Part One: “I can’t seem to find the heartbeat.”


On the 30th of December 2020, I was coerced into belonging to a club – the Stillborn Parents Club. NOBODY is tempted to apply for membership at this club. NOBODY would accept an invitation to join this club. This club should not even exist because it is any parent’s worst nightmare.  Alas, here I am – the newest recruit.

If you are reading this, you probably are an existing member of this nightmarish club (your strength inspires me); you were recently forcefully recruited (my sincere condolences); or you are anxiously hoping that you are never recruited (I pray so too). 

Our club and the reason for its existence ­– namely the birth of a dead birth – is not a popular subject in society. I am pretty sure it is also not a favourite subject discussed by gynaecologists and expecting moms – my gynaecologist definitely never mentioned it to me! The possibility of an unborn child dying is inconceivable to many, yet it is a medical fact – the delivery of a healthy, breathing baby is not the medical outcome of each pregnancy.

Unborn babies do die, yet it is swept under a huge rug of shame, embarrassment and silent pain. As a woman, I felt ashamed – I failed at successfully completing one of the major tasks a woman’s body is designed to do: Being pregnant, carrying to full term, and giving birth to a breathing baby. Due to this immense failure and subsequent feelings of shame and embarrassment, I felt like I needed to suffer in silence like many of those parents who do not share their stillborn experiences. To me, the silence of stillborn parents and their experiences, particularly from a South African context, erringly symbolised the stillness of that final, dreadful ultrasound.

I decided to help break that silence because I might be the latest recruit to this club, but I am unfortunately not going to be the last one.

So I poured myself all over these pages and shared my journey of pain, healing, confusion and resentment.

This is not a survival guide.

It is not poetry.

It is a painful wound laid bare.

It is a complicated narrative about grief, healing and self-forgiveness.

To all the parents who nurse graves and urns, you are still parents.

Episode 1: Heartbeat

Doctor: “I can’t seem to find the heartbeat.”

Lorato: Stares at the monitor’s screen.

Doctor: “Lorato dear, this does not look good.”

Lorato: Doctor, please do not say it.

Lorato starts sobbing.

Doctor: “Lorato dear, this does not look good. I am sorry.”

Lorato: Doctor, please find my baby’s heartbeat. You need to find my baby’s heartbeat.
Khanya, move baby!

Doctor: “I have tried looking for it several times my dear. I am really sorry.”

Just like that…

The unthinkable has become thinkable.
The unimaginable no longer requires imagination – it is a reality.
We now have to find vocabulary to utter the unspeakable.

The baby is dead.

Episode 2: Still-birth



Oh, what a spooky and heart-wrecking juxtaposition.
A painful burden
that mothers who knowingly have to give birth to a dead baby have to bear.

Doctor: “Lorato, when would you like to come in so we can induce labour? I think a vaginal birth is the best solution”.

Lorato thinks: “Hold on! How! You just told me that my baby is dead and now you want me to give birth? What am I giving birth to?”

What a tragic mind-fuck!

It is NOT enough that the baby is dead, now you are telling me I have to endure the same process a woman who is giving birth to a living baby would?

Admission to hospital…
Maternity Ward…
Agonizing labour pains…
If the outcome is different, why must the input be the same?


1) Her endurance is motivated by hope and excitement to see her baby.
My ‘endurance’ is medically motivated and drenched in sorrow.

2) Her family is excitedly preparing the nursery and shopping for baby stuff.
My family is preparing for a cremation.

3) The medical staff is encouraging her excitedly.
A sense of pity and sadness lingers around my room.

4) She is ‘assured’ of a birthday date.
I am assured of a simultaneous date of birth & death.

5) Stillbirth…
She is the birth.
I am the still.

Episode 3: The walking coffin

The teller that packed away my sanitary pads and face cloth in a bag…

The lady I stood behind in the line waiting to go pay for my cotton underwear…

Could they not see me?

Why are they acting so normal?

The lady who stood next to me excited over the cheap slippers…

The security guard we walked past after buying pyjamas…

Don’t you see me?

Not even my friend Jacob and his sons saw me when we waved at them as we drove past them…

It is amazing what skin can hide.

How could they not see me…a walking coffin.

Somewhere nestled in me was a dead baby.

A dead body.

