The silence of stillbirth

January 2009

On the 3rd of January 2006 my mother, five close friends and I gathered on a beach at dawn and sat silently in the disappearing dark, listening to the sea. Witnessing the silhouetted mountain and horizon gradually birthed into the light, we finally broke the hush with a few soft, heart-spoken words. I gave each one a white daisy to cast into the waves and we each in our own time approached the icy water's edge and made our offerings to the sea and sky. Joy carried me at that moment, filled me with a deep gratitude for each precious one who supported me through my journey of recovery.

When I stepped into the water I walked till it washed up to my knees. As the sea swirled around me tugging at my feet in its retreat, I felt the same sudden powerlessness and aloneness of the moment of that single push that finally flushed her from my womb. I started to cry when an unexpected gust of wind caught my daisy, took it from my hand, helped me let it go. I felt myself open instead of close, felt the glow of her, my daughter, being proud of me.


Six years ago on New Year's Day I sat in my obstetrician's cubicle with my husband clasping one of my hands in both of his. Our eyes remained fixed on the foetal monitoring screen while the doctor gently described the signs we should see and hear, to prove that our baby girl, after almost seven months in utero, was no longer alive. Later that Wednesday evening we checked into a private room in the same building where eventually, after two surreal days and several attempts to induce labour, Iman Bongiwe was stillborn at 3:35am on Friday 3rd January 2003.

Except for the few birth photographs that my midwife, Joy, was wise and loving enough to take for me, the birth and death certificates we have locked in our safe and the small grave on a hill near our home, there is little physical evidence that our daughter ever existed. Yet the entire landscape of all our lives has fundamentally changed. Nothing can be as it was before.  Time has relentlessly brought on this change and I am still taken by surprise some days, when I realise how much time has passed since that turning point, how I have ached and cried less and less, how I have found and developed ways to live with what I thought I couldn't and didn't want to bear in the beginning.

Just over a year after Iman Bongiwe's passing, I gave birth to Kwezi Michio – who is now almost 5 years old. His was an unplanned-far-too-soon-but-then-again-perfectly-timed pregnancy about which doctors and family alike held great fears and doubts. But he was born at home, he emerged safely from the very same womb in which she did not survive. His physical presence is for me inextricably connected to her physical absence. His growth and milestones hardly ever pass without my thoughts lingering, even for a second, on how it would be if she were here or remembering the depths of sorrow that he lifted me from when he entered our lives.

Still, with time and the many forms of healing I have chosen, the harsh strokes on this canvas of my heart have begun merging, blending, blurring so that I rarely think of what my eyes saw in those few hours of holding her tiny body or what I could still see in those few precious photographs. I don't choose to remember her that way. I am able to see her now, in my own way, everywhere and in everything. She is an inner compass for me, a reminder of what matters in this life, how fleeting it is, how fragile we are. She is fully present in our family memories, our occasional verbal recollections and in the lives of those who carried my family and I through the initial shock and heartbreak. For each of us in our individual experience of her, the cycles of grieving continue, and yet ebb with time. She lives through us and through all those whom her story, our story has made an impact on. Through this book that circle widens and the overwhelming silence and invisibility around her life and death and hopefully many others like hers, is penetrated.

This is an extract from Invisible Earthquake, A woman's journal through stillbirth. available from at R130

Can you relate to Malika's pain?

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