Pregnancy, Birth and Death
One couple’s painful journey through miscarriage and death of a baby.
Luckily for Rochelle Wunsch (“Ro”) and her husband Lee, Ro had no trouble getting pregnant. After teaching for 12 years, Ro announced her pregnancy to her students through a game of Hangman on the chalkboard: Mrs. Wunsch is going to have a baby in October. The school gave Ro a baby shower and Ro decided to take a year-long leave of absence. Unfortunately, this jubilation would not last. The very thing that would give her the most joy in her life would also bring her and Lee the most pain. At around 24 ½ weeks into her pregnancy, Ro went into labor. It was a “pre-term birth” and the baby did not live.
The gifts from her school’s baby shower lay like abandoned memories in her closet. Ro was devastated, but optimistic, knowing she would move forward and try again. She did write thank you letters to all the people that had given her gifts, stating that she is going to put the gifts away for now because
“I know that someday there will be a baby Wunsch.”
Ro’s second pregnancy wasn’t successful either, and she suffered a “late miscarriage” at 17 weeks. At this point, Ro began questioning herself.
“The inquisitive part of me wanted to understand what was going on with me that was not enabling me to carry a child full term.”
After extensive testing, doctors discovered that her uterus was divided in half. She was relieved to find out that there was a fixable reason for her failed pregnancies, and she began to seek out a surgeon. She and Lee finally found a doctor known for these types of operations, and they were elated and hopeful. The surgery was a success, and only a year later, she gave birth to Miracle Number One: a beautiful and healthy baby boy. A baby shower was held at the hospital after the baby’s arrival.
“We had so much joy in our lives, it was wonderful.”
A couple of years later, Ro and Lee decided that they wanted a second child. Surely after all they had been through, that would be easy, right? That pregnancy ended in miscarriage after nine weeks. This time, Ro accepted her fate with grace:
“I viewed this one as being a ‘regular’ miscarriage. If you have one at an early stage, I have always been taught that this is nature’s way of getting rid of an imperfect embryo.”
Ro and Lee considered and investigated adoption, but were discouraged to discover that her ‘advanced maternal age’ among other factors knocked them out of the process. At 38, Ro became pregnant again. It was, to all eyes, both trained and untrained, a successful pregnancy.
Tears of joy can quickly change into tears of sorrow.
Ro underwent amniocentesis as a part of a pre-birth routine for someone considered high risk due to her age. The baby was pronounced healthy and through the procedure, Ro and Lee found out that the fetus was female.
“We were thrilled, delighted, and giggly.”
As Ro and Lee were all too familiar by now, tears of joy can quickly change into tears of sorrow.
About 38 weeks into her pregnancy, Ro had some strange pains in her neck. She felt sick, and her doctor told her to come to the hospital immediately. It was Erev Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish yearly cycle, the night of the sacred Kol Nidre prayer. Ro gave birth by emergency C-section. Following the birth, Ro developed bad chills. Doctors determined she had a fever. Meanwhile, all seemed to be going fine with the baby. They named her Melissa Pam, after her maternal and paternal great grandmothers. Lee gave her a bath and Ro was able to nurse her. Their son had even taken a class about how to be a good big brother. For a few days, all was well.
A couple days later, Ro and Lee’s baby came down with a fever likely transmitted from Ro to her during birth. A few days later, Ro was discharged from the hospital while the baby remained. It was not looking good – Ro and Lee’s baby, only days old, was succumbing to a severely weakened immune system induced by a viral fever. On October 9th, Melissa’s brain waves went flat. The following morning, Melissa passed away. Ro recalls the moment well:
“It was the most devastating thing I had experienced in my whole life. I didn’t know how to handle it at all; I really didn’t. I remember looking outside from the hospital window and seeing cars just driving by on the street and thinking, how dare life go on as normal for everyone else and stand still for us. All of a sudden you come home with empty arms, and you are no longer pregnant, and you don’t have a baby. It’s like you don’t belong anywhere. You get the idea that something is terribly wrong with you. People who knew you were pregnant asked, ‘What did you have, a boy or a girl?’
