What My Best Friend And I Didn't Learn About Loss

When my closest friend's first baby was stillborn, we navigated through depression and grief together.

My mother met Allison’s mother while walking around our Los Angeles neighborhood in the winter of 1986. They were both pregnant with girls who would be born one right after the other: She came first, in mid-December, and then 17 days later, in early January 1987, it was my turn.

We grew up across the street from one another and in each other’s pockets, surrounded by each other’s families. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding, and I cried, thrilled, at the email that came four years later announcing she was pregnant for the first time.

When a mutual friend called six months into Allison’s pregnancy to say that something had happened, I was too shocked to cry. The baby had died in utero: Her death was the result of a rare complication with the umbilical cord, the kind of accident that doctors take great pains to assure you occurs so infrequently that it doesn’t bear worrying about. It probably won’t happen.

And there’s nothing you can do about it if it does.

Allison had hoped for a natural birth; instead her delivery was medically induced in a hospital bed, hours after her daughter’s heart had already stopped beating. She and her husband, Ignacio, had picked out a name as soon as they heard she was a girl: Amelia. Ignacio wanted to be a pilot when he was younger, before he knew that his chronic migraines would make this impossible. The name was intended, in part, as a tribute to Amelia Earhart. They couldn’t have known how fitting it would be when they chose it — giving her the name of another woman who got lost somewhere over dark water.

At the time, I was lost myself. Up until then I had always been lucky; more importantly, I had always known how lucky I was. But after a lifetime of dipping in and out of depressive episodes, I’d gotten stuck in one; I'd spent a year with my hands around my own throat before I figured out what was going on and decided to start seeing a therapist. I was trapped somewhere between the darkness behind me — that deep, familiar black — and the unsettling promise of light ahead. Everything felt strange. Feeling things at all felt strange.

I was on my way to Desert Hot Springs, stuck in traffic on the 10 east when I heard the news. Amelia had died but Allison hadn’t been induced yet; they were waiting for Ignacio to return from a business trip later that afternoon. When we arrived at the motel I sat on the floor of the bathroom, windows open to the wind, still warm even though it was January, and called her.

What did I think I was going to say? Nothing. I remember very clearly the blank of my mind while listening to the phone ring. It was just — when we were younger, we used to joke that before we were born we spoke to each other through our mother’s belly buttons. We had known each other in the dark nonspace, nontime of the uterus; we had met each other before there was anyone there to meet. In the weeks and months that followed. I would try to explain to people how close we were: like sisters, I would say, but what I meant was like twins. We learned the common language together, but it means something different when we speak it to each other.

I don’t remember what either of us said during that phone call, only that we were both crying. I remember closing my eyes against the reality of the room I was sitting in, trying to will myself to her side in Seattle, as if my physical closeness could have made a difference. She was the only person I’d known this way: from zero, forever. There had never been me without her. But she was the only person who would ever know what her daughter felt like, alive and kicking. Inside of her body was the only place her daughter had ever lived.

A few months later, in March, I left Los Angeles and took a trip to visit Allison and Ignacio. It was a rare sunny weekend in the Pacific Northwest; Igancio was busy, so Allison showed me the city, its water, its food, and its views. We drove and walked, spent days together, and she told me, bit by bit by bit, how it had been for her. How it was.

What it felt like to have her milk come in for a daughter who couldn’t drink it; the friends and relatives who hadn’t called in the aftermath; what it was like to have to explain to her boss and her dentist and her dry cleaner why, suddenly, she wasn’t pregnant anymore. The hundred thousand tiny indignities. The one enormous one. The closet where they kept a few of the things they’d bought for her, Amelia. How much of it they had had to figure out how to give away.

On my last morning in Seattle, Allison, Ignacio, and I went out to brunch, and then after to a bookstore. This was a special treat for me; Allison had watched me grow up an impossible bookworm, and knew there was nothing I would like more than to spend some time with a full belly, browsing. The store was particularly charming, an enormous independent spot, wood-paneled and cozy.

We wandered back to the young adult section, always my favorite. I touched the spines of the books there: ones I had read and loved when we were kids together, ones I wanted to pick up and read now. For just that one minute, time felt like a physical thing, a river we were caught in; I watched its ribbon unspooling behind me and thought, There’s so much and then, There’s so much more.

