My DVR is almost full. I’m in the middle of two Netflix series and one HBO documentary film. So when friends tell me “you’ve GOT to watch this show or that show” I just add it to my list. But when I heard about NBC’s new show This Is Us, I knew I had to watch it the night it premiered. I’m a huge fan of the show’s creator and executive producer Dan Fogelman, whose prior work includes Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. I really wanted to see how Fogelman would tell the story of stillbirth and parenting after loss, issues that many members of our community at Talking Fertility – myself included – have experienced.
When I was pregnant with my first son, a co-worker was also pregnant with her first. We had very similar due dates and had fun talking about our pregnancy experience and the excitement for what was to come. When I got back to work a few months after giving birth, I immediately wanted to find my friend to see how she was doing with her newborn and share birth stories (she wasn’t on social media at the time). Then I heard the news. Another co-worker told me that she had lost her baby during the ninth month. I still get emotional today when I think of the pain she and her husband endured. It shook me to the core and changed my perspective on pregnancy forever.
My friend worked freelance for various companies, so we didn’t see other regularly. Three years later, I was fortunate to work with her while producing a show about surrogacy with Giuliana and Bill Rancic. A lot had changed in both of our lives during that time. My friend had a “rainbow baby” – a beautiful daughter who was conceived six months after her pregnancy loss. I had four miscarriages while unsuccessfully trying to conceive a second child.
We formed an even greater bond while working on this particular television show together. We had to put in long hours due to a quick-turnaround schedule. The show needed to premiere the night the Rancic’s announced they were pregnant via surrogate.
The documentary special featured several couples who couldn’t conceive on their own, but were able to build beautiful families with the help of a gestational carrier. It was a wonderful project. However, while I was traveling across the country interviewing fertility doctors, new parents and their gestational carriers and meeting their adorable babies – I was still emotionally devastated from a recent pregnancy loss.
I was reminded of that dark time in my life, as well as my friend’s loss, while watching the premiere episode of NBC’s This Is Us. The show features a storyline where Mandy Moore’s character Rebecca loses one of her triplets during delivery. She and her husband Jack, played by Milo Ventimiglia, decide to adopt an infant born the same day as their babies, who was left at the hospital by his drug-addicted father. There’s a heartbreaking scene where the obstetrician Dr. K, played by Gerald McRaney, tells Jack that one of the babies didn’t survive. Here’s the scene:
The stillbirth storyline takes place in the 1970’s. Since then the advancement in medical technology and prenatal care has dramatically reduced the number of late and term stillbirths in the United States. According to the CDC stillbirth effects about 1% of all pregnancies, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the US.
After watching the third episode “Kyle” I was further impressed by Fogelman’s ability to authentically illustrate what a couple goes through after pregnancy loss. Part of the storyline is far-fetched in today’s world – as it’s highly unlikely that a couple who just gave birth to multiples would be able to immediately take home a third child who was abandoned at the hospital. While the plot may not be reality based, the issues the characters face are very real. In this episode, Rebecca and Jack separately try to manage their grief, while struggling to care for their three infants. Rebecca also deals with self-induced guilt due to her difficulty bonding with her adopted newborn. Which is another situation many can relate to, that isn’t always openly discussed. Meanwhile, Jack desperately tries to be the strong one and keep it all together, even though he’s completely overwhelmed.
There’s an important and emotional scene in this episode where the writing is particularly on point. Rebecca returns after secretly spending the day tracking down her adopted son’s father. She finally opens up to Jack about having a hard time processing her grief. Jack is relieved that they can now talk about their feelings, and confides in her that he feels the same. I loved how This Is Us was able to subtly confront an issue many men deal with, but never address. I know men who experienced loss but never felt that they could express their emotions. Like Jack, they believed their role was to be the rock, supporting their partner and keeping the train from derailing. At the same time, they suppress their own grief, with little or no opportunity to process it.
This Is Us follows an entertainment industry trend that began about six years ago with shows like Brothers and Sisters, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice which all featured pregnancy loss stories. My friend and former co-worker says she wishes there had been more Hollywood storylines about pregnancy loss back when she was going through it. At the time, the conversation wasn’t out there in a mainstream way, or on any major platform, so she never heard of anyone going through it and felt very isolated in her experience.
Lindsey Henke, Founder and Executive Director of Pregnancy After Loss Support, says “Hollywood sharing these stories can really validate women’s feelings about pregnancy loss. Research shows that we want to see people like us, going though the joys and sorrows that we deal with in daily life represented on television or in film. So it’s powerful and moving to a loss parent when Hollywood writes and produces these stories. They just need to get it right!”
The consensus seems to be that This Is Us is getting it right. But for some, it still might be too painful to watch. Henke says, “How you feel about and if you are ready watch the story is going to depend on where you are in the grief process. Some might be ready to relate right away, others might need more time to see these stories on their television. But the fact that they are there to come back to is what matters.”