A corpse.

Could they not smell it?

The smell of death.

A walking coffin.

A crying coffin.

A disillusioned coffin.

An angry coffin.

A defeated coffin.

A strong coffin.

A mommy coffin.

Doctor said I have to report for hospital admission the following morning at 08:00.

It had not dawned on me that I was expected to sleep with a corpse inside of me until I attempted to sleep that night.

It was inconceivable.

It was cruel.

I couldn’t close my eyes without thinking of this dead body inside of me.

My body trembled.

My baby is dead! My baby is dead! My baby is dead!

My hands reached for my stomach.

I shook it with all of my strength!

Khanya, wake up!

Who the hell told you to die?

Wake up before the doctor forces you out tomorrow!

OR maybe I should wake up…

Surely this is a nightmare.

The bed is suffocating me.

I cannot breathe.

I feel like pulling my hair out.

I violently shake my husband awake…how can he even fall asleep?

“I want to go to the hospital right now!

They must take the baby out.

The baby is dead”.

I had lost my sanity.

I had lost my baby.

My womb is a coffin.

Episode 4: Ain’t nobody got time for your tears

After what felt like an endless night, the alarm went off at 06:00.

My husband said: “It is time to get ready”.

I jumped out of bed and into the shower.

I do not like being late.

Out of the shower into my clothes.

Finish packing my ‘hospital bag’.

I am done.

I am in time for my child’s official death day.

I sit down and start weeping.

My husband pats my shoulder and walks past.

A sad silence lingers in the house.

Spoke when spoken to type-of-silence.

The dead elephant in the room type-of-silence.

I weep all the way to the hospital.

My husband diligently drives.

We park outside of the hospital by 07:50.

The lady that took our COVID-19 tests yesterday greets us with a pitiful smile.

My husband dries my face and cleans off all the tissue residue.

I guess I should stop crying now.

The same security guard who insensitively rushed us to fill out forms and undergo the COVID-19 test is on duty…

“Your husband can’t go up with you – COVID-19 rules.”

Ag fuck off lady, you were here yesterday!

You saw my admission form! You knew he took a COVID-19 test so he could be with me in this damn hospital. 

“Well the doctor said he can be with me”, I responded in a gatvol manner!

Floor 1. Help Desk.

I handover the admission form.

“What are you coming in for, the man asks.

I give him a blank stare. Read the form – it is written there…


“Let me call the doctor so she can explain”.

Doctor explains. He is now enlightened and has developed sensitiveness.

“Did your husband receive his COVID-19 test results?”

“Please fill out these forms”.

“You can have a seat so long”.

“Dr Mokwena, please sign these forms”.

“Dr Mokwena, all is sorted. You can go to Floor 3”.

“All the best…”

Floor 3. Maternity Ward.

Nurses at the door casually discussing details their patients and their babies.

I give them my file.

I take another seat.

Tears roll down my face.

Nurse comes…She sees my tears and looks confused.

She looks very annoyed.

Does the death of my baby not warrant my tears?

She takes me to the room right down the maternity ward hall.

Yes, this is the opportune moment in my life to expose me to instruments that would typically be in a delivery room.

I don’t like this ‘private’ room.

Where is ‘my’ doctor?

We spoke about this – I do not want to be in a room where I can hear women giving birth and babies crying!

I can see and hear everything!

As if she was sent by God, a friendlier nurse walks in and says “we are going to move you to a room where you have more privacy”!

Sigh of relief!

Drip…the biggest needle.

More forms!

So many questions…

Trying to answer all of these with tears streaming down my face.

Nurse is kind and shares some words of comfort.

‘My’ doctor arrives.

The sight of her made me cry.

Her voice…

All I kept hearing was: “I can’t seem to find a heartbeat.”

More discussions, more questions. More kind words.

1st dose of labour inducing pills.

“Try and get some rest, Lorato – it is going to be a long day”…

“Try and eat something – You are going to need the energy”.

Can I cry?

Can I mourn?

Do the steps of this medical procedure not include a crying, bereaved mother?

Episode 5: New Year’s Eve

For once, we were certain of what tomorrow held:
We would witness death camouflaged as birth.

New Year’s Eve…A day filled with so much anticipation excitement and hope!