You feel robbed and cheated of those things and so much more.
“When I did compare the pain of miscarriage to losing a child that had been born, both hurt tremendously, but there was no comparison about how it felt to lose a child that you had held, and you had bonded with even over eight days. Eight days – you would be surprised. You bond with the child when the child is in you with the kicks, and you’re already talking to this kid. Even over eight days – you’re thinking, who does she look like, and she’s got so much hair, and you just have a sense of this is my child, and I love this child. One of the things you grieve for is the lack of the anticipated things in life. You look so forward to the big and the everyday events– her first day at school and her first boyfriend and her bat mitzvah and her wedding. You feel robbed and cheated of those things and so much more.
“It was difficult to see diaper commercials on TV, walk through baby departments of a store, and see people with little babies. I couldn’t even look at people who had babies for a long time.”
One of the hardest things Lee and Ro had to do was dismantle the crib. Melissa’s room otherwise remained untouched for three months. Ro and Lee suffered further when the hospital bills arrived in the mail, a further reminder of Melissa’s death. Their son was read a booklet aimed at explaining in children’s terms the concept of death, and fortunately, had a great pre-K teacher who was so understanding.
But how do you explain to a 4-year-old that his baby sister had died. What do you say to him when he sees his parents unable to hold back tears?
“I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t read the words in the prayer book when I went to our synagogue. Every Kol Nidre is the anniversary of Melissa’s birth. That felt like a double whammy – not only did we have to endure the sadness on her birthdate each year, we also felt saddened on Kol Nidre, the Jewish date she was born, and Sukkot, the Jewish date she died.”
The Yizkor service or special service for loss during the holiest day of the year includes a prayer in which people who have lost anyone are instructed to remember their loved one’s good deeds: not very meaningful in an early loss situation. Ro has the most trouble with the “Unetanah Tokef” prayer on Yom Kippur.
“I find the content of this prayer so disturbing. ‘On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not. Repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severe decree.’ Really? My prayers for her to live weren’t enough? Was I not righteous enough?”
Part of the pain of this tragedy involved other people’s reactions:
“When you experience something like that, people don’t know how to handle you and truly don’t know what to say. It’s one thing when an older person – perhaps a parent or grandparent dies. There are memories to share of things that individual said or did. But when a baby dies, there are no memories or stories to share and, people are just not sure of how to handle it.”
Many people hesitated to approach Ro and Lee. It was like a dark cloud was above their heads.
Many people hesitated to approach Ro and Lee because they didn’t know what to say or because they thought if they brought up Melissa that it would upset them.
“It was like a dark cloud above our heads. You know that I’ve gone through something awful, you know that I’ve experienced this. All you have to say is, ‘I’m sorry’ and then it’s like [makes a quick wave with her hand] whoosh! The cloud dissipates and we can talk about the rest of our lives.”
Even clergy did not know how to react. A local clergy member refused to do a baby naming ceremony as the child lay dying, as this is typically a ‘joyful affair’. At Melissa’s funeral, the rabbi leading the service stated that he was only going to read some psalms because there was nothing else appropriate he could say. Ro recalls, “I was sad about that – no, you say this was our child, she was a very wanted child. Yes, there were other things in our life you can talk about. It wasn’t very comforting.
“To this day, there is still a couple we considered friends that have never reached out since Melissa’s death. At first, they don’t know how to react, and then they feel embarrassed that they haven’t contacted you. The more time that goes by, the less is the likelihood that they will ever contact you. At that point, usually that’s the end of that.
“It’s important to say something. ‘I’m so sorry’ is always appropriate. Many times, grieving parents are OK talking about it. Talking about it helped me. If all you say is, ‘I’m sorry,’ then if the person going through the pain wants to tell you more, they will. Just be a good listener.”
