My wife and I have been trying for a second child for five years now. We had our first in 2014. He is all the more precious for our inability to create another. Years of IVF have resulted in four miscarriages, three of them in a single year.
Miscarriages, even in the earliest possible stages as ours were, are brutal. Worse, they’re insidiously brutal, rationalised during their occurrence, then grieved in peculiar, sporadic bursts in the months and years that follow.
Miscarriages also come with peculiar… anti-baggage? No matter the circumstances of yours, it always could have been worse. Post-positive test, and you could tell yourself, “At least it didn’t happen after a scan.” After a scan and you could tell yourself, “At least it didn’t happen months later.” Months later, even then, “At least it wasn’t a still birth.” And in doing so, you minimise your sadness, take away justification for your grief, rationalise yourself into a place where you fail to confront your pain. It makes it a bit easier. But the truth is always there: it was a possible life, and now it’s not.*
The Heartbeat You Never Had is a tiny free game, a minute or so long, that has you interact with a poem about this loss. Interaction is minimal, just the click of your mouse to start the scrawling text of the next line – and yet its interaction is everything. Damn that’s clever. And heartbreaking. Heart making, and heartbreaking.
As I interpret it, it tells of the experience of going for a scan, and seeing a foetus with no heartbeat. Which is wrenching. And my idiot brain says, “See, your experiences weren’t that. Your experiences were less than that.” And yet I’ve been there, clutching my wife’s hand as we sob, while the scanning equipment reveals the complete absence of a foetus where once a pile of pregnancy tests had promised us there was.
This game didn’t make me cry. I tried to force it to. I played it through a second time and told myself I needed tears to come out now. And then I told myself my same old mantra, that no, had we not been having IVF we’d never have tested, and then just assumed that my wife was having her period. Heavy, but a period. So my experience doesn’t count. And hell, it didn’t even happen to my body.
I have no great reveal of wisdom after this, other than that I know that’s bullshit. That’s where I find myself stuck as I write, my chest tight, my body cold, my sadness pressed deep down (I like to assume, rather than not being there at all, which would feel so much worse). We know a fertilised embryo went in, we know it came back out. A perfectly normal feature of biology occurred – as many as three quarters of naturally created embryos go this way as a matter of course. And yet at the same time this tiny bundle of potential human was there, then it wasn’t. It’s not death. But it is death.
In playing The Heartbeat You Never Had your clicking gives that never-to-be a heartbeat for the briefest moment. And then your ability to click on it is taken away, and it’s gone.
- Raphaël Dely & Marine Theunissen
*My wife, who is an extraordinary and brave woman, has written about her experiences in great detail on a site that’s chronicled our attempts to get pregnant, in order to normalise the experiences for others who might be going through similar.