The whole day is spent preparing for how one plans to ‘enter’ the New Year.

A braai with family?

A night out with friends?

A house party?


A romantic night in with one’s partner?

A street bash?

Whatever the plan is, it does not involve sleeping before midnight!

You need to do the countdown and usher in the New Year with great celebration and even greater gratitude.

Considering how difficult 2020 was, I am certain most people wanted to personally usher 2020 out… “Good riddance,” most of us would say!

Plans for New Year’s Eve 2020:

Admission to hospital anybody?

Throw in a drip, bags of antibiotics, labour inducing pills, limited television channels, hospital food and a heartbroken husband sleeping on a couch?

Don’t forget tears, fear, regret, pain, resentment.

Come on…

It is going to be lit!

“Baby, do you know it’s New Year’s Eve?” I asked my husband as I walked from the toilet before turning in for the night.

He couldn’t care less.

“Goodnight baby!”

This year, we were not waiting for midnight.

We were not waiting for 2021.

For once, we were certain of what tomorrow held:

We would witness death camouflaged as birth.

Episode 6: A dignified death

“There is something in between my thighs. There is something in between my thighs”, I shouted.

Where I come from, it is part of burial customs for adults attending a funeral to view the upper body (face and upper chest area) of the deceased (of course, this is completely voluntarily). To this end, family members are allowed to go wash, dress and beautify their deceased a day before the funeral (typically on a Friday). This deed serves both the living and the dead: The departed does not get buried in an undesirable state and if the departed selected a particular outfit/accessory to be buried in, that post-mortem wish is granted. The living ensures that the corpse of a loved one is in a ‘presentable’ state – presentable enough to curb gossiping and speculation (people do not only come to a funeral to comfort the bereaved, you know)!

I never quite understood why people cared about the state of a corpse…
Why there was a fuss about ensuring the deceased was presentable….
It was not until my mother and I had to wash and dress my deceased little sister…
and how mom gently spoke to my sister while washing her frozen body.
It was not until we were fussing about the fact that my sister’s frozen lips did not close properly
how we did not have lipstick to conceal what appeared to be blood on her lips…


The need to bestow a loved one with dignity even after their passing. The need to ensure that the deceased feels loved and respected for love and respect transcends beyond death.

After putting me on stronger labour inducing medicine, the nurse instructed me to try and rest while I could as the labour pains were going to get stronger. She was definitely right about the labour pains and their increase in strength! Bone-crushing pain! Mind-wrecking pain!

I gripped onto my bed with so much strength, it shook violently! I actually was about to throw this bed out of the ward! Moer!!! I cried out in pain…I never knew I could scream so loudly!

I decided to stand up and attempt to walk to ease the pains…Another contraction!

“There is something in between my thighs. There is something in between my thighs”, I shouted.
My husband rushed to call the nurse.
“Nurse, there is something in between her thighs”.
“Do you think you can make it back to the bed”.
“I am going to need you to help me dear. We need to get back to the bed”.

Before I could give into the pain any further, before I could put up anymore resistance, I realised that it wasn’t something between my legs.
It was my baby and he could fall out.
I knew he wouldn’t get hurt from falling out of me
I had already failed to keep my baby alive.
I was not about to fail him again.
I squeezed whatever part of my body I thought would prevent him from falling out and allowed the nurse and my husband to help me back to the bed.

“Now listen, with the next contraction I need you to push gently”. (said the nurse?)
This push would be one of my final gifts of love, so with the next contraction, I screamed out in pain but remembered the instruction.
It was over.
Time of death anyone?

I broke out into sorrowful tears.
My heart was shattered!
God, where is my baby’s first cry?
Where is my baby’s first breath?
Why me? Why my baby?
What have I done that offended You so terribly that you would hurt me this much?

“Do not look,” I told my husband.
I did not want him to see Khanya like that…
Can someone please pick up my baby from the bed, I thought.
My baby was still worthy of dignity…

Episode 7: “Do you want to see the baby?”

