Each winter, when the last pages of the year turn slowly into December, and the frosts bite, I think of her, and feel a sharp little shard of sadness.
I love this time of year: twinkling lights in primary colours; silver stars and golden baubles; rich red ribbon and bright foil wrappings; the way your heart unfurls a little from its usual places of stress and fear. She, however, hated it. The cheerful, gaudy glamour of it all emphasised her loss, while the infant in the manger at the heart of it all reminded her of the gnawing pain of her own empty crib.
I interviewed her many Decembers ago and have remembered her each one since. She lost her baby while Christmas songs blared from the radio, and the expectation of happiness made her own sadness a deeper well. She was, just as Meghan Markle has become this past week, a symbol of a generation’s attitudes to miscarriage.
In her case, there was no discussion. Her baby was passed like a rugby ball by staff as soon as it was delivered, whipped immediately from the room like a dangerous thing, an obscenity not to be viewed, far less touched, by its distressed mother. All that was left was the trickle of blood, and a brutal emptiness. Markle has spoken out, defiantly refusing to adhere to royal traditions of suffering in silence.
Many years ago, interviewing the then Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the late Deborah Mitford, I was stunned when the Duchess, who had suffered several miscarriages, said she could not have borne to hold her dead baby, to have this “creature” put in her arms. She was a sign of her times. Dealing with miscarriage now is about holding, touching, even bonding, with the dead infant – locks of hair and footprints and keepsake boxes – so that the loss is not merely anonymous, animalistic emptiness, but a personal bereavement with a child who existed, was loved and held, but was taken too soon.
While Markle deserves credit for speaking as she did to highlight the once silent pain of miscarriage, the way in which her opinion piece in the New York Times has been quoted in this country is interesting. Inevitably, the miscarriage drama has been emphasised, her tears over Harry’s knuckles as she clutched his hand, the razor-sharp pain of loss. “I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child,” she wrote, “that I was losing my second.”
The danger of ‘keeping a lid on things’
But helpful as that honesty is, Markle’s piece, in its entirety, is about so much more than miscarriage. It’s about the ways in which we have become isolated in our sadnesses and our struggles. The ways in which we have stopped genuinely asking each other, “are you okay?” and are shocked and uneasy if we receive anything other than a rote, “I’m fine,” if we do. The ways in which our communities have become polarised. The ways in which George Floyd and Breonna Taylor died. Markle’s miscarriage story was personal, but it was used as a backdrop to other kinds of deaths.
There is sometimes the idea that keeping the lid on emotion is the safest way. Don’t look it in the eye and it will go away. It was, for sure, the royal way and Markle’s column feels almost like an explanation of why she couldn’t live in Britain’s royal family, with its quaintly cruel attitude to personal difficulties. Don’t ask. Don’t speak. Don’t feel. Keep the lid on.
But so often, the opposite is true. By remaining silent, we become submerged in inner pain. The lid blows off. Markle longed for someone to say – genuinely – “Are you okay?” Describing her miscarriage is her way of saying, “I’m not fine – and here’s why. Please listen.”
All those years ago, I left my interviewee’s house and drove through the festive lights, sad that a period of giving was, for her, forever associated with loss. A baby is a symbol of hope, a miscarriage of hope dashed. Yet no one would ever have known, given her smile and facade of calm, how she really felt.
Unless they asked, of course. Markle got it right that talking, opening up, is part of healing. Even a simple, “Are you ok?” But talking demands a listener. A real listener. Perhaps the best gift for people in distress – whatever their trauma – is when the rest of us are not frightened of their pain, but willing to share in it