A year ago, Dawn-Lyen Gardner was on top of the world.
She was preparing to film the fifth season of her OWN drama Queen Sugar — and she had just learned she was expecting her first child. "I was so filled with joy," she says in the new issue PEOPLE. "I was already planning. It affected every decision I made. We were even using a name."
Then, as she approached the three-month mark, her doctor told her that he couldn't hear a heartbeat.
"My fiancé and I were devastated," she says. Though she leaned on her fiancé, a writer and physician who specializes in end of life care (whom she doesn't name for patient privacy), Gardner, 39, felt isolated in her grief, especially amid the pandemic.
Inspired by Chrissy Teigen and Meghan Markle, who both recently opened up about pregnancy losses, Gardner decided to tell her story. Up to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the Mayo Clinic. Says Gardner: "I'm hoping that this is something women can share as part of the normal human experience."
Below, Gardner recalls how she has healed since the devastating loss, in her own words:
When the doctor told me he couldn't hear my baby's heartbeat, my world stopped. I thought, "Is it my fault? Is my body strange or weird?" At that point only the inner circle of my family knew I was pregnant. The social norm is to not tell anyone until you're out of that first trimester, for exactly this reason. But that only ended up adding to the trauma of it: to go through it, feel that sense of failure anyway, and then have to tell people the whole thing from the beginning, saying, "By the way, I was pregnant."
As I worked through it, I wished I had just told people in real time and had been able to talk about it and understand how many women go through this. I think part of the lesson was your community wants to catch you. They want to support you and tell you, "You are okay. You are normal. All of you can be whole."
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My last ultrasound happened two days after George Floyd was killed. So this global grief collided with this deep personal grief. I felt like I had to choose whether to grieve as a woman or grieve as a Black person. Both are two deeply invisibilized experiences. And there I was, right at that intersection with my heart breaking in every direction.
I questioned if I had the right to grieve something so small and personal in the middle of something so big. As a woman of color [Gardner's father is Black, her mother Chinese-American] in this country, you push through no matter what. I wanted to push through so I could be in the streets protesting. I would prepare to walk out the door to go to a protest, and my body would just start shaking. I had to recognize that in this moment, the best thing I can do for the movement is actually to take care of myself.
So, on the advice of everyone around me, I took two weeks off. They were excruciating — physically and emotionally. For the first five days I was in a kind of pain that I didn't ever know was possible. It was my grief, but it was also the feeling of, "Am I betraying myself? What am I honoring here?" I turned to trusted friends, who let me talk and process it all the way out.
The one person I wanted most during that time was my mother. Because of the pandemic, I couldn't hug her. She couldn't just wrap her arms around me. She would literally stand six feet away from me and try to comfort me.
But I'm incredibly fortunate that my fiancé is someone who leans into emotional territory, even when it's challenging. He always honored our grief, never "othered" it. I am so grateful that rather than tear us apart, this was one of those experiences that brought us closer.
I began listening to podcasts and anything I could hear to just feel not alone. Women can have any range of responses to losing a pregnancy. I respect that for some people it isn't devastating, but for others it's so devastating that they become suicidal.
One person encouraged me to write down all of what I had hoped for in a letter to this life that I had been imagining and preparing for. So I did. And I ended up taking a hike through a creek nearby and finding a spot and burying it so that I could feel that somewhere I have honored this baby and this life that I didn't have a chance to lead at that time.
My fiancé and I definitely deeply want to be parents sooner than later. I think part of last year's lesson was that life is full of unexpected loss and unexpected change. We'll embrace all of the possibilities this life can bring.
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