Part-way through 2017, I thought I was pregnant for the first time. I was thrilled when the pregnancy test came back positive. I went to the doctor and was given referrals for a blood test and an ultrasound. But when we went to have the ultrasound, we were given unexpected news: the amniotic sac was present, but empty. There was no baby growing there.
I had what is called a blighted ovum—what some people also call a “phantom pregnancy”. My body was behaving as though it were pregnant: I stopped having my monthly bleeding, I was producing pregnancy hormones, I was experiencing morning sickness and I was experiencing other changes in line with the early stages of preparing to carry a child, but I had no child.
This was a big surprise. There was no reason for me to consider that things wouldn’t run smoothly: my husband and I were both young and healthy, with no family history to warrant concern. I’d never even heard of this. My hopes and plans for the baby were quickly dashed.
It’s hard to determine how common blighted ovums are as they are picked up by the woman’s body and dealt with early on. This means that not everyone who experiences this has suspected they were pregnant. They may not even realise it happened. However, it is suggested that a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and every second miscarriage is a blighted ovum. (I’ll say more on labelling blighted ovums as “miscarriages” later.)
After being diagnosed, we attended a number of appointments for further ultrasounds and blood tests—checks to make sure that it wasn’t a mistake—that there really was no baby. My body, which had wrongly thought it was pregnant, began to realise that it wasn’t and was dealing with the aftermath. I was given a choice: either let my body purge the supplies it had been hoarding for a baby that wasn’t there, or have dilation and curettage surgery. The first option seemed viable until I nearly passed out on the bathroom floor the day after my birthday because of blood loss from a wound that wasn’t healing. For the second option, we showed up for a scheduled doctor’s appointment five months after that positive pregnancy test and were sent to the hospital for day surgery. By this point, it was clear that my body had failed me and was unable to heal itself.
The day after the surgery, it was as though nothing had happened: I was experiencing neither pregnancy symptoms, nor was I bleeding any more. The baby I had wanted was not there. All evidence of the ordeal I had been through was gone. After such a long time, it was over very suddenly.
I felt really confused by it all. I was devastated that my hopes for a baby wouldn’t be fulfilled at this time. But I didn’t know if I could grieve when there never was a baby. My body had lied to me and told me that there was, and I had believed it. Should I be angry at my own body? Was it wrong for me to feel so sad when there could never have been a different outcome? It wasn’t as though we were expecting a baby who then didn’t make it; we’d been fooled, and the changes my body underwent could only ever have ended within a few months with a return to normality without a baby. I had never heard anyone talk about a blighted ovum before, despite the fact that they are relatively common. I didn’t know if it was something I ought to be ashamed of, or whether it was somehow impolite to talk about it. I wanted to frame my thinking about it from a Christian perspective, but I wasn’t sure how to do that.
With my husband, I decided to tell a few people, because it was a physically (my bleeding was excessive and sometimes public) and emotionally difficult time for me. Some we told at the time; a few we told after I had had the surgery. For the most part, people responded kindly and helpfully. However, there were a few ways in which people reacted that I found difficult and painful to deal with. For example, I would tell someone and they would never mention it again. I’m sure they were just trying not to bring up something that was obviously painful, but I felt that by staying silent, they were suggesting that I had done something shameful. I ended up feeling confused about whether I should be embarrassed on top of everything else I was feeling.
There were also a few people who shared my experience with others I hadn’t told without asking me first. This meant that I had to deal with people I had not chosen to tell bringing it up in conversation. This was difficult, because if I had wanted that person to know, I would have told them myself, or asked that they be informed. As it was, I felt like my choice over who knew was taken away. I didn’t even have control over this.
However, my experience wasn’t all negative. Here are some things I learned:
1. It’s okay to grieve
Firstly, it was okay for me to grieve. In the early days after my diagnosis, I struggled to know how much I was “allowed” to mourn. I was deeply sad, but fought against a voice in my head that told me I shouldn’t be so sad, because I had no death to mourn. But as I thought and prayed about it, I came to see that it was more important for me to recognise, accept and deal with the emotions I was feeling, instead of deciding that they weren’t valid and bottling them up.
My grief and disappointment over my blighted ovum wasn’t over the loss of a life, but rather the loss of my hopes and dreams for a child. Grief reminds us that this world isn’t as it should be. It points us to the Redeemer who will create a new world in which suffering has no place (Rev 21:4). It’s okay to mourn something that never was. Furthermore, it was important for me to grieve the idea of the baby that we weren’t going to have so that I could accept that I wasn’t pregnant and move on, hopeful for a future in which I might get pregnant. Even if that future doesn’t happen, knowing my ultimate and eternal future in Christ freed me from my sadness.
2. Comfort is found in truth
Secondly, I found comfort in the truth. I drew comfort from the fact that I never actually had a baby growing in my womb and therefore a life hadn’t been lost. As a Christian, I value life dearly as a gift from God. Death is genuinely something to be sad about. So the distinction between a blighted ovum and a miscarriage was significant to me. I always try to draw out this distinction when explaining things to people in order to try to help them understand what I was feeling and how I was processing the news.
It was also important for me to keep my loss in perspective. It was inappropriate for me to imagine what could have been—as though I had actually been pregnant—as that would have been unhelpful in my moving forward. I found I couldn’t dwell on what had happened or what might have been for long without becoming absorbed in the sort of self-pity that served no constructive purpose. It was necessary for me to grieve, but within specific boundaries of time and scope of thought.
It was also not a time for me to entertain feelings of guilt. I had done nothing to cause this outcome. This would have been true even if I had lost a child. I had to keep myself from going down unhelpful paths of thought based on lies and instead take comfort in the truth.
3. Comfort is found in Christ
Thirdly, I found comfort in Christ. I was encouraged by a friend to rejoice in the fact that, through trials, God makes us more like Christ. As we suffer, we learn to rely on God, because we can’t rely on ourselves. I felt as though my body had betrayed me: it had misled me and caused me both physical and emotional pain. When our very selves let us down, who can we possibly trust? Only God, who works for our good.
I also took comfort in the certain hope I have in the resurrection. Any suffering I experience now is fleeting compared to the glory and joy that is to come—a glory and joy that cannot be taken away (John 16:22).
Furthermore, I took comfort in that fact that Christ willingly subjected himself to suffering so that we might be free of it. My pain helped me understand just how broken our world is: as Christians, we can know in our heads that the world is subject to pain and sorrow, but the emotional impact of this seldom hits home until we feel it more closely. It can be hard to see it this way, but suffering can be a blessing: it unites us with common human experience, it helps us grow in our empathy for others, and it assists us in seeing more clearly how wonderful the deeds of Christ on our behalf are.
If you have had, or are currently dealing with, a blighted ovum, my prayer for you is that you will endure this physically and emotionally difficult time with a clear mind. Feel no guilt: this is the result of a broken world, not a consequence of anything you have done. Take comfort in that and in the sure hope followers of Jesus have—that one day, they will be with him in a place where there is no more suffering. Take time to grieve if you need to, but try to keep things in perspective so that untrue thoughts don’t take root in your mind.
For anyone reading this who hasn’t experienced this, but is caring for someone who has, try to understand any confusion they might have. Listen to them well: their experience might be like mine, or it might be entirely different. Don’t be afraid to ask how they are going in a few weeks’ time, because it can take a long time for the physical and emotional to stabilise again. If they are Christian, encourage them in the knowledge that they are secure in God’s love, even when they cry out to him in anguish and ask why they are suffering. God always loves and works for the good of his children, even when we can’t see or understand his plan.