Still a Mother After Stillbirth
A Mother's Day Tribute
As Mother’s Day approaches, women everywhere will be remembering, even reliving, their experiences of first-time parenthood. Maddy Bohn is one of those women.
On April 28, 2020, Maddy posted ten stunning pictures on Facebook from her maternity photoshoot that captured her and her husband Jonathan’s exuberance as they awaited the birth of their first baby, who was due in May. In those images, Maddy was the epitome of health and exuded unbridled joy.
Mother's Day was especially meaningful as it also marked Maddy's 39th week of pregnancy. She and her husband were filled with deep happiness and great anticipation, knowing their baby would soon be here. But everything abruptly changed a week later (one day after her official due date), when during the final stage of labor, Maddy’s son, Brooks, died due to a prolapsed umbilical cord, and was delivered stillborn.
Maddy succinctly described the totality of this heartbreaking experience months later— “We lost our son, our parenthood, our innocence, and our future.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1 in 100 pregnancies are affected by stillbirth, defined as the death of a baby at 20 weeks gestation or greater before or during delivery. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 24,000 babies that are stillborn annually.
These numbers are staggering, but even more staggering are the individual stories behind each loss.
In Maddy’s case, it wasn’t only the devastating loss of her son Brooks. In just over 11 months, her family went from six to two when she and her husband lost their dog Drew in December, experienced a miscarriage in February, and subsequently lost their dog Henna in April.
"It's a lot of loss and a tremendous amount of pain...I live in fear and anxiety, and I'm terrified of having the next one I love taken from me," Maddy shared on social media.
I recently “met” Maddy (and a group of equally incredible women) when I was invited to guest speak at an online support group comprised of women throughout the U.S. who found each other and connected after each one lost a baby—all within the past year—at 37 weeks gestation or greater. During the meeting, we explored some of the challenges following a full-term loss. These included interacting with others who don’t “get it,” navigating a very fertile world where triggers exist everywhere, and the topic of consideration of subsequent pregnancy—something each woman acknowledged thinking about or was actively pursuing.
Given the work I do professionally, loss, trauma, and tragedy are topics I discuss regularly. In the aftermath, many women feel they will collapse under the unbearable and cumulative weight of it all. And, yet, I have a different view after working for over twenty years supporting women through and beyond pregnancy and infant loss. I see incredible emotional resiliency, strength, and fierce determination to work through their grief even though it’s grueling and exhausting. Most of all, I see the eternal love these women carry for their deceased children.
Maddy and her peers were no different. Since our paths first crossed, I’ve been privileged to learn more details about their personal stories as we’ve maintained contact through social media. Each woman’s circumstance is profoundly moving, and I’ve followed their posts with great respect and interest.
I was especially moved by a recent post Maddy shared on Instagram. Her text maturely stated, "These tragic experiences have made me love deeper, hug tighter, and hold on longer. I will not give up on hope, and I will not stop loving myself and those I still have in my circle. My story will not end here. I will persevere." The accompanying photo showed her hiking against a beautiful landscape in Utah.
I found myself unable to stop thinking about the text and the photo.
After reflecting on her post for several days, I realized it was especially poignant for four specific reasons:
The image reinforces the often invisibility of grief. While there can be an emotional iceberg underneath, it’s not always observable on the surface. All bereaved mothers know this. It’s society that needs to recognize and understand that external appearances don’t always accurately reflect the internal landscape and should learn to proceed with thoughtfulness and compassion.
Maddy is alone in the picture. This reminded me how highly individual the path of grief is, even with a loving partner and strong support network in place. Society has many ideas about how individuals should grieve. However, ultimately, this is a one-person job as even within a couple’s relationship, two people often grieve very differently.
This single image shows the way one individual can move forward following profound loss, trauma, and tragedy. The process literally involves putting one foot in front of the other—even though it may feel impossible—and moving through the grief instead of becoming consumed or overcome by it.
Maddy’s text confirms to me not only does she know how to take the steps necessary into her future, but she also knows the way to get there by refusing to give up hope and to never stop loving herself and those she still has in her circle.
I obtained Maddy’s permission to share these images again because I believe they are powerful and will resonate with countless other bereaved women.
There are important messages here. While Maddy and her husband did lose their son Brooks and their innocence, I believe their son’s existence confirms their parenthood. He will forever remain one of the most important people in this world to them—no matter how many children follow. In that photo, Maddy proved she was already finding her path forward, even if, at times, she felt she had to crawl or claw her way through the grief to get there. Grief work is challenging but necessary in reclaiming oneself after a loss.
This year, as I reflect on the approaching Mother’s Day holiday, I’ll be remembering Maddy and the group of women who all participated in the Zoom call, along with bereaved women everywhere. I want you to be reminded you are all mothers and already finding ways to live into your futures with every step you take.