Commentary Maternity and Birthing

My Invisible Earthquake: One Woman’s Journey Through Stillbirth

Malika Ndlovu

On New Year’s morning in January 2003, my life took a shocking turn with my obstetrician uttering three simple but devastating words: no fetal heartbeat. Several attempts to induce labor finally lead us to my first and only daughter’s stillbirth at dawn on Friday, January 3, 2003.

This article was originally published as part of a series produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (

I named her Iman (Faith) Bongiwe (Gratitude) and she was buried at noon on that same day.

Being a writer, I wrote for my own relief and sanity several times a day; at other times, I could manage to eke out only a word for weeks. It helped immensely to have a place to go to release my overwhelming tides of grief, a space where I did not have to censor my thoughts and feelings for the sake of those around me. Six years later a book emerged entitled Invisible Earthquake: A Woman’s Journal through Stillbirth, published by new South African women’s press Modjaji Books in 2009. It is not only a poetic memoir, but includes a medical perspective and support resource information.

Above all, it is a tribute to my daughter, made with immeasurable love.

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With another year since her passing, I can reflect on how far I have come on this path of recovery, although never certain of the day or moment when sudden sadness will sink me again, taking me back to remembering what must never be forgotten – about her or about what happened to me, to us. With this book finding its way onto bookshelves and into cyberspace, unexpected doors have opened, welcoming my daughter and me in with intensity and urgency.

My intimate perspective as a mother has begun to cross communication gaps and pain-filled silences within women, families and within medical fraternities across the world. People’s responses to these interactions have covered the entire spectrum from devastation to healing release and deep inspiration. In the two-way process of sharing I am both the giver and the receiver.

Numerous mothers and a few fathers have shared their experiences of stillbirth with me. I encourage them to give permission to their grief and remembrance and to reach out for professional bereavement support. I have felt authentically useful to others in making the connections between clinical responses, cold statistics, and documentation of stillbirths, and the raw humanity of the experience, a mother’s voice, which still remains widely blanketed in silence.

Within many African communities, however, there are a range of social and cultural factors which inhibit women from speaking about their experience or accessing emotional as well as basic practical support.

While there is pervasive inaccessibility to services as a consequence of poverty, in many cases simply addressing the lack of information, support, and ongoing education – both of mothers, medical staff and the public – could save babies’ and mother’s lives and begin to ease the protracted suffering stillbirth can lead to.

Compounding this situation are prevailing perceptions that therapy is for the elite, that depression is not a valid medical condition, dominant religious or cultural beliefs that may deem stillbirth as “God’s will” which must not be questioned, or this tragedy is seen as a curse upon a family.

In a context where children are considered part of one’s wealth and community status and in some ways proof of one’s womanhood, the shame of infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth can mean death in more ways than one for an African woman.

Ironically, as has been my experience, once one woman breaks the silence with her testimony, many others find the courage to reveal their own pain and difficulties with finding the comfort and support they so desperately need. The profoundly healing impact of one mother sharing her experience with another can also never be underestimated. Even if initially they are strangers, across small or great distances, this shared journey of a very particular womb loss offers immense comfort by virtue of sharing with one ‘who knows’.

This is where the road separates
Those who have been there
And those who have not
Those who know
Drown in fresh air
In company
In shopping malls and parking lots
In circles of sympathizers
In the morning
At any given moment
In the middle of the night
Despite the love
Of those around me
I drown
In the silence
Rain cloud hanging heavy
Above the traffic of my thoughts
Around my still pounding heart
I drown
In the silence
Permeating my womb

-excerpt from Invisible Earthquake: a woman’s journal through stillbirth

With growing exposure to the research, facts, and updated global statistics about stillbirth, particularly through the recently launched Lancet series on stillbirth, I am driven to break the silences, stigma, and misconceptions around stillbirth wherever and wherever possible.

Our collective “noise-making” about the reasons for stillbirth, the preventable causes, and the need for global government and private sector investment in this relatively neglected area of health care can change the numbing statistics from today, even if it means saving one baby’s life at a time.

Even in the delivery room in January 2003, I knew my daughter did not come to bring me sorrow. I recognize the gifts and life lessons that she continues to bring, from that very rupture in my heart and the inner earth of my body. I will never be the same and the direction of my life, the depth of my living has irrevocably changed.

Though she was not destined to stay, I can never ever regret that she came.

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