On the day before Michelle LaFontaine’s 30th birthday, she started feeling pain in her lower back. Michelle, who was almost 21 weeks pregnant with twins, was rushed to the hospital, where she was met by her husband. Their son died before he was born. Their daughter survived six minutes before passing. This was several years after they had had a miscarriage.
Today, Michelle has three living children and is the program director for the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network (PAIL Network), working to raise awareness and support for families who have lost children. She spoke to Healthing about her own experience with pregnancy loss.
Content warning: Conversations includes mention of suicide
When did you first become pregnant?
My husband and I knew as soon as we got married that we wanted to start having kids right away. I have endometriosis and so I’ve known since my 20s that fertility would be a challenge. We used fertility drugs and I got pregnant right away. I lost that pregnancy at seven weeks; it turned out that it was an ectopic pregnancy.
Dealing with an ectopic pregnancy must have been really hard.
It was terrifying. You’re told if you have pain and bleeding in the first trimester, go to the emergency department. I did, but nobody seemed to care about what was happening. Now, looking back on it, I know that there was nothing they could do because the miscarriage was imminent. But I didn’t know that at the time.
They did an ultrasound and saw that the pregnancy was ectopic, and things kind of changed because there are significant health consequences. The OB explained to me that they would have to go in and remove it. I was asking him, please, if there’s anything you can do to preserve [the Fallopian tube]. So he said, Okay, we’ll just kind of milk it out, we’ll pull it out. I had surgery, they milked it out, and I went home. That was that.
About four weeks later, I was woken up late at night with the most excruciating pain I’ve ever been in my life and was rushed to the hospital again. The Fallopian tube had ruptured; there must have been leftover tissue that continued to grow. I had emergency surgery where they removed both of my Fallopian tubes. It could not be done laparoscopically; there was quite a large incision across my abdomen and the recovery time from that was significant.
Even though I was only seven weeks pregnant, I had already forecasted long into the future: I would be this many months pregnant at Christmas, so we’ll have pictures with our big baby bump; the baby will be born before my dad’s birthday, all this stuff. Grief is not tied to the number of weeks of gestation; it’s tied to the attachment that you’ve already formed with that baby.
I know it sounds very dramatic, but in terms of my fertility it felt like everything changed: [now that my Fallopian tubes have been removed] there’s only one way to get pregnant. We were newly married and didn’t have two pennies to rub together and had no idea how we were going to ever have a family. There was also a lot of guilt: my husband had a child from a previous relationship, so I’m the one who can’t get pregnant, who can’t carry a baby. I remember feeling like he shouldn’t have married me, he should have married somebody else whose body could carry a pregnancy.
Consciously, you know that that’s not true — you know to take ownership or to be accountable for that is ridiculous. There’s nothing I could have done differently. But there’s still a feeling of body betrayal, a feeling that it’s my fault he’s going through this.
Was there anyone to talk to you while you were dealing with your grief?
I have amazing friends, but I didn’t know anybody else who had had miscarriages or lost pregnancies, because we don’t talk about that kind of stuff. Once I opened up, a couple people shared with me that they also had a miscarriage, and that helped. I didn’t go to counselling. I kind of wonder how much other people’s responses coloured what I thought I should be doing, or what I thought I was entitled to.
That’s something that [PAIL] really tries to change with the education we do for healthcare professionals. Even if a pregnancy is only seven weeks long, just giving a brochure about where to get support validates that this is deserving of support. That everything you’re feeling is normal and expected, that it’s okay for you to be sad, it’s okay for you to grieve this baby, even if you go on to have other babies. This baby is irreplaceable. That message was never given to us.
So many people who struggle to get pregnant feel guilty when it isn’t easy for them.
Absolutely. I’m already feeling like my body is broken and doesn’t do what I want it to do, and now because I can’t control my emotions, I can’t carry a pregnancy because I’m too high-strung and too stressed out. Or, I didn’t drink that tea that somebody gave me, or I didn’t wear that crystal. It’s crazy-making.
Everyone tells you just try not to think about it. Like, just don’t be so stressed out! People will tell you all these stories: ‘My cousin went on a cruise and got pregnant, no problem.’ ‘Just take a vacation or go see this acupuncturist or drink this tea.’ You’re so desperate that you listen to everything. I’d think to myself, maybe this happened because I was so stressed out, but the fertility experts tell you that stress doesn’t cause pregnancy loss. Pregnancy loss causes stress. There are women who have been pregnant through bombings who carry their pregnancy to term.
Did you pursue other fertility treatments after this experience with an ectopic pregnancy?
I didn’t have any Fallopian tubes, so my fertility was effectively over — I couldn’t just try again next month. The only hope of me being able to carry a pregnancy was through in-vitro fertilization.