Which mother would not want to see her baby?
Or is this question only reserved for mothers of babies who are born dead…

Not this question again.
This question sounds rhetorical and unnatural…
Which mother would not want to see her baby?
Or is this question only reserved for mothers of babies who are born dead…

When my husband asked me this question yesterday, the answer was no.
“I do not think I have strength for that” I told my husband.
He said he wanted to see Khanya.
“Do you want to see the baby dear?”, the doctor asked.
I kept quiet.
Probably one of the hardest “Yes” or “No” questions I ever had to answer.
What does “No” mean?
Rejection? Anger? Disgust? Hate?
Is that how I felt towards my baby?
What does “Yes” mean?
That I have accepted this tragedy? That me and God are cool?
“Yes, we want to see the baby”, my husband said sternly.
The doctor looked at me…it felt like she was looking through my soul.
She must have noticed the confused and shocked expression on my face after I heard my husband’s response and sensed my anxiety.
“Are you sure?” she asked while looking at me.

My motherly instinct kicked in.
My wife instinct kicked in.
This is an important moment for my husband and son…This is an important moment for my little family.
“Yes, I am sure”.

As if there was not enough drama and tension, I alerted my husband that I felt like puking – right there with a dead baby on the bed in between my thighs, I was seconds away from puking! Second time for the day – hours earlier, my breakfast was splattered all over the floor. Luckily, the bucket I threw up earlier was cleaned and returned, so my husband eloquently took it from the nurse and assisted with the 2nd round of puking. The sound and sight of vomit was nothing new to us – I spent the majority of our 7-month pregnancy puking and being on anti-nausea medicine.

With that small interruption out of the way, and with left-over vomit on different parts of my hospital gown, we returned our attention to what mattered.

The doctor wrapped him in a towel and handed him over to me.
I looked at him and I smiled.

I was overcome by a tremendous amount of love and pride.
He might be dead but he is ours.
“Hello baby, hello sweety”.
My husband and I started discussing some of his visible features with such pride and joy.
Beautiful black hair.
English nose. (that was Khanya’s nickname)
Little beautiful lips.
I played with his nose and chuckled!
For those few moments, everything felt normal and my world was complete.

His father kissed him on his forehead and I could feel this transfer of love and care…
It was tangible and heart-warming.
I would know…it is the same kiss he gives me quite often.
I positioned our little boy on my shoulder in an attempt to hug him.
I needed to feel his weight on me.
I needed to feel his skin on mine.
I needed to acknowledge his human features.
I needed to realise that my child existed.
He was a little boy.
He was not just a biological and medical tragedy.
I kissed his forehead to seal that love and care his dad transferred.

You see, I still had hope…I was still hoping for a miracle.
I secretly hoped this little man would open up his eyes and grant me the privilege of being a mother.
Last chance Khanya, wake up baby!
Oh…if only hope could resurrect the dead!
The floodgates opened and in streamed sorrow, guilt, resentment, anger…
I shut that shit down for a few more seconds!
This is the first and last time I get to hold my son.
This is the first and last tangible memory I have of my son.
This is a moment that will be burned into my memory forever.
Fuck life!
Just grant me one ‘happy moment’ with my dead son.
“Give me a memory I can use”.

The nurse walked in and both my husband and I both agreed that it was time to take Khanya away.
Take him away before sorrow tarnishes our perfect family moment.
Take him away before it hits us that this person is void of life, not void of energy.

What is the opposite of happy birthday?

Episode 8: “Do you need any painkillers?”

Within an hour of giving “birth”, I had to be moved from the maternity ward to the medical ward. I would not be in a private room nor could my husband stay with me due to COVID-19 restrictions (patients were not allowed to have visitors). Upon receiving this news, I panicked: What if there were newborn babies and their mothers in that ward! I would go insane – the pain would be unbearable! Doctor, discharge me – I am done here, thank you!

After showering, it was time for the move. I was ready to pass out from fatigue and drowsiness caused by the various painkillers I was given to ease the labour pains. The doctor walked in and confirmed my move, but she informed me that she asked the medical ward staff to ensure that I am not placed in a ward with newborn babies and their mothers. Damn, what a relief! Seeing her brought me to tears, so I started crying as she was speaking about the way forward. As always, she politely handed me the nearest tissues and shared some encouraging words. I remember thinking: “She is so composed – did it do nothing to her that she just witnessed the birth of a dead baby? Was my baby’s stillbirth just another ‘birth’ to her”? “Ah, stop it! It is not the doctor’s job to feel sad – that is your job”, I reprimanded myself as I silently sat in the wheelchair while the nurse wheeled me to the medical ward.

