As a mother, I can’t imagine anything worse than losing a child. Parents talk about everything -- poop, preschool, puberty -- but all too often the really tough subjects, especially those surrounding miscarriage and infant loss, aren't discussed or honored. My friend and neighbor, Sunita Param-Olazabal, delivered a stillborn daughter, Soraya, in 2006. She ultimately channeled her grief into an action that helps other parents of stillborn babies in their healing process. This is her heartbreaking and, ultimately, uplifting story.
Feel free to pour yourself a glass of liquid courage before we dive into this one, because it’s a doozy.
First off, a few facts:
According to the March of Dimes, stillbirth refers to a loss 20 or more weeks after a woman becomes pregnant.
Stillbirth effects about 1 percent of all pregnancies, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States, which means it’s 10 times more common than SIDS.
Here's the thing: even if your child passes away in utero, you still have to actually give birth. This means that you have the long and arduous labor you would have anyway, but without the "reward" of a healthy baby at the end. This seems kind of like the ultimate F You from the Universe, but life’s that way sometimes, I guess. Here's the kicker: until October of 2007, families of stillborn children in California didn’t get a birth certificate.
If you think about that for a minute -- that a woman whose child was stillborn only received a death certificate -- it should really trouble you. There's something about receiving your child’s birth certificate, a simple piece of paper with an official stamp on it, that's an acknowledgement of what you've been through to bring your baby into the world. It's almost like Uncle Sam giving you a nod and saying, "I see what you did there, and here’s your certificate of appreciation for the 27 hours of labor you went through to bring a future tax payer into the world."
Thanks to the work of three incredible women -- my friend Sunita along with Sari Edber and Kirsten Pert -- stillborn children born in the state of California are now issued a Certificate of Still Birth. Sunita told me she didn't set out to change state legislation -- she's a gifted musician, performer, and teacher -- but Soraya’s stillbirth gave her the impetus to do just that.
Other than the typical unpleasant symptoms, Sunita’s first pregnancy was uneventful. When she went in for her standard 38 week check-up, the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat, and a further ultrasound at the hospital confirmed that her daughter had passed away in utero. Sunita was induced, and after 21 hours of labor, she and her husband Jason said hello and goodbye to their daughter Soraya on November 3, 2006.
As was standard procedure back in 2006, Sunita and Jason were not issued a birth certificate for Soraya. "The first time I wrote her name was on the death certificate," reveals Sunita.
When she returned home to a house that was ready for a baby who would never arrive, she began the process of trying to put her life back together. She sought out a support group, which proved to be more difficult than she anticipated, but she eventually found Mothers in Support and Sympathy (MISS). The group, based in Arizona, supports women who have lost children at any age, and it was through MISS that Sunita met Sari and Kirsten, the two other women with whom she would join forces to lobby for a change of legislation.
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The reasoning, says Sunita, "was purely about the acknowledgement of the birth process -- if we are going to get a death certificate, then there should be a birth certificate."
Over a nine-month period, Sunita and her fellow moms worked tirelessly lobbying the California State Legislature to allow stillborn infants to receive birth certificates. The women flew back and forth to Sacramento, testified in front of the health and judiciary committees, and sought a state Senator to author the bill.
Through her advocacy, Sunita began to heal. She found that talking about Soraya, and using her brief life to work for positive change, was an empowering and validating experience. And when, halfway through the process, Sunita discovered she was pregnant again, her crusade for stillbirth certificates kept her from dwelling too much on what could go wrong with her second pregnancy.
In October of 2007, almost a year to the date after Soraya’s death, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law, making Certificates of Still Birth standard practice in California. Even better, the law was retroactive, which meant that Sunita and her group of courageous mamas received official acknowledgement of the births of their own babies.
When Soraya’s certificate arrived in the mail, Sunita was nine months pregnant with her second daughter, Lalita, and though it was a testament to all of her hard work, she says "it brought up all the anger and sadness [about Soraya] all over again."
Sunita and Jason don't have a lot to remember Soraya by: a few photographs a nurse snapped with her own camera, a lock of hair, a couple of ultrasound images, and a small box containing Soraya’s ashes. They didn't have a funeral or memorial service for Soraya, which Sunita regrets somewhat. "Now I understand why we have rituals and celebrations of life; it’s not for the dead, it’s for the living," she says.
Thanks to a group of close friends who commissioned three small Adirondack chairs dedicated to Soraya, there's a tangible memorial in Marine Park that Sunita, Jason, and Lalita visit each year on November 3rd.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Soraya's life. When asked what she wishes she'd done differently, Sunita says, "I wish that I’d spent more time with her, that I'd bathed her and dressed her and held her longer, since that was my only chance."
These days, you won't find Sunita haunting the halls of the State Capital, but rather teaching music and enjoying life with Jason and their daughter Lalita, a vibrant 9-year-old who knows that she has an older sister in Heaven and a strong and resilient mother right here on Earth.
Images via ©iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz and Sunita Param-Olazabal