At the early stage of their grief, Ro’s sister-in-law researched support groups and recommended joining a support group called Houston Aid in Neonatal Death (HAND). Ro and Lee began attending HAND, excited to find a group where they could talk openly about their pain with other people who had experienced that kind of pain firsthand. Topics that might be taboo flourished at HAND, including why members’ acquaintances who had babies of their own didn’t seem to deserve their children. That may seem like a mean thought, but being able to verbalize it with others felt very therapeutic. It was gut-wrenching to hear other people’s stories and at the same time, helped to alleviate some of the pain to share the devastation.
HAND was a mixed faith group. Many members talked about their faith pulling them through this hard time that they knew the baby was in a better place.
“I almost envied them sometimes. I don’t really think that way. The only place I wanted my baby was with her dad and me. Maybe I believe that there is a higher power up there, but I don’t think – as some people would say to me – that God only does this to people who can handle it. That is the most stupid thing I have ever heard in my life – are you telling me that this is a prize for me because I’m so strong?”
Throughout the aftermath of the tragedy, Ro recalls the support of her husband:
A lot of husbands and wives were not on the same wavelength at all. Lee was right there with me.
“He is a very sweet, loving, and sensitive person. He wasn’t afraid to show his emotions, his feelings. Lee was right there with me. A lot of husbands and wives were not on the same wavelength at all. Many husbands didn’t come at all to the group, and I felt so fortunate that Lee was there with me at every meeting. He had no problems crying tears with everyone else. I later found out that many marriages don’t survive this. A lot of divorces happen after a tragedy like this. People grieve in different ways, and they can’t understand each other’s different ways of grieving and it ends up in a loss of the marriage.”
Some members of HAND developed a break-off group for those who had subsequent pregnancies. Ro describes her fear:
“Becoming pregnant again is terrifying to someone who has been through this. You want to get to the point that was the last point of your previous pregnancy. For me, I had to have a baby that lived past eight days before I felt I could exhale. I saw that everyone else in the subsequent pregnancy group gave birth to healthy babies. I was beginning to think, you know, there’s hope here.”
Ro vowed immediately after her loss never to get pregnant again, never to put herself through that pain. Nature had other plans, though, and Ro became pregnant soon after. This time, Ro told her husband, she could not do it alone. She sought out professional help to deal with her emotions. At the time of her scheduled C-section, everything leading up to that point had gone well. Ro, at age 40, gave birth to a healthy baby boy – Miracle #2 on November 17, 1988.
It was the biggest hallelujah celebration there ever was.
“It was entirely appropriate that his bris, celebrated by an overflowing crowd in our home, was on Thanksgiving Day!”
Both of Ro’s children are grown now.
“Miracle #1 has a sweet and beautiful wife and works as a software engineer. Miracle #2 is an actor, and married his sweet and beautiful wife only a month ago! We are so proud of our children – they are caring, kind, talented, smart, and so very, very special to their Dad and me! We are so grateful to have them, and we do not ever take them being here for granted!”
Time does not heal everything. The pain is always there, but you learn how to cope with the pain.
Ro has learned a lot from her experiences with infertility and loss:
“They say that time heals everything – I’m sure you’ve heard that before. My answer to that is that time does not heal everything. The scar is always there, the pain is always there, but you learn how to cope with the pain. It’s probably human nature to question, "Was it something I did to deserve this? Why am I being singled out here?”
Ro is always reminded of life’s larger circle. A dear friend’s loss occurred on the date that her older son was born. Ro’s son’s birthday is, therefore, a reminder of how fragile life is. Ironically, their first daughter-in-law shares a birthdate with their second son! God did give Ro a sign of a rainbow at the end of a hurricane: Ro’s second daughter-in-law’s birthday is October tenth, the date they lost Melissa. Now, Ro also has something to balance the sadness, and celebrate on that date.
Some quotes were taken from the article Living Through a Baby’s Death by David D. Medina of the Houston Post Tuesday, July 5, 1988
This article was originally published on J-Vibe, on online magazine that has a simple message; share your story, be inspired and spotlight the city of Houston. For more inspirational stories, visit J-Vibe.