Every seventh month of the lunar calendar is the Ghost Month. I’d hear from my Tsinoy husband Sidney when it begins and ends, but we don’t really practice much tradition. Not coming from the same cultural background as my Filipino husband, and not being super superstitious, I only understand it as the time of year you need to be careful and avoid some important events like weddings, for instance.
In Korea, some Buddhists also follow certain rules based on their Chinese zodiacs or ages, like every ninth year (when you turn 9, 19, 29, 39 ). In my 11 years of living in Manila, this was the first Ghost Month I was aware of, and I burned some incense to cleanse our place and our body and soul, because, coincidentally, I had a sad experience—a miscarriage.
To be very frank, it was not my first miscarriage, but my third.
The first was in 2014 when I was ignorant about pregnancy. Like many newlyweds, I thought pregnancy would come naturally. But it didn’t seem like I would get pregnant any time soon, so I visited a clinic and the doctor advised me about certain dates, predicting my ovulation.
One day, I felt under the weather and had a strange chill. Without much expectation, I tried the pregnancy kit, and surprisingly, it showed two very faint, unclear, yet visible lines. I never experienced this before so obviously I was over the moon, but the kit did not precisely determine pregnancy, so we decided to visit the doctor.
The next day, I was at work and suddenly felt a large amount of blood coming out of my body. As I had had a pregnancy test the day before, it was unlikely that that was my period. The bleeding was getting stronger, and I silently panicked. My husband and I rushed to the hospital. My hormones showed I was pregnant, but my bleeding never stopped.
That was how I had my first unnoticeable early pregnancy loss. The conceived embryo must have been drained away, and my womb cleared up with no trace that I was pregnant. I am not sure if the miscarriage was a “threatened abortion” or an “inevitable abortion”—but the medical justification didn’t matter to me at all.
For a few days, other than praying fanatically that something remained in my womb despite the heavy bleeding, there was nothing I could do. But I already knew my womb was empty, no life was sprouting, and my heart felt devastated. This was the first miscarriage that no one would know about except the two of us, the aspiring father and mother. It took so long to overcome the emotional pain and to pretend nothing ever happened, but I never forgot the sensation of bleeding, and the instant goosebumps when I instinctively realized that my hope was gone.
It was not my first miscarriage, but my third. Like many newlyweds, I thought pregnancy would naturally come
In July 2015, we decided to try in vitro fertilization (IVF) on our visit to Seoul. IVF and other infertility treatments are so common in Korea, and the medical tourism sector attracts many foreigners who dream of conceiving a baby. When I was much younger, there were not many cases of test tube babies, and I wondered how a human body could be formed outside one’s body and become a complete human being. But now, you hear about it frequently and how this amazing science benefits many people, including those with no infertility problems. IVF is not a uniform procedure, but requires distinct approaches and medications, depending on the woman’s and man’s physical condition, infertility history, and countless factors that cruelly keep them from having a baby.
In December 2015, we returned to Seoul to try our first IVF procedure. The procedure always formally begins on the second or third day of your menstruation, so I waited for my period to start, but somehow it got delayed. On my next visit, during the ultrasound scan, unlike ever before, there was a tiny white dot seen on the screen. What did I just see? It was the embryo—which was naturally conceived! When we least expected anything, the surprise happened. I thought it was a miracle, indeed.
Although it was a natural pregnancy, I continued seeing the infertility doctor. It was my second natural pregnancy, but the first time I ever experienced hormonal changes in my body, which felt marvelous every second. As I felt morning sickness for the first time ever in my life, the mild nausea made me feel alive; it was the evidence a life was taking shape in my body.
With hope in my heart, I visited the clinic for regular ultrasound scans. A week before, the heart was blinking like a distant light in a foggy sky, and the whole week I dreamt of hearing the heartbeat. Seeing a twinkling, tiny life inside me was incredible. I was nervous but hopeful for the words I’d hear from the sonologist, but she suddenly tilted her head and pressed my tummy. She said there was no heartbeat. There was no heartbeat? It was twinkling like a star in the night sky just a week ago, so why does she say it isn’t there now?
