepared for was the body memory that would come around at important dates and anniversaries …I  can only attribute it to the fact that we are coming up on Elisa’s birthday and like I said, the body knows, it remembers and returns to old pathways.”

Throughout my labor, my blood pressure would drop, and I was afraid that I would die, because the nurses’ expressions went from sad to nervous. I felt selfish at the time, wanting to live, even though my child had died, but was protected from the selfishness by recognizing I didn’t want my parents to lose their first grandchild and their only daughter all at once.

Aura Lin was born just after midnight on August 3rd in the first year of the new millennium.

Tomorrow, I will bake a cake, like I do every August 3rd. And there will be no birthday wish. Still, my somatic sensations will have vanished by the time I wake up tomorrow morning, like they do each year, and the scents and images will be impossible to imagine, lost -I suppose- to my subconscious or cellular memory for another year.

For awhile, I thought that each year might be the last time the body memories re-enacted that long-gone August day, but now I’ve come to believe that they might just be a part of me.

“Maybe after five years… Maybe after fifteen years…”

I don’t have the answer for when or if it stops.

Now though, I don’t even mind if they ever leave me. The somatic sensations are now emotionally benign, and help me remember the feelings I had for the little girl that I never met, but loved more completely than I had ever loved anyone before her. They help me remember the unyielding devotion of my parents, the love from my brothers, and the compassion of strangers.

Most likely, I won’t even shed a tear tomorrow, even though today and yesterday, tears momentarily flow as freely as the day they were created as they make their way from their slumber within my cells, only to fall back to sleep a few moments later.

August 3rd is my daughter’s birthday, but the two days preceding it are the days my body remembers.

Have you experienced any body memories of a pregnancy loss? If you feel comfortable, please share them in the comments, so that women experiencing them for the first time might find a little reassurance in knowing that many others have experienced them too.



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