Analysis Maternity and Birthing

Overcoming Stigma: A Film Story of Stillbirth, Miscarriage

Jhene Erwin

My first miscarriage occurred at six weeks. My second was at almost eleven weeks. The grief was alarming but I did what many women do - my best to quietly “carry on.”

This article is published in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2007, with one two and half-year-old child, my husband and I decided it was time to have another baby. My first miscarriage occurred at six weeks. My second was at almost eleven weeks. The grief was alarming but I did what many women do – my best to quietly “carry on.”

Simple tasks became challenging. I’d stand in the cereal aisle frozen by the choice between honey-nut and plain. The question, “Paper or plastic?” should not make a person cry. Maintaining this external “everything-is-ok” façade was agonizing.

It was the tension – between façade and grief – which inspired my short film about miscarriage, stillbirth and early infant loss. “The House I Keep” is a story of transformation during one woman’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of her child.

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My hope is that this film frees people to talk more openly about what remains stubbornly taboo. When people hear about my film total strangers let loose regardless of location: be it the gym or in a grocery store. Their stories are always deeply moving and I am honored by their candor.

What do they say?

They tell me there is no appropriate place to mourn this loss. While family and community are powerful sources of comfort, the silence on this subject prevents women from accessing that healing power. Consequently, the mental health of not only mothers but also their children suffers.

Consider this stigma magnified around the globe. In some developing countries, superstitious beliefs lead women to be blamed for a stillbirth or miscarriage. Some communities feel more people will die if the bereaved mother is in contact with other women and children. Subsequently, access to the healing power of family and community becomes greatly restricted. As we move forward with the important work of improving global maternal and newborn health, the long term effects of stigma on the mental health of women and their surviving children cannot be over looked or marginalized.

Talking heals. Women want to feel reassured that their child’s too-short life had a place in the world and that the world is different because of that child’s absence. You can help mark that life by just being willing to talk and listen. The landmark Lancet Stillbirth Series released in April is already impacting the worldwide perception of stillbirth.

In my own community of Seattle, Washington, in the United States, nonprofits that counsel women postpartum will be using my film as a starting place for open discussions. The ripple effect of community efforts, combined with the work of organizations including PATH, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will undoubtedly lessen the stigma of a tragedy for which no woman should ever be held accountable.

By letting women talk openly, and by listening, our communities around the world can help women – including me – begin to heal.

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