The Hurt That Never Heals

A couple's rejoice in a second baby does not erase the sorrow of losing the first.


"You can always have another baby.”

My husband, Tim, and I heard that a lot after the death of our 2-day-old daughter, Pearl. The sentiment was kindly meant, but in our grief, the words seemed thoughtless and mean. To most people, two days was nothing—hardly enough time to get attached. But for us, two days meant everything. And those words seemed to imply that the baby we’d expected for so long, our precious Pearl—who’d lived so vividly in our imaginations from her first game of peekaboo to her first high school prom—was as replaceable as a broken teacup. We understood, of course, that they only wanted to somehow help us heal the terrible pain and that another baby seemed just the cure for our empty, aching arms and broken hearts.

We, too, thought that another baby might help ease our pain, and we did consider trying again right away. Going from happy expectation to agonizing emptiness made me wish I could turn back the clock to happy expectation again. But several things held us back: I had to recover from a Cesarean section and the physical toll of pregnancy. The frequent, terrible, bewildering fights and the lonely, hostile silences between Tim and me as we grieved didn’t inspire lovemaking. But ultimately, we simply came to know that another pregnancy wouldn’t erase our pain. Another baby couldn’t replace our Pearl. So, we waited.

There was a lot to do during the wait. We had to rebuild our marriage. We talked and argued, prayed and were silent, and talked some more together. We sought the understanding company of other couples who’d lost babies. At the same time, we restored our bodies. We cooked together, our hands brushing against each other’s as we sliced onions, crying into the sink. We walked together, played tennis, rode a bicycle built for two. We struggled through ballroom dance lessons, finally learning to lose ourselves and laugh in each other’s arms as we fumbled through the steps. And step by step, we rebuilt our dream of a family. Without Pearl.

A new life

“Is this your first baby?”

The question confounded me. And we heard it often when, two years after losing Pearl, I finally became pregnant with our son, Bert. I stammered when I answered, changed the subject or simply smiled. If I answered yes, it felt like a betrayal. No was just too complicated. I knew that those who asked only wanted to share that special excitement of a first pregnancy. But I didn’t feel excited. I was terrified.

There were, of course, the thousand little fears that attend every pregnancy, but now there was this new, petrifying one: Could it happen again? And again, Tim and I could only wait.

With Pearl, we had played with names, enjoying the game of finding the perfect fit: Pearl? Hannah? Blanche? Cleopatra? Even as Bert grew vigorously, we would not say any names aloud, fearing that doing so would make us too attached, make us love him too much. He kicked and punched during the ultrasound that told us he was a boy, but we didn’t dare imagine what our son would bring to our lives — Little League games, Cub Scout meetings — all the fun, silly stuff that goes along with expecting a boy. Fear that we could lose him, too, kept us from thinking of him as real at all.

Fear rode along with the pain of his long delivery, strangling our breath in our throats through the agonizing moments before we heard his lusty screams. Even when I held him in my arms, strong and wailing and full of life—so different from Pearl—I held him delicately, fearing that joy might be taken from me again.

No, Bert is not my first baby. But I’m not bothered by that question anymore. He is a wonderful baby, I say—which, of course, is undeniable and effectively changes the subject. He is a great gift. He is not a substitute for Pearl, who will always hold some tiny, aching spot in our hearts. But he is here now, holding my hand as he grows.