I had been cautiously optimistic all weekend, comforting, careful not to make promises we both knew might not be kept. It felt right, though, in that moment, to abandon my hedging.

The thing about faith is that it’s irrational, which can make it seem weightless and stupid. The thing about faith is when you know that, when you’re clear that it doesn’t really make a goddamn bit of difference to the world, it’s something you can give someone like a gift. We both knew it didn’t matter if I believed in her, or the promise of some better eventual future. Which is why it was so important for us both to know that I was choosing to do it anyway.

“I think it’s going to happen for us,” I told her. “Good things. I really think good things are coming our way.” I said it like a prediction, but I meant it like a prayer. All faith is an offering. I could give it to her long before I could extend the same credit to myself.

The next time I came to Seattle it was a year later to the day. Late March, sunny again. I was better, but still not good. Allison was two days shy of a full-term pregnancy but weeks from her mid-April due date. I had come to keep her company during the last of it, to try to help keep her mind from the dark places it sometimes inevitably went. The modern wisdom around pregnancy tells women, Your body knows what it’s doing, but her body had betrayed her the last time, horribly and suddenly. We were hopeful but not certain. We were waiting; we would see.

I arrived on a Friday night. We went out for dinner and made plans for what we wanted to do the next day: I would shoot some photos of Allison and Ignacio together in a park. We would grill on their roof. We stayed up talking until close to midnight.

Igancio woke me up in the morning to say that her water had broken, that she was having contractions, that it was time.

Labor was nothing like what I’d seen in the movies. This was what they call a good one: relatively easy, relatively fast. Eight hours blurred by as I watched Allison ride through the contractions, falling deeper and deeper into herself until it became clear that she wasn’t really in the room with us anymore. She was all the way inside of her body, out of time, out of space, bringing her daughter — this daughter — out of that place, and into our world. A hospital again this time, but no induction. No epidural. The birth she had wanted, had planned for, had not gotten, had accepted might never happen for her.

When Mila was born, her cry split my life in two.

It’s easy to tell yourself a story about bad luck. Depression is an expert at convincing you that you deserve it, that it’s just your messed-up life and your messed-up self making you so sad. I let it go on for so long without asking for help. Who could possibly help me? How?

Tragedy is different: It defies narrative. It refuses to be contextualized, to make sense. Why Allison, why this baby — why this baby and not the next one? Questions without answers. Amelia’s death is the only thing that’s ever happened in my life that I don’t know how to tell stories about. To imply that there was an arc to it, a lesson, a moral, an end: All of these things strike me as deeply false, untrue and unfair. Allison got monstrously unlucky, and then, the next time, things worked out. Mila is a beautiful baby, eager and curious and perfectly, gloriously healthy, but she is not her sister, and her life doesn’t erase the fact of Amelia’s death.

Amelia’s death wasn’t a lesson, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t teach me: that there were worse things in the world than the inside of my own head, that disaster never comes the way you’re imagining it, that there was no reason not to ask for help, and get it. I had believed for so long that it was happening to me because it had to, when in fact it was just happening because it did.

The narrative of the last few years of my life is messy with fiction and elision, things I believed that weren’t true or forgot to keep track of even though they were. I offered Allison the force of my faith, but for so long I refused to accept it from others when they, in turn, offered it to me. The darkness I lived in was terrifying but I knew it so well. To allow myself to believe that things might get better was also to accept that they might get worse again.

The only thing more terrifying than staying stuck is admitting you cannot know what happens next. And then walking forward anyway, because what else is there to do?

To the extent that this particular story ends — that me writing this puts a kind of an end on it — it ends happily. I am even better, now, so much better that some days I just call it good; Allison has a new baby.

My mother took a walk and met a woman; I grew up with her daughter like a piece of my own beating heart. Years later we were lucky and unlucky and lucky again. I called that daughter on the phone the day that one of her daughters died and I was in the room the day her next daughter was born, pink and furious and perfect. Allison has been with me every single day of my life, and I will be with Mila every day of hers. Isn’t that all we can ask for, really? Someone who is willing to give us the weightless, useless gift of faith when we need it? Love that lasts through the chaos?

Zan Romanoff is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her first novel, A Song to Take the World Apart, is available now from Knopf Books for Young Readers; her second, Grace and the Fever, will be released in 2017.

To learn more about A Song to Take the World Apart, click here.

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