The Gift of Grieving a Miscarriage at Sea

A mother’s story of loss, learning to forgive herself, and healing on the ocean.

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Somewhere on the sparkling blue water between Mexico and El Salvador, a tiny bird joined our crew. We noticed it in the morning, perched on the side of the deck. All day it sailed with us. We tried to give it food and water. As I lay napping in the cockpit, it fluttered onto my chest and lay quietly.

Sunset approached and we could see it wasn’t doing well. Its death wasn’t a surprise, but it hit us all hard: the guilt for not saving it, the worry about whether we should have done something differently. I gently tried to explain impermanence to my three-year-old son. Days later, I was still thinking about how it had lain right on my breasts, needy as a newborn. And then I realized: the day we’d shared the final hours of life with this fragile creature was the due date I’d been given for the baby I miscarried just before leaving Canada.

It wasn’t my first miscarriage.

My first miscarriage had been a few years earlier on a rainy fall evening, holed up with hot chocolate and codeine in the tiny bathroom in our East Vancouver apartment. This time, it was the middle of summer, cooped up on a boat, with my husband on the other side of the door explaining to our kid that Mummy wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t play right now. After the worst of it, I swam around our floating home, feeling the last of the life inside me dripping away into the ocean.

Forest fires had filled the air with smoke for weeks, and I thought that’s why I was breathless, forgetting that low iron had the same effect on me during the first short pregnancy. We were living on our sailboat at a marina, getting ready to sail south, and while my husband worked on boat jobs, I would take our child to local parks, cursing the heat and wondering why I was craving milkshakes. Finally I put two and two together.

It wasn’t an ideal time to be pregnant; we were in the process of leaving the marina, preparing to live out at anchor around British Columbia before setting off on our big voyage. I wondered whether the pregnancy would make me more seasick and where in Mexico I might be able to give birth. But I was excited, too, in that careful way I’ve felt about new life since that first loss.

I was excited, too, in that careful way I’ve felt about new life since that first loss.

By the time I had my first appointment with the midwife at around twelve weeks, I sensed something wasn’t right, and it was no surprise when she said she couldn’t hear a heartbeat. After a few days of spotting, my body got to work efficiently. I remember thinking, in between the tears and the pain, how weird it was that my body had both failed and excelled in these crucial times—and a few hours later I was back to being just me, instead of me and the beginnings of a tiny new member of the family.

There wasn’t really time to grieve straight away. We were about to leave Vancouver—there was a boat to finish preparing, goodbyes to be said, and all the last-minute jobs to do before trying to get moving before the bad weather started. So it wasn’t until we were out at sea, somewhere between Victoria, BC, and Newport, Oregon that I had time to think about our loss.

After my first miscarriage, I remember feeling ashamed for failing the little person that had never gotten the chance to grow.

Sex stopped being fun. There was too much attached to it now, and I was scared to get pregnant again in case the same thing happened. For a while, my body was an enemy.

Then I met my tiny new nephew, and something inside told me it was maybe time to try again. We didn’t plan, as such, but I started looking after myself a bit better and took a break from alcohol.

The next time I got pregnant I spent most of the nine months worrying about whether things would be okay. Prenatal yoga became my route to feeling good in my skin again. I started to feel strong and powerful. I would hold the warrior pose, breathing myself into motherhood. The weekly classes, practice at home, and walks round the neighborhood meant that my body was in better shape than it had been for years, and I finally felt capable of birthing life.

This time, this third early pregnancy, I’d just started to get excited about returning to that strong, empowered woman I’d been a few years earlier, before the realities of mothering a baby who never stopped crying squashed my energy and confidence. I was ready to enjoy the process of growing a new person, and then suddenly it was over. I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

We set sail from Victoria at the start of October. The seas were calm; the sun was shining. For three days and nights we sailed towards the United States. We saw whales as we left the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At night, bio-luminescence danced like stars in the boat’s wake. I sang when I was on night-watch, alone with the sea and the sky.

There’s nothing much you can do to speed up the grieving process, and miscarriage is a strange form of grief.

Mourning what might have been—the lost possibilities, the hopes and dreams, the child you’ll never know, the person you might have become . . . After my first miscarriage, part of my way of coming to terms with it was to tell everybody. I somehow wanted to mark the little person I’d lost, to make sure they were remembered.

This time there was nobody to tell, apart from the whales and the waves. So that’s what I did. I sang all the saddest songs I knew, I made up new songs, I talked into the wind. And it helped. Not all at once, but gradually, as our voyage continued, I started to feel some kind of peace. Later still, farther down the coast in rough seas and scary moments, I even felt relieved: morning sickness would likely have made things even harder.

So time helped, of course, but not just the passing of time. There was time to think uninterrupted, the head space to focus on the loss instead of distracting myself with my phone, the chance to inhabit a kind of dream-space where I could watch the elements do their thing and see myself as just a tiny part of what makes the world so wild. I watched the sun and the moon rising and setting. I watched the dolphins and the stars. I felt myself ease into the earth’s cycles. I was sad for a lot of our journey, but it’s okay to be sad.

There was time to think uninterrupted, the head space to focus on the loss instead of distracting myself with my phone, the chance to inhabit a kind of dream-space where I could watch the elements do their thing and see myself as just a tiny part of what makes the world so wild.

And then, gradually, as we got farther south, it stopped being the main thing on my mind. There were colorful towns to explore and hills to hike. There were snorkeling and margaritas. There were new friends and laughter.

The little bird visiting us just after we left Chiapas, Mexico arrived, literally, out of the blue. After it died, we threw it into the water and waved goodbye. We answered our child’s questions. We weren’t sure where it had come from, nor where it would end up, but we did what we could to share its journey. We marked its passing, and we would always remember its time sailing with us.

We prepared for our arrival in El Salvador, where different birds would perch on our deck, circle our mast, play in the wind, and sing of their own journeys.

Sara Barnard is from the UK, has lived in Spain and Canada, and is now based on a sailboat in Central America with her partner and child. Since completing a PhD in Hispanic Studies, she has focused on sailing, parenting, and freelance writing (travel, music, culture).