Incompatible with Life

Incompatible with Life

Clementine died on November 22nd, 2017. She was born three days later on the 25th at 7:35 in the morning. She weighed 36 grams and was 6.5 inches long, and I will spend every day of my life missing her and wondering about the person she may have become.


My wife and I have an 8-year-old son and a four-month-old baby, both of whom we adore (even when our daughter is keeping us up at all hours of the night.) But I am still and forever will be gutted by the death of their sister.

We never thought that we would be the couple to lose a baby. We did everything right–prenatal vitamins, screenings, checkups, and nutrition–and in the end my wife and I still experienced the pain of our first daughter’s death in utero.
So much of Clementine’s loss is a fog to me. I remember the silence on the ultrasound monitor and the way that emptiness spread into my gut as the nurse practitioner searched for a heartbeat. I remember how my wife had seemed disquieted all morning, as though she knew something had happened. I remember and treasure how, the night before her death at 18 weeks of gestation, Clementine kicked at me through her mother’s stomach hard enough for me to feel her touch.

I remember how my wife had to carry our baby’s lifeless body for two more days across the Thanksgiving holiday before we could deliver her. I remember the sad stares we tried to ignore when we went to my father-in-law’s to check on our son and to take home plates of food. We’d planned on the Thanksgiving holiday being a time of togetherness and joy, but we were instead awaiting the start of my wife’s labor.

We’d had the hard conversation with our then six-year-old son, explaining that the sister he’d been so excited for had died. His pain at the news of this loss and the fact that he would need to stay with his grandpa while we waited were terrible. We had no idea when labor would begin or what the delivery process held for us.


Clementine’s death was due to Triploidy. Technically, she is qualified as a miscarriage rather than a stillbirth–that line of demarcation falls at 20 weeks. This means we don’t have a birth or death certificate for our daughter, but rather a hospital issued record of miscarriage delivery. We do have stamped records of her handprints and footprints that I hold dear.

Triploidy fetuses frequently have facial deformities–cleft palates, malformed craniums, eyes with lids that never split. They have twisted limbs, clubbed feet, and webbed fingers. To read about their deformities is to picture something inhuman and terrifying–the detached, scientific descriptions sound monstrous. But when you’re welcoming the body of the daughter you hoped for and planned for it’s different–I can still see her upturned nose and the twist of her mouth that was opened, how her eyes had not fully formed but could be seen through her eyelids. Our Clemmy had ten perfect fingers and ten tiny toes, untouched by the typical malformations characteristic of Triploidy. Those red digits are what I most associate with our little girl–we took photos of them nestled with our wedding bands. These are the pictures I share with others when talking about our first daughter–they bring a sense of scale and impact to the conversation that is difficult to communicate in words alone.

Triploidy, the tripling of all chromosome pairs, is not an uncommon thing. It occurs in 2-3% of pregnancies and causes around 20% of all first-trimester miscarriages. What is rare is for Triploidy babies to survive as long as Clem did. Those few who survive to near full-term delivery typically die in a matter of minutes, if not during childbirth. It’s a chromosomal condition that is rightly and horribly flagged as “incompatible with life,” a phrase I think about all too often. It’s a cold and detached phrase, as most medical jargon is, but it feels designed to give newly grieving parents distance from the child as well. In my low moments, it feels more like a wedge between us and our daughter, a way to say that she was incompatible with our life.

There is no known external cause for Triploidy. It is just an awful thing that happens with no source to blame.

We have a disc of photos of Clem that the nurses took for us. It lives in our fire safe. I’ve not had the heart to look at the images yet, but I think that day may be here soon.


The night before she died, Clementine kicked so hard at my hand against my wife’s stomach that I drew back in shock. We knew something might be wrong due to a chromosomal screening that had returned an abnormal result, but our NP had allowed us to lean heavily on the false hope of a false positive. The next morning, we learned that Clem’s heartbeat had stopped in the night. We wouldn’t deliver her body until the morning of the 25th, three days later.

That gap of time where we knew that Clem no longer kicked or drew in care from my wife’s body were some of the worst days of my life. I honestly don’t remember much–I remember how we drove from the satellite office of our OBGYN to the hospital to go through a second ultrasound for confirmation (my wife swears the tech there was caring and kind and had words of real comfort but I have no memory of those interactions), how we got home late and had to tell our then six-year-old that his sister had died and how he would have to be away from us while we were at the hospital for her eventual delivery.

