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This is a guiding principle at the perinatal-loss unit in Aarhus, too. The midwives encourage parents to take photos, invite friends and family, even take the child home if they like. “It’s so important for parents to experience that they are actually parents,” Hvidtjørn says. This extends to the birthing process itself. The perinatal-loss unit only admits women in week 14 of pregnancy or later. At this point, mothers here are encouraged to give birth vaginally rather than go through surgery.*
For Ørnstrand, who found out that her daughter had died after the baby stopped moving at 37 weeks, the idea of going through labor to give birth to a dead baby was initially unfathomable. She demanded a C-section. She just wanted it all to go away. “It’s easier to just take the baby out,” she remembers thinking at the time. “I don’t want to be confronted with it.” This is very common among mothers, Hvidtjørn says, but she and the other midwives still encourage vaginal delivery, both to avoid major abdominal surgery and to reaffirm their patients’ identity as parents in the grieving process to follow. (In Denmark, midwives, rather than doctors, attend most births, and Caesarean sections are generally not as common as in the United States.)
Ørnstrand ultimately did go through labor to deliver her daughter. Her husband cut the umbilical cord. “It was quite a beautiful experience for the both of us. Terrible but beautiful at the same time,” she says. “I got to experience a lot of things which normal parents of living babies get to experience.” She found it empowering. Of the 600 sets of parents that have been in the perinatal-loss unit in Aarhus, according to Hvidtjørn, only one ended up getting a Caesarean section. “They are very proud,” she says of mothers who go through with vaginal delivery after perinatal loss. “It’s like, ‘I couldn’t give anything else, but I could give birth to my child and I did that as a mother.’”
After birth, Ørnstrand remembers being scared to see her daughter. She and her husband made a pact that the midwives would tell them how the baby looked first. (Fetuses that die in the womb can sometimes have discoloration and maceration of the skin, and those that are younger than 20 weeks are very small and skinny.) Ørnstrand’s daughter looked normal, but she still remembers being reluctant, in the minutes after birth, to hold her dead daughter. “I think I was really confused and I couldn’t really wrap my head around that she was the child I had carried. It was weird for me,” she says. “But actually just a couple of hours later when I came to, I became just exactly the same way as any other parents and I wanted to hold her and wanted to kiss her and felt very protective of her.”
After five days at the hospital, Ørnstrand first went home without her daughter, but she became so distraught, feeling she had left her child, that she went back to the hospital the next day to hold her. A midwife said she could take her home. “It was a hard decision because when you look at it outside, we were like, ‘You don’t take dead babies home. That’s kind of weird,’” she says. But once her daughter was home, it felt right. Not every woman experiences stillbirth the same way, but in the course of her own birthing experience, Ørnstrand found herself pushing up against the death taboo—and then pushing past it.