Trigger warning: this article deals with the subject of miscarriage and infant loss which some readers may find distressing.
Welcome to How I Bounced Back — a monthly column in which I chat to people who have overcome incredible hardship and built their lives back up. After the past two years, we need a reminder that obstacles can be overcome and there is light at the end of the tunnel, even when we feel the opposite is true. Through these stories, so generously shared, I hope you will be inspired to keep going, no matter how tough times may seem.
“You’re just thrown into this whole world that you’ve got no experience of. You’re heartbroken, you’re devastated.”
Samantha Payne works tirelessly to ensure that Australian women have access to information, resources and support when they have experienced pregnancy or infant loss. Through her organisation Pink Elephants, Payne has helped countless men and women navigate the heartbreaking — and often isolating — rollercoaster of miscarriage.
It’s a grim reality in Australia that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss before 12 weeks, and it’s something that Payne, unfortunately, has first-hand experience with, having suffered three miscarriages herself.
Having had her first child, Georgie, fairly easily, Payne and her husband decided to try for another baby and that, she says, is where they started to face difficulties.
“We had our first miscarriage in August 2015,” Payne told The Latch. “And that was what’s known as a missed miscarriage. So, I went to an appointment, attended a scan and I expected to see the heartbeat.
“I had Georgie there with me and I was expecting to show her her little baby brother or sister on the screen, and instead was met with, ‘I’m sorry, there is no heartbeat’, and you’re just thrown into this whole world that you’ve got no experience of. You’re heartbroken, you’re devastated.”
For Payne and her husband, it marked a difficult time for their family as they tackled each day, caring for their little girl and trying to explain to people that they had been pregnant but no longer were. They decided to wait a few months before trying again, and then cautiously began the process of trying to conceive another child.
Finding themselves pregnant around five months after their first loss, they felt very nervous that the same thing could happen again, even though the statistics told them they had already experienced their one-in-four chance of loss.
After a scan showed a strong heartbeat at eight weeks, Payne allowed herself to relax a tiny bit. However, on a holiday with friends, she suffered what is known as a natural miscarriage.
“I basically started to bleed and pass that baby,” she said. “That also was incredibly isolating, because I didn’t know how to share it with friends. I didn’t want to spoil their holiday, so I didn’t talk about it and instead just dealt with it completely myself and didn’t even tell my husband until we got back to Sydney, which was really, really hard.”
This is when Payne started to feel angry at the lack of support available to women once they had gone through the “medical side” of miscarriage.
“There is nothing,” she says. “There’s no referral for support. There’s no help. You’re not connected to other people who’ve gone through this, you’re just expected to kind of fall pregnant again and get past it. I was really struggling with anxiety at that point. We knew we definitely wanted another child but now we were facing this unsure future that was not as simple as what we thought it was.”
When Payne did eventually fall pregnant with her son Johnny, it wasn’t the completely joyous occasion it should have been as Payne found herself mentally struggling and disassociating. She says she didn’t want to find out the gender and refused to think about names or even start getting things ready until the last few weeks of her pregnancy. It’s a response to grief that she has since seen in many other women through her line of work.
Cruelly, Payne suffered yet another blow after Johnny was born, when she experienced a third miscarriage during COVID.
“It was incredibly hard, almost because of being who I am,” said Payne. “What I do is kind of known now, so to think you’ve made such an impact and created something that helps people in this space so much, but then to have to go through it again… it just felt incredibly cruel and painful and pointless as well.”
“Having an existing child doesn’t make loss any easier at all.”
While Payne is, of course, hugely grateful for her two beautiful children, she would like people to remember that it does not make the pain of losing a baby any less.
“It actually makes it harder in the fact that you realise what you’ve lost a lot more,” Payne explains. “So it’s a really common misconception. Yes, I was incredibly grateful for Georgie and that feeling of gratitude for her and the miracle that she is was heightened. But, what that did, in a way, was magnify the grief and the loss 10 times more because in my head — that was what I was losing. I was losing another Georgie. And what if we’d lost her?”.
“There’s a real sense of disenfranchised grief.”
As any woman who has suffered a miscarriage could likely tell you, the experience is not only traumatising but one that is shrouded in blame and shame and is also deeply misunderstood.
“The biggest misconception is that miscarriage doesn’t matter or miscarriage doesn’t hurt because it happens early,” says Payne.
“There’s a real sense of disenfranchised grief. Women feel that they’re hiding their true experience of pregnancy, and the grief that they really feel because they feel that society speaks to them in a way that minimises it. So, therefore, they don’t feel worthy of the level of grief they’re actually feeling. And there’s nothing more dangerous than internalising all of those emotions, and not seeking the help and support and validation that you deserve.”
For Payne, help and support came not only from her husband, family and friends but from launching Pink Elephants, an endeavour she says has been “incredibly cathartic.”
“Just the daily messages of thanks that we receive, or the pregnancy announcements in our rainbow group,” Payne cites as being one of the healing elements of her job. “Often the women will announce their babies and we have fully supported them at that point for anywhere between one to four years. They make this beautiful announcement and they do it with so much joy and gratitude — for the connections they’ve made with other women in our group.
“I’m really proud of the fact that it doesn’t rely on me anymore. The sense of connection that’s fostered with each of those women in those groups… they each hold each other up. It’s women supporting women. They don’t need to be overly moderated because everyone’s so beautiful and they support each other. They understand because they’ve been there.”
“Any response to grief is okay.”
In terms of advice for others who have gone through pregnancy loss and are struggling with grief, Payne says that while yoga and meditation were helpful to her, she also realises that giving herself the space to really grieve was crucial.
“When I had my third loss last year, I really took time out,” she says. “I took a whole month of bereavement leave. And I had no plans during that month. I didn’t connect with friends and family as much as I normally would. I just literally had that month to myself did things like bushwalks in the morning and if one day I’d felt like doing nothing, I did nothing.
“I listened to what I needed, rather than what the world told me I should be doing in grief and what grief should look like. And that really helped. I think it’s something that we need to understand better; that grief is not the same for everybody — we all have our individual responses and any response to grief is okay. We can feel so many different emotions in such a short time frame. There’s almost no consistency from minute to minute — it doesn’t even have to be day by day.”
“Sometimes, we don’t want to lean into joy for fear of loss again.”
There are, of course, many things that could and should be done at a local and federal level to ensure that people who suffer pregnancy and infancy loss are better supported through every stage of the awful experience, and these are things that Payne and her team at Pink Elephants will continue to fight for. In the meantime, Payne explains that perhaps there is value in not simply looking for a singular “turning point” in one’s personal journey.
“It’s not so much one (turning point)”, she says. “It’s almost like a sum of different pieces that lead you there, so you feel moments of that. But then you’ll absolutely feel moments of grief and despair and anger and angst again, and that’s perfectly normal.
“It’s like, if you imagine a beach and the waves are crashing — when you’re in that first stage of grief, they crash literally every couple of seconds on your head. Seven years out from this, I’m in a different position in terms of they’re far more spaced out now. But it isn’t necessarily one big moment that comes to mind. It’s more a case of time. Over time you gradually learn different coping techniques and different methods and things happen in your life that bring you joy again, and you recognise those feelings of joy.”
“Then you start to lean into that a little bit more, but it can also bring out the opposite feeling which is fear. Because sometimes, we don’t want to lean into joy for fear of loss again.
“Learning to trust that you can experience joy again, is not easy, but we can do it.”
If you or someone you know needs support through pregnancy or infant loss, please head to the Pink Elephants official website for resources and information.
You can read previous instalments of ‘How I Bounced Back’, here.