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Miscarriages. Child loss. Fertility struggles. These are issues that several people go through silently. Sheila Ajok Lubangakene, who has miscarried twice is using her gift of writing to stir the conversation
“I had a miscarriage.” Four somber words women have heard or painfully uttered in their lifetime. Reading them out loud, you cannot help taking a pause. It raises feelings of helplessness for both the speaker and the listener.
The speaker is going through different stages of grief, sometimes she has not had a chance to come to terms with what has happened.
The listener usually does not know how to respond to this news. An uncomfortable conversation all around as is the case when it comes to talking about fertility challenges and the grief it brings.
Sheila Ajok Lubangakene is familiar with this conversation and is determined to create avenues for it to happen more commonly. Her determination stems from her own experiences, but also the experiences of women within her circle of friends.
“I suffered two repeat miscarriages in my marriage. I blocked it off and did not really grieve these losses because they happened in the early weeks of the pregnancy. These were periods when I had not yet shared with friends and family about expecting and then I suddenly had to tell them that I had lost a child,” Lubangaken narrates.
Both times, the cause of the miscarriages was not known. Medical professionals agree that this is not uncommon. However, this left Lubangakene with several questions about what could have gone wrong. Was there something she could have done differently, especially since hers were repeat miscarrages? With all these questions, she did not have people or a space to process her thoughts.
It is no wonder that when she was required to write a book for a leadership course, she chose to centre it around child loss, miscarriages and fertility challenges.
“I penned Still A Mum from observation and my own lived experiences plus those of some women and couples I interviewed. It was an opportunity to influence conversations on a subject I knew needed more space in the light,” she says. During her own experience, she struggled to process what had happened.
“I got into depressive moods. These were periods of strong emotions. I would go from being very excited about having a baby on the way, then suddenly I lose the child. I did not know how to process this shock. “I looked for people who had gone through a similar thing,” she recounts. It is generally known that these losses are personal and finding people to talk to can be difficult.
Deeper than loss
During the course of her research for the book, Lubangakene realised that there are even more facets to the issues.
“As I interacted with people, I learnt more about fertility, child loss, and the emotional aspects that losing a baby comes with. I also realised that adoption is not a straightforward decision. There is some stigma surrounding it,” she says.
There are also discoveries that those who have the book are making. “I have people telling me they are going to be less intrusive about why married couples especially, have no children,” she says, illustrating why open conversations like these are important.
Honing her writing skill
The married, mother of three boys is passionate about writing. This passion started at a young age when she used to submit articles to the New Vision, inspired her to pursue studies in Mass Communication, and now she has put it to use to lend her voice to an issue many women and couples are facing.
“Still A Mum is a fictional book about a couple that has been married for five years, childless. In the book, the wife narrates the story about her and her husband’s search for a child. The husband is an army man who is frequently away, and that has its own issues,” Lubangakene shares a synopsis of the book. The book might be fictional, but the themes it covers are not. These include fertility, getting diagnosis from a doctor, spousal support, and the fact that fertility is not just a woman’s problem.
On support from a partner during after a miscarriage, Lubangakene says: “The first time I went through it, my husband had travelled but I had my family and friends who were my biggest support system. The second time, my husband supported me completely. He drove me to hospital when I started spotting and he was in shock and did not know what was going on. The doctor explained everything to him,” she narrates.
The support from the partner is, therefore, not just for the woman but for themselves as well. It is an opportunity to process what has happened together.
Labangakene also points out that fertility challenges have an effect on mental health issues beyond the more commonly talked about depression.
“For example, how does a woman who is trying to start a family balance her career and normal life,” she wonders out loud. “When it comes to stillbirths, most employers treat this as a birth and, therefore, the woman gets the full maternity leave. But leave is not the only issue. There is also the emotional and physical toll it has on a woman, she adds.
Employers need to appreciate the toll these challenges have on women in the workplace, and make provisions to address them, she advises.
Using art as a tool for the grieving
Psychosocial support for people dealing with child loss is slowly picking up, with the organistions such as Vessel Is Me.