To my delight, I was the only patient in the ward (so far), so there would be no need for awkward, triggering conversations. I had no energy for conversations I imagined would sound like this:

Person 1: “What are you admitted for”?
Lorato: “I gave birth”.
Person 1: “Oh congratulations, is it a boy or a girl”.
Lorato: “A boy, but he was a stillborn”.
Person 1: Awkward silence. “Oh, I am so sorry to hear that”.
Lorato: “Thank you”.
Person 1: “How far along were you?” “Do you know what caused the baby’s death”?

You catch my drift right?

My husband helped me settle in and left. I was going to miss him – his silent strength, his unconditional care, his compassionate words and his assuring hand-holding. He has been fielding all the calls and texts from concerned family members and thinking of burial plans. He must be exhausted.

The nurse asked me whether I needed anything, I said no.
“Are you sure? Not even painkillers”?
Painkillers…I found that odd because I was not in any physical pain…well none that I felt at that moment at least.
“No thank you, I am fine”.
I asked the nurse whether they were expecting any other patients to join me. She remarked that there might be another patient joining me, but she wasn’t sure.

The evening shift nurse arrived and ran me through all the medicine I would have to take during the night and wee hours of the morning. These included antibiotics, a sleeping pill, a ‘calming down’ pill and a pill she needs to insert into my rectum every 4-6 hours.

I was extremely drowsy, so I smiled and said “okay, just wake me up whenever you need to”.
“Do you need any painkillers”, she asked. “The doctor prescribed you some and I noticed you haven’t taken any?”
Another painkiller offer…Am I missing something here? Am I supposed to be in a worse state than what I am?
“I am not in any pain, thank you”.
If you had a pill that helps with heartache, I would take an unlimited supply of that.
If you had a pill that can restore my shattered heart and shattered dreams, I would be well on my way to become addicted to it.

Painkillers and I have a tricky past. I once used painkillers to numb an emotional pain in my second year at university after learning that a friend brutally stabbed his girlfriend to death. I got addicted to paracetamol. I struggled to understand how I could have been friends with a murderer; how I could have loved a murderer; how I could have shared such fond memories with a murderer. Paracetamol numbed me. It numbed the painful and scary thoughts. It helped me fall asleep at night. After a conversation with a friend, she recommended I see a psychologist. It took therapy and strenuous socio-psychological labour to beat that addiction. So , I knew better than to take painkillers when I had no physical pain.

Giving ‘birth’ caused me more emotional pain than physical pain – or maybe all the physical pain was transformed into emotional pain. Maybe my body was sparing me the physical pain Typically, pain has an underlying cause. Perhaps the underlying cause in this case was too sad…so sad that pain decided not to be an additional burden.

Maybe my body delegated being a painful reminder
to the empty arms I would walk out of the hospital with;
to the burial I would need to plan;
to the sorrowful and empty look on my husband’s face.

When I opened my eyes the next morning, I was still the only person in the ward. It was too good to be true, my instinct warned me. It is just too convenient, just too ‘easy’! I shrugged off the feeling and went to shower, for I was eagerly anticipating the doctor’s visit to discharge me. While showering, I heard voices in the ward and, just from following the dialogue, I gathered that another patient was about to join me in the ward. I finished showering, got dressed, and ensured the shower was in a decent state.

I walked out of the shower with my toiletry bag and in the room was two nurses and a female patient in a wheelchair– the female patient appeared to be in immense pain. We exchanged greetings and I walked over to my bed. The nurse assisted her out of the wheelchair and onto the bed and after ensuring that she is settled in, the nurse said “Your baby’s milk is in here” referring to the Styrofoam-like container on the table at the woman’s feet.

“Your baby’s milk is in here”…my face went blank, my insides went cold and I felt a rush of anxiety and fear. Milk? Baby? Woman in pain, barely able to walk straight? My worst nightmare is playing out right in front of my face. Tears are building up in my eyes. The nurse walked in to check my drip while the other patient went to shower.

“Nurse, when is the doctor coming?” I asked with a lump in my throat.
“I am not too sure, why?”
“I would like to be discharged”.
“Oh no dear, we still have two bags of antibiotics to give you. You are still going to be here for a few more hours”.