I remember panic and pain.

I remember drawing my hands across my sleeping wife’s belly in the hopes that it had all been a mistake and that I would feel our daughter kick at me again. But I didn’t, and we left for the hospital around midnight that night.

One of the worst aspects of miscarriage is the fact that early and midterm losses can mean longer and harder deliveries. The smaller fetuses have less of an ally in gravity and require more work to expel. It’s essential, as the mother’s body recognizes the dead child as a foreign invader and can become septic if things last too long. My wife had carried our dead child for four days, including a 31-hour labor, before her delivery. To induce these labors, doctors typically rely on two drugs: Pitocin and Cytotec. They can be incredibly uncomfortable with severe side effects due to their nature as abortifacients. At one point during our first night in the hospital, my wife’s body was thrown into a long, full-body convulsion due to the drug load. In those moments, I became convinced that I would lose my wife as well as my daughter. I held her through it, waiting for our nurse to arrive, realizing that all I could offer were hollow words of comfort–no solutions or fixes. I clung to my wife as she suffered.


An 18-week gestational fetus is a sight to behold. The silence during Clementine’s delivery was the worst part, even worse than the nurse describing her as “gelatinous” when I asked for a gender verification. She may have been, but the coldness of that word rang in my head long after we left the hospital.

Nobody caught our baby’s body during the delivery–Clem fell to the bedsheet between my wife’s thighs while I held her hand and cried. I still regret that. As we grieved, I was terrified that I would drop Clementine’s tiny body, that I would misplace her in the folds of the muslin. My heart ached when fibers from the blankets stuck to her half-formed skin.
I’ve been having nightmares where I relive the delivery. When the nightmares come, they’re always filled with the absence of a baby’s cry. These days I wake up in a panic if I can’t see or hear our second daughter, Layla, breathing. (Her pregnancy and delivery were their own special kind of torture–each day brought a new reason to worry. I had regular panic attacks like punches to the gut while my wife carried her–I spent more time breathless and woozy in our kitchen than I care to admit.)

It’s not just the panic attacks–I’ve struggled with guilt since we lost Clem. I’ll catch myself really letting my guard down for the first time in a while and berate myself. The problem isn’t that I enjoy myself, the problem is that for a moment I forget about our dead daughter. The reality and the weight of her. No matter how fleeting, it’s something I can’t forgive myself for, no matter how awful the pain of the knowing is.

Our second daughter, Layla, four months old now, has further complicated how I grieve. She’s what members of the parents of loss community dub a rainbow baby, which is quaint, hopeful, and wrapped up in a lot of simplistic labeling and religious overtones. I love Layla with all that I am, just as I do Clemmy. But Layla doesn’t “fix” or “erase” our loss – she is not a replacement for Clementine.

It’s so hard to hold your infant daughter and feel so full of love and to still yearn for the baby who came before her. You wind up feeling guilty for both.


I’ve read a lot about “grief brain” and the physiological changes that come through a traumatic loss like ours. I can confirm it–grief changes you. I barely remember the first two weeks after we delivered Clementine’s body. I am more forgetful and slower to respond than I used to be. I struggle with focus. Honestly, I lost much of what made me me when Clementine’s heart stopped beating. I’ve hardly written since November of 2017. 2018 was a year-long battle to hold myself together and rediscover some of my passions, including reading. There are books that I own that I will never read and story drafts in progress that I will never complete because I feel totally separated from the man who had begun these undertakings.

Our society is not comfortable with death or grief. My honesty in telling the story of Clem and my struggle with this sadness makes people uncomfortable because 1) it reminds them of their own mortality and 2) it reminds them that they are not exempt from tragedy. Nobody is. Eventually, death and loss touch us all. I have never intended to make someone uncomfortable by talking about Clementine; I have only strived to be honest about what this grief looks and feels like in a way that I have seen so little of. The limited number of books and articles for or by men struggling with the loss of a child was astounding to me as I searched for any kind of support in the months following her death.