Lubangakene is partnering with such organisations in the hope that they can use the book as a tool in grief counselling and literature. Her hope is that having literature that is based on a place closer to home will resonate with people on the healing journey.
“Couples that have suffered child loss, battled with infertility or been traumatised by miscarriages can use the book as one of the tools for health,” Lubangakene says, adding that it would be good for it to be even just a conversation starter on the subject because talking about the struggle is key for healing to happen.
Ways to support victims
Grief counsellors agree that talking about the struggle someone is facing is important. That is why talk therapy is one of the approaches used to support couples and individuals dealing with grief. “During talk therapy sessions, you start to gauge where a person is in their grief journey and identify ways on how to support them,”
Racheal Akugizibwe, a peer-to-peer counsellor and aspiring grief coach at Vessel Is Me explains. She adds that counselling is not done to complete a process, but rather to support the grieving person to go through that experience with ease.
Akugizibwe explains that for counselling or therapy to be most effective, someone needs to acknowledge that they are struggling with pain. “Acknowledgement is the first step to healing,” she says. This acknowledgement does not necessarily mean someone outrightly saying they are in pain since as Akugizibwe points out people do not always know that they are.
“People might not know that they need help. But as they share their struggles such as not being able to eat, sleep or think clearly, then they slowly recognise that there are in pain and start on the healing journey,” she concludes.
More women face the same challenge
Lubangakene agrees: “By speaking about it and encouraging other people who have gone through it, has helped me heal. I have interacted with women who have gone through numerous miscarriages.
“While working on the book, I discovered that even women in my inner circle were suffering silently. That they found it difficult to talk to anyone about it or share their struggles because it is such a personal thing. I want to normalise coversations on miscariage, talk about it and support others to heal,” she emphasises.
Do not blame yourself
“Be calculative in who you open up to. It cannot be just everyone. Your circle should help you look at the positive side of life, not casting blame. “When you get a miscarriage, desist from blaming yourself. There are times the loss cannot be explained even medically,” she adds.
What Lubangakene says the cause of most miscarriages is usually beyond anyone’s control. That is why miscarriages are defined as the unexpected ending of a preganancy. Miscarriages are recorded to happen within the first 20 weeks of peganancy. Having a place where women can hear these facts from other people can therefore lessen the burden of self-blame.
Beyond the book, the story is being adapted into a play. Lubangakene’s hope is that this message reaches more people. After the play, there will be panel discussions on this.
“We have medics, a fertility specialist, women who have gone through IVF, counsellors and therapists to talk to anyone who might get triggered by the content of the play or even feel ready to talk,” she concludes.
How she overcame the grief
Lubangakene says sharing her story of loss has significantly eased her healing journey. She got a week off from work both times, which allowed her body to heal. She stresses, however, that the deeper healing has happened during coversations with women, who have gone through similar situations.
There is an assumption that losing a pregnancy in its early weeks has no lasting effects, but both Lubangakene and Akugizibwe highlight that some of these effects can crop up later.
Hearing another woman’s story might bring up memories of your own experience. That being the case, having an outlet for those feelings is better than bottling them up.
Hearing women who experienced loss many more times, makes others realise that healing is possible. It also propels more women and men to open up more about their struggles, which is good for their mental health and that of those who are only coming to terms with the struggle.
Sheila Ajok Lubangakene is a Ugandan author and short story writer. Her first published fiction novel, Still A Mum whose work drew extensively on fertility and its challenges in marriage has been shortlisted for the African Christian Author’s Award 2022, and adapted as a play to be showcased at National Theater on August 14, 2022.
Sheila’s writing journey began early in life with short story writing when she was recognized for honorary mention for a story written about the African American Black History Month in 2002, by the American Embassy in Uganda. She has extensively written short non – fiction stories on her blog [email protected] that focus on a range of topics of readers interest.
Lubangakene studied Mass Communication at Uganda Christian University where her love for creative writing intensified and she was able to contribute articles for the University newsletter. She has worked in communication over the years in telecom, health, human rights and is currently the Principal Public Affairs Officer at Uganda Civil Aviation Authority.