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Embodied: Making Sense Of Grief And Loss After Stillbirth

How do you heal from losing a child before getting the chance to meet them? The answer to this question is told in the painful experiences of 1 in 100 pregnancies affected by stillbirth each year in the United States. The loss can feel isolating. The grief can lie underneath the surface even on good days. For some people, the best medicine is in sharing their story.

On this episode of Embodied, host Anita Rao talks with Andrea Lingle, an editor and staff writer at the Missional Wisdom Foundation and the author of “Into a Reluctant Sunrise: A Memoir” (Cascade/2020), about the death of her daughter Gwyneth and the changes she went through as a person because of it. She is also joined by Erica McAfee, the founder of Sisters in Loss and the host of the Sisters in Loss podcast. McAfee also works as a doula and grief counselor. She talks with Rao about how she created online and physical spaces for Black women going through pregnancy loss after her own stillbirth and miscarriage.

These are pieces of their stories:

Seven years ago, Lingle had three children and was pregnant with her fourth. It was a difficult pregnancy.
“There wasn't ever anything medical that flagged anything,” she said. “It was just [that] I was exhausted.”
One day, she felt the baby’s kicks stop. She was 36 weeks pregnant. Lingle still does not know what exactly happened to her daughter, whom they named Gwyneth.
McAfee was 39 weeks and five days pregnant when she was induced and had her son, Brandon Jr. After her son’s death, she was filled with questions.
“I was like, you know, why did I go through this whole pregnancy that was very visible to my friends, my family, my co-workers … to not be able to bring a baby home,” she said. 

Erica McAfee and son, Maxwell wearing coordinated outfits
Credit Erica McAfee
Erica McAfee with her son, Maxwell, who just turned 6 years old.

Pregnancy loss occurs in an estimated 10% to 15% of confirmed pregnancies, according to the Office of Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This percentage includes miscarriages and stillbirths, the term used for the death of a child after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Though pregnancy loss is not uncommon, it is often difficult for people to break the silence and stigma around the topic in order to grieve and heal. 

For both Lingle and McAfee, sharing their personal stories — through writing, for Lingle, and through an online platform and podcast, for McAfee — played a large part in that healing process.
The grief of stillbirth was unlike anything either woman had experienced before. Lingle had lost grandparents, but in those situations there were memories to share and look back on with family members going through the same sadness. McAfee’s father died when she was 14, but she remembers her mother kept them moving on with their lives. This time, she had 12 weeks of maternity leave to heal.
That healing took both a physical and emotional form. McAfee had a cesarean section that she needed time to recover from. And both women felt physical discomfort as their bodies continued to produce milk and release hormones to help raise the baby.
“I told my family, I said: I'm really sorry, but the air around me hurts,” Lingle said. “And it just felt so unfair.”
There were few memories about the children other than that of the pregnancy. But Lingle and McAfee were able to share some of what they went through with people they never knew had experienced the same loss.
Lingle vividly remembers an interaction she had with a friend at Gwyneth’s funeral. The friend had also experienced a stillbirth.
“She couldn't really talk to me, and I couldn't really talk to her,” Lingle said. “But she just held my hands and she said: Thank you. This is something I never got.”

“I told my family, I said: I'm really sorry, but the air around me hurts,” Lingle said. “And it just felt so unfair.”

McAfee learned that both her paternal grandmother and her husband’s paternal grandmother had experienced stillbirth and miscarriage. But when she went to the internet to find community and learn from other people’s experiences, she had difficulty finding the voices of other Black women. This realization led her to create her own site for Black women to tell their stories and share their healing process. McAfee said this space is especially important given the rates at which Black birthing bodies experience pregnancy loss.
The rate of stillbirths for non-Hispanic Black women is more than twice the rate for non-Hispanic white women.
Through her practice as a doula, McAfee also helps people of color with their pregnancies, especially those who have gone through a pregnancy loss before. She celebrates their pregnancy milestones and helps to ease their fears of not making it to the next one.
And if a person experiences a stillbirth, McAfee helps them deliver the baby and find ways to say goodbye. By making sure a parent knows that spending time with their baby will help them work through the loss, a skilled doula can help a pregnant person through the delivery made more difficult by stress and tension. McAfee then guides parents through finding support groups and other resources the hospital may not be prepared to provide.

Headshot of Andrea Lingle
Credit Andrea Lingle
Andrea Lingle, the author of "Into a Reluctant Sunrise: A Memoir." The memoir came out of the writing she did to process the death of her daughter, Gwyneth.

Lingle has become less soft around the edges because of her experience with stillbirth, she said. She and her husband have more blatantly honest conversations. And the healing process over the last seven years has been bittersweet.
“When you lose a child before they create memories, before you can tell stories, before they fall down and bump their knees, the only thing you have of them is grief,” she said. “So there's the initial grief of losing the child. And then there's the subsequent grief of losing your grief, because time is this terrible eraser of all things.”

Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.