Should I tell the nurse that I can’t be in the same room as the other patient? Is it going to sound selfish? The other patient deserves the same standard of care I am getting. Why should she be inconvenienced because of me? I thought the doctor spoke to the staff…Can someone please read my mind?!

My left hand was hurt and swollen because of the drip’s needle, so the nurse decided to change it. I was standing by the window while she was busy setting up the new drip exchanging cheerful banter…anything to stay sane; anything to not remember; anything to feel normal. The other patient returned to her bed and, together with another nurse, the four of us laughed at a funny story told by the nurse busy with my drip! Eventually, I returned to my bed. So did the other patient. The nurses left after putting on my drip. It is just me and the other patient…It is awkwardly silent in the ward, considering how loudly we just chatted and laughed.
Hold on, it is eerily quiet in the corridor too…No one is walking up and down and no one is talking…I wonder what happened.

She was laying on her back and I was laying on my right side facing towards her bed. I should probably sleep now…sleep will help me escape. Before I closed my eyes, I stole a glance of the other patient…she was still laying on her back…she appeared to be crying…yes, she was silently crying and weeping tears away from her face. Should I ask what is wrong? Do I want to know what is wrong? What will I be able offer this woman except useless comforting words?

“Are you okay?”, I asked her.
She shook her head up and down.
“I am okay”.
Alright Ms. Busy Body, she said she is okay, now sleep!
“Are you sure?”
Really Lorato! Why are you still talking?

“Yeah, she replied”.
“Did you have a baby?” I asked.
I am an idiot and hypocrite. This is exactly the type of useless conversations I did not want to be subjected to.
“Yes, I had a baby boy”, she responded.
Yes Lorato! There it is confirmed: She managed to do something you failed to do. You should have minded your own business.
“Congratulations!”, I responded sincerely. I would never wish the pain of giving birth to a dead baby on my worst enemy.
“Thank you” she said.
Great, now I can shut up!

I looked at her and realised this woman has something or rather someone I do not have. This woman’s body did not betray her like mine did. This woman could have been me…This woman should have been me. Envy and sorrow crept in. I started crying silently – I did not realise that I was still looking her way.

“Are you okay?”, she asked with a surprised tone.
I shook my head sideways.
“No, I am not okay”.
She looked at me as if she knew. She looked at me as if she understood.
“You are going to be okay,” she said.
“I hope so,” I replied and closed my eyes.

The silence in the ward is interrupted by the nurse walking into our room. She walks towards my bed, gently puts one hand on my shoulder and her other hand on my arm.
“We are going to move you to another ward,” she says empathetically. She looks very sad.
With tears still flowing down my face, I just shook my head in agreement.

The other patient’s doctor came to check in on her. Her drew her curtains and asked her a range of questions while checking on her state. While I tried not to follow the conversation, a part of me couldn’t help it – I wanted to be her so by partially listening to their conversation, I could pretend to be her. Pathetic, I know! I gently reprimanded myself and decided to zone out…But then the doctor said to her “You probably want to see your baby?”…My heart stopped! No! The universe can’t be this cruel. Before she could answer, he said, “You are going to have to wait just for a while so we can move her out of here”…He mumbled something else too that I did not hear.

My doctor walked in and greeted me cheerfully…Again, ever so composed!
“Lorato, the nurses tell me that you have not taken any painkillers…are you not in pain, dear?”
I am not in any type of pain that painkillers can heal, I silently thought.

End of Part One

7 thoughts on “Part One: “I can’t seem to find the heartbeat.””

  1. A friend of mine had gone through this just this recently , can’t imagine the deep sense of heart wrenching pain experienced. And the added pain of the reality of the situation 💔💔💔
    I’m so sorry, I wish things turned out differently 💕💕💕


    1. I am soooo sorry to hear about your friend 💔💔 I am sending lots of love, healing and self-patience. 💐

      Thank you for your kind words 🌻


  2. A friend of mine had gone through this just this recently , can’t imagine the deep sense of heart wrenching pain experienced. And the added pain of the reality of the situation 💔💔💔
    I’m so sorry, I wish things turned out differently 💕💕💕


  3. Women to women I salute you brave heart… And you ability to share this vulnerable journey of yours. I salute you and your husband🌻


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