At the time, IVF was covered if you had Fallopian tube issues. The Ontario government was covering up to three sessions for ultrasounds and for the actual procedures. All of the drugs and the procedures, however, were at your own cost. All of the sessions had to happen before your 40th birthday; if you didn’t achieve a pregnancy by then, OHIP would no longer cover part of it.
What was your IVF experience like?
By the time we recovered from the surgery [from the Fallopian tube bursting], saw the doctor again, and got his referral to the fertility clinic, I was 28. Meeting with [the staff at the fertility clinic], they were optimistic. I remember them saying, ‘You’re 28, you’re in good health, no problem.’
Our first IVF cycle failed, which had only happened to this clinic one other time. They’ve been doing it for over 20 years, they were the first clinic in Ontario to have an IVF baby. We went back the next month to try again for a second cycle, and that’s when I was successfully pregnant with twins.
What were you feeling when you found out you were pregnant?
I remember when that pregnancy was confirmed with blood work, and then again with ultrasound, I was so excited. I thought, this will be it, I’ll never have to go through IVF again. We’ll have two kids, that’s plenty, and it felt really special to have a twin pregnancy.
I was excited, but cautiously optimistic. Once they confirmed it was twins, I remember my mom saying, ooh, twins are riskier. But I was fully prepared to deliver early if that’s what was going to happen. There was nothing in my mind that made me feel like this wasn’t going to carry to term.
I was very cautious — they didn’t know the safe limit for caffeine, so I had zero caffeine. I ate only the healthiest things and did exercises that weren’t strenuous but would also keep me healthy. I felt like I had to control anything that could be controlled.
We did tell people who were close in our circle. Immediate family and close friends knew that I was pregnant with twins, and then after the first trimester, we were more open with our employers and colleagues and extended family and friends. Being pregnant with twins, I was showing by about 14, 15 weeks. It really felt like once we were past the 12-week mark, everything was safe. We got through the first few months and now we’re good to go. I had just started seeing an obstetrician, and he didn’t make any remarks about anything, so I felt like everything was going fine.
When did you know something was wrong? It sounds like it must have been a shock.
I remember the day it happened. The job I had at the time was work-from-home, and my lower back was really sore. I thought maybe I had been sitting too long, so I got up and took the dog for a walk. Then I started having cramps in the front as well as in the back. I drove myself to the hospital.
I was kind of pacing in the emergency room and the nurses took me in right away. They confirmed that there were bulging membranes, which often means there’s preterm labour, and the pregnancy won’t continue. I was transported by ambulance to a hospital downtown.
What was going through your head when you went to the hospital?
I was really worried because with bulging membranes, you feel like something is coming out of your vagina, and you know it’s not normal for something to be coming out. But in my mind, driving to the hospital, I just thought, ‘They’re going to admit me, and I’ll be on bed rest.’ Anything that they could do was going to be perfectly fine with me. It didn’t even cross my mind that the babies would die.
Being pregnant with twins, I knew that there was a very small chance that perhaps one twin would be delivered and the other wouldn’t. I was desperately hanging on to any kind of hope that perhaps I would still have one baby.
They were both delivered. We had a boy and a girl. The boy’s name was Joseph, and he was already dead when he was delivered, but Elora was alive and she was with us for about six minutes before she died, too.
We were able to spend time with them in the hospital. The nurses made each of the babies a bracelet with their initials and dressed them and did hand and footprints for us, and took pictures of them. We had them baptized. We really felt very supported to spend as much time with them as we wanted, and to do whatever we needed before we went home.
What was it like to leave the hospital, no longer pregnant, but without your babies?
For us, that’s when the real work started. Everything about me had changed when I was pregnant with the twins, everything. My whole identity had already shifted into being a mother. I was preparing for motherhood and what my life was going to be, not just being a parent, but also being a parent of twins. When that all disappeared, it quickly became apparent to me that I was going to have to not only grieve the loss of my babies but grieve the loss of the person I was before they died, because I wasn’t the same person anymore.
I think a lot of people who experienced the death of someone they love can relate to the feeling that your whole world has changed, but everything around you keeps on going. It was very difficult to know that was happening, and to not have any kind of guidance for what would happen next.
I was shocked when my milk came in, I had no idea that I was still going to produce breast milk and so I didn’t know what to do when that happened. It was another cruel reminder that my body had failed me, and that there were no babies to feed. I contacted my obstetrician to tell them what had happened because I assumed that being five months pregnant with twins and having delivered them, that there were some kind of physiological checkups. I remembered that you go back in after you have a baby, and six weeks later somebody checks you to make sure everything is okay. But nobody needed to see me. There was no follow-up.
They didn’t need to see you even though you’ve gone through giving birth?
The hospital did have me come back, I think it was two months later, to meet with the special pregnancy programs staff. Nothing physical happened with me — nobody checked anything or asked me questions about my physical health. But the doctor came in, and he gave us some information about what he thinks might have caused it, and then gave us advice about what to do next.