There are people, though, who understand all too well the pain of loss and grief that we now carry with us. I’ve had close friends tell me of their own losses like they’re confessing a failing of their part. We’ve joined online support groups for parents experiencing Triploidy loss and other chromosomal issues. The thing that I’ve noticed is how mothers experiencing this loss exude grace, while fathers on the Triploidy group remain largely silent. In a group exclusively for dads that I’ve joined, everyone is so angry at themselves and the world. The difference seems to be in how some of these men feel safe to share more about how they feel, and the consistent use of the word “should” jumped out at me. These men are consistently angry based on how they think they should or shouldn’t feel. They’re mad because they can’t stop crying, they hurt because they miss their child and they think they should be able to protect and provide safety to their babies. They hurt when someone means well but invalidates their hurt by saying the death of their child was God’s will.


When I am in the most honest moments of my grieving, I wonder what Clem would be like today, had she not carried that extra set of chromosomes. Layla was born six days before the one-year anniversary of Clem’s delivery. I struggled with the guilt of forgetting Clementine’s birthday, and the doubled guilt of being so devastated after our second daughter had arrived.

The reality is that we could not have our Layla, who I adore, if we had not lost Clem. And yet, I wonder who she would be today, toddling through our home. Would she be speaking yet? Would my name be forever on her lips as she is on my mind?

Though she was dead, we held Clementine and talked and looked upon our first daughter, just as we did for our second. My wife had labored to deliver her and I had cut her umbilicus. Her face and hands and toes and imprinted on my memory and always will be, from the way her little mouth was twisted in to something of an open smile to the way her tiny ribs shone white through her pinking translucent skin.

She was beautiful.


I don’t think grief is something to get past. I don’t think forgetting our losses or blocking them out is what healing looks like. Grieving is a process that never ends and fundamentally changes us. Most nights, before I can fall asleep, I have to check on Layla one more time to ensure that I can see and feel her breathing, even though I’ve held her only minutes before. I still find myself thinking of the crematorium and the small shape of our Clementine beneath the baby blanket in the cremation tray. We’d put letters we’d written in with her, and a small muslin blanket adorned with sketches of arrows that we had picked out for her early in the pregnancy.

Her ashes are still in the small wooden box we picked out and customized online–we never got around to transferring any ashes to the small pieces of urn jewelry we had thought we so badly wanted in those early days after her loss. She sits atop our dresser in our bedroom and I find that running my fingers across the urn before I leave for the day brings a little peace. We have plans to build a shelf and lightbox in the living room to hold her urn and our keepsakes from the loss.

We love and celebrate our second daughter with the unique joy of having known loss not long before her arrival. But my wife’s pregnancy with Layla was far from easy. We were wracked with anxiety from the first day we knew–no amount of morning sickness could reassure us; every strange symptom or twinge of Braxton-Hicks became a portent of more heartbreak. We went through the Quad and Panorama genetic screenings to make sure our daughter was okay. Every blood draw was a threat, each ultrasound we expected to be the last, even after receiving a clean bill of health in test results. I covertly recorded an in-depth anatomy scan in case it would be the last time we saw our Layla kick and wiggle.

I don’t have any video of Clementine’s ultrasounds. I do have an audio recording of her heartbeat from an early scan that I cherish. I listen to it on days when I need to get the tears out, when sobbing is preferable to malaise.


My wife has held for years that finding dimes means someone who has died is sending you a message. While I am not a religious man, in the weeks following Clem’s delivery I found dimes everywhere and chose to believe she was reaching out to me. I found them in my shoes, beneath my pillow, on my desk, beside the coffee pot, and at my office. It’s superstitious and foolish, but the small comfort and smile that this brought helped to keep me going. We’ve kept all of Clem’s dimes in a small box beside her urn. The running joke is that she’s working on paying off our mortgage. It’s been about a month since I found a dime, but I found several after we brought Layla home, as if Clem were telling her sister, “Hello, it’s good, I love you, take care of them.”

Above all else, I fear that she was hurt or scared in utero. I worry that the kick I felt was a spasm of pain, a sign that her heart was about to stop that night. The hardest part is struggling to accept that there’s nothing I could have done to protect or save her, no other path or care that could have kept Clem alive in a meaningful way, nothing I could do to comfort her outside of my hand on her mother’s stomach to say, “Hello, I adore you, I love you, I’m your daddy,” and my hand on top of her shape in the cremation tray to say, “Goodbye, I love you, I will always miss you, my daughter, my baby.”


About the Author

Robert Helfst earned his MFA in fiction writing from Butler University in 2017. His work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Booth, Pulp Modern, and elsewhere. Robert lives in Indianapolis with his wife, son and daughter, three dogs, and three cats. You can find him at

Photo by Josh Smith on Flickr. No changes made to photo.