There was indeed no heartbeat; the embryo’s life stopped at around its fifth week. The doctor said I just needed to undergo curettage so we could see what really caused the problem. Yes, it was officially my second miscarriage. I just smiled at the doctor who genuinely consoled me. I didn’t shed tears in the room. I just had no tears. It was beyond my comprehension that this had really just happened to me again.
Coping with my second loss was not easy. Every single day, I could hardly bear the distress and grief. Most people suppose only women who give birth successfully have postpartum depression, but ironically—and tragically—women who fail to conceive also go through this emotional time and experience intense grief.
I tried my best to get back to my normal life, to handle classes and meet colleagues. I thought I managed very well outside, but when I was home, in my comfort zone, I’d break down, sob endlessly, and feel horror in my empty womb. There was nothing I could do for myself, but I was just sinking deeper and deeper into despair. It was my husband who never failed to stand by me every time I was agitated, anxious, hysterical, resenting God—“Why me, why us?”
Infertility is no joke. There’s so much resentment, grief, and indescribable hopelessness, but what the world doesn’t realize is that people can also send condolences for this loss and emptiness. Words like, “At least you know you can conceive,” “At least you were pregnant”; insensitive questions asked without knowing what the couple is going through—like “Why don’t you try IVF? Your clock is ticking”—never help, but just rub salt on the wound.
I was frequently triggered by my own emotions, or news of others having a child, and the grief felt like an unexpected, unwelcome attack
After failing one cycle of IVF in Seoul in 2016, I decided to focus on my life instead. I couldn’t live my life every day mourning my losses, anxiously looking at my flat tummy; my life had to go on. I decided to focus on what was humanly possible and within my capacity—since pregnancy and miscarriage were beyond my control—and to finish my Ph.D. studies as soon as possible. Although I was determined to move on, I was frequently triggered by my own emotions, or news of others having a child, and the grief would come like an unexpected, unwelcome attack anytime, anywhere.
During those times, I had to keep myself strong and brave, as if I was an iron lady. Whenever I saw this two-faced self, I pitied myself, but my husband kept telling me our time would come, which I always doubted.
In the academe, we would always say jokingly that the baby and the dissertation come when it’s time. I wished that was true for us, too. Looking at so many “quarantine babies,” I decided to give it another try and do our second IVF. Without knowing how government protocols could change, and as the number of COVID-19 cases never stopped increasing, we were not sure if it was a good idea to go out frequently in 2020. But I didn’t want to wait so we started prerequisite lab tests, and my second IVF cycle began.
Infertility is a social issue in Korea, and there are countless clinics and patients. It is also an issue not only for women, but also for men. Infertility is very private, and not everyone finds it easy to open up. If you are not one of those, you will be shocked to find out that so many healthy couples are also visiting infertility clinics in the Philippines. In this country, population is not a big concern, unlike in Korea where the rapidly shrinking population is threatening the national economy. But there are so many Filipinos with infertility problems. People just don’t talk about it, but so many are going through the same struggles day by day.
IVF procedures are complicated, with so many medicines, hormone injections, weekly ultrasound scans, and seemingly endless blood samplings. But more than the physical fatigue, it’s how to keep mentally strong that is harder. It’s like a rollercoaster ride—one day you are so hopeful, another day you are in deep misery. Hormone pills controlled my emotions.
After all the preparations were done, two major procedures—egg retrieval and embryo transfer—took place. Having my eggs retrieved without my being sedated was quite an experience, and all along I firmly held a nurse’s hands and whispered to myself, “I can do this, I can do this!” Embryo transfer is the most important day, as this determines if your embryo will successfully nest in your womb.
The transfer took less than 10 minutes, and the doctor showed me how a tiny embryo was transplanted into my body. On the monitor, I saw a tiny white dot, shiny and twinkling, which reminded me of the first embryo that I conceived in 2016. How overwhelmed I felt, and during a short recovery period, I prayed so hard that this tiny embryo would survive and meet me some day.