Talking with him was really, really helpful. In the moment I did not understand — why is he talking about when the babies died? Why is he making us relive the full experience? But looking back, it was absolutely helpful, because there were so many gaps in there that I didn’t know or that I didn’t remember. Getting a blow-by-blow description of what happened, at least clinically, was helpful for me. We left knowing that from that from now on, any pregnancy I was able to achieve would be a high-risk pregnancy and that I would need to receive high-risk care, and that I was welcomed to receive that care at the hospital.
Was there any other support for you and your husband?
I called my family doctor, because I felt like I was actually losing my mind. The emotional pain and turmoil and inability to make sense of anything hour-to-hour, I thought that must be what it feels like when people are having a breakdown. I went to the doctor and explained that I think I’m going crazy, I’m coming unglued. I don’t know what to do. The doctor prescribed me sleeping pills and then I went home. That was the extent of the aftercare that I received; my husband received nothing. Nobody ever asked me how he was doing. Nobody asked to check in with him. He also lost babies.
We were both making promises to one another that we would not end our life. Right after we came home from the hospital I said, ‘I promise you that I won’t kill myself, and you have to promise me that you’re not going to kill yourself.’ Because there were absolutely thoughts that… I just thought I can’t, I cannot live like this. He was feeling similarly, because nobody was talking to us about this. We didn’t know anybody this had happened to, and we didn’t know where to go. I tried, but you don’t have energy in your bereavement to be looking for the things you might need. The internet wasn’t really a big thing in 2005, there was no Facebook, there was no social media. We had an email that we could use, but that was pretty much it.
Eventually, a friend of a friend offered to connect me with someone who had a similar story. I didn’t want to talk about it, because they were a stranger to me, but I did talk with this person. She told me about this organization at the time, the Perinatal Bereavement Services of Ontario (now PAIL). I kind of filed that information away, and felt like ‘I don’t want to do that. What would I say? Why would I want to hear about other people’s losses? I don’t think I can do that.’ All of that was in the background being overlaid by my employer saying it’s time for you to come back to work.
Did your work handle your situation with sensitivity?
At the time, I was working in my community with families who had children with special needs — doing home visits, consulting for schools, consulting for childcare programs. I had a caseload of about 45 families, all of whom had seen me five months pregnant. When the babies died, I told my employer because I wasn’t going to be at work. I don’t know what exactly happened, but they asked if I wanted them to send a letter to all my clients; I didn’t know what to say to that so I said, Yes, I did. Later I found out that they told all the clients that I had a miscarriage. That felt really invalidating to what my experience was: one of the babies wasn’t dead when she was born. It’s not a miscarriage. They also [told me] that I could use sick time while I was in the hospital, but because I was home from the hospital I wasn’t sick anymore, so I could have five days of bereavement and then they wanted me to come back to work.
For me to be home for five days and then think about going back to work was actually impossible. I had only been with the organization for about a year at that point, not even quite a full year, and so I didn’t really have vacation time. I ended up going back to work the week later. I was in the hospital one week, home for two weeks and went back into the office.
I requested to have a different caseload, but my employer said they have a responsibility for consistency to the families that we serve. I was just going to have to go and get on the phone to set up our next home visit, and have those families repeatedly ask me what happened. I think they were well-meaning and wanted to understand, but I was not in a place to do that. I felt betrayed by my employer. I ended up leaving that organization and started a new job December of that year.
How did you eventually find the support you needed?
A lot happened that year: the babies died in August, I started the new job in December and we finally started going for support in March. I was a long time of just trying to push through and figure out what we were supposed to do; a lot of numbness and not knowing what to do next.
Peer support was the only thing that I found helpful after my loss. It’s extremely isolating, and I did feel stigmatized. If I mentioned it to anybody, either I became responsible for their discomfort, or it was clear that they didn’t want to talk about it. You figure out pretty quickly, that this is not something that you’re really supposed to bring up.
We just didn’t see ourselves reflected anywhere. We didn’t have any kind of guidance, until I went to my first peer support group, The facilitators of that group had experienced their losses five, six years ago, and looked okay. Seeing how they were working, and they had gone on to have more children, and that it seemed like their lives are okay, I finally felt like I had some hope that maybe I would also be okay. Maybe I would also still get to have children and find a way to be normal again and find joy in my life.
I kept going to those support groups and made connections with other parents who had different stories and experiences of pregnancy loss and infant death. Those people are still in my life to this day.
Readers looking for support or to learn more can visit Sunnybrook Hospital’s Pregnancy and Infant Loss (PAIL) Network as well as UnsilenceTheConversation.com. Resources are also available at Mothering Your Heart.
If you are struggling with mental health or thoughts about suicide, the Canada Suicide Prevention Service is available at 1-833-456-4566 or 45645 by text.