A week felt like a lifetime. After the embryo was transferred, nothing was under my control again, but we just had to wait.
Finally the day came, and my hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) level showed I was pregnant. I was pregnant, the embryo was alive in me, the life existed in me. But we couldn’t be too excited, unlike some couples who would instantly announce their pregnancy on social media, because of what we went through, the two losses. And it always scared me that the happier I felt, the more miserably my story would end. Each week, we were over the moon as the embryo grew according to the timeline; for IVF pregnancy, it’s very important that the embryo develops following the standard—and most of all, we heard our first ever heartbeat. The tiny life in me was moving, and its heart was beating so enthusiastically. That was an unbelievable feeling, having another heart pounding inside me.
Tikoy was gone on its ninth week. I read the interpretation, “No appreciable cardiac contraction,” countless times, but my heart couldn’t comprehend it at all
My last visit to the clinic was on the embryo’s ninth week. It was my “graduation day”. It was not a formal ceremony, but officially it meant you were now out of this special clinic and could move on to the ob-gyn’s clinic like “regular” people do. Until my last ultrasound scan, I was still so nervous, as I just heard the first ever heartbeats of my baby the week before.
On my graduation day, I witnessed more energetic movement and strong heartbeats that left no doubt that this baby was ours, this baby would meet us finally. It was also our first time to name the embryo, which was about to enter the fetus stage. We named it “Tikoy,” hoping it would stick in my womb and develop healthy until the day we would finally meet in person.
We just didn’t know Tikoy’s life on this planet would be so short. After my ninth week, my next checkup was supposed to be on the 12th week, a turning point for most pregnant women, as that is when the first trimester is over and the stable second trimester begins. It also means the chance for miscarriage is getting much lower, and you are able to retain your pregnancy. How desperately I had waited for this week to come, but what I found out was bad news.
Tikoy was gone on its ninth week. I read the interpretation, “No appreciable cardiac contraction,” countless times, but my heart couldn’t comprehend it at all. I screamed in my mind to get Tikoy back, but there was only silence, total, bleak silence. There could be so many reasons, like age, chromosomal abnormalities—but when this happens, you can’t possibly understand how, and what’s worse, it had happened three times.
For the next days, I’d break down and soak my pillow with tears, as if this was my first miscarriage. Although I completely overcame my past losses, I discovered they were still alive in me as Tikoy left us. It was as sad as the past ones, but this time I didn’t just mourn our own loss, but rather, I was grieving the short life of Tikoy, who was tiny, shiny, strong, brave, and most of all, full of life.
For some people, it’s just some clusters of cells, not yet a real life—but for us, Tikoy was alive, already developing arms and legs, and proved that life from the two of us existed. We all grieve death, but hardly ever remember or lament the early pregnancy or stillbirth loss. Looking at my empty living room, I imagined Tikoy playing around; looking at the empty car seat, I pictured Tikoy enjoying the outside view; looking at our newly-made bed, I saw Tikoy rolling. All these never happened, and none of these will ever happen. But in my heart, I will always remember how much happiness Tikoy brought us for nine weeks.
This was how my 2021 Ghost Month ended, and I welcomed the eighth month, the time of year for abundant harvest. I continue keeping strong, with my loving husband by my side. My grief in this world may be insignificant, but I wish to mourn all the losses of childless couples and aspiring mothers and fathers as I bid farewell to Tikoy. I never imagined I’d miss someone I’d never met this terribly. Nothing seems bearable at the moment you are barely making it work, but everything eventually becomes a memory, whether it’s fond or poignant. The only thought that keeps me going is that every life is precious, and I should live this life that Tikoy didn’t get to.
How very softly you tiptoed into our world, almost silently, only a moment you stayed. But what an imprint your footsteps have left upon our hearts.” – Dorothy Ferguson