A man is thrusting a yellow form and a biro towards me. ‘Check over the details and sign,’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘Then we can get underway.’ The man is nurse. The form is a pre-surgery consent form. There is a box next to the question ‘purpose of operation’. Into it, this man has scribbled: EMPTY THE WOMB.
My vision blurs. My stomach lurches. My heart breaks.
Half an hour previously, I’d strolled nonchalantly into the early pregnancy assessment unit at my local hospital, feeling buoyant and excited. I was about nine weeks gone. I’d had a scan last week and everything had been fine. It was too early to see much, but we’d heard the heartbeat, joyously loud, frenetic, ebullient. The hospital were monitoring me weekly as I’d had a traumatic miscarriage six months ago, at thirteen and a half weeks, but there was - as everyone kept telling me - no reason to think I’d have another. It was more for reassurance than anything else. And reassured we were. We felt invincible, me and this baby. And then, today: an upbeat Irish sonographer, the cold slick of ultrasound gel on my tummy, some cheerful chatter, then an ominous silence, a fading grin, the words: ‘I’m just going to get my consultant to come and have a look’… Silence. No more heartbeat. And then: ’I’m so sorry.’
They gave me what’s known as a D&C - or ‘dilation and curettage’ - operation that afternoon. I’d had the option of waiting for my ‘womb to empty’ naturally, or indeed to trigger the expulsion of my ‘failed’ pregnancy chemically, but after the the physical and emotional agony of having gone through a ‘spontaneous’ miscarriage six months ago, I knew there was no way I could handle it all over again. Besides, I needed to be back in the studio presenting my radio show first thing tomorrow morning. Nobody at work knew I was pregnant; nobody could know I had lost the baby. Like many freelance women working in competitive fields, any admission that you are contemplating reproducing is a high-stakes strategy and one that few of us are prepared to risk coming clean about until we absolutely have to.
So I signed that wretched yellow form and I had the operation, but nothing could ever have prepared me for the sorrow that engulfed me when I came groggily around from the general anaesthetic. It was as though some sick, twisted gremlin had entered me and robbed me of not just my baby’s life but of everything. I felt utterly bereft and desperate. One of the cruellest things about a miscarriage is that you can continue to feel pregnant for so long afterwards. Your poor, confused body keeps loyally churning out those hormones - sometimes for weeks hence. I was - am - lucky enough to already be the mother of a healthy, happy son, but this meant that no matter how many people said to me things like ‘oh, it’s just nature’s way’, or ‘my friend/sister/mother/colleague had tons of miscarriages and she went on to have lots more babies!’ or ‘it’s just a collection of cells at this point, at least it didn’t happen any later in the pregnancy!’, parenthood was no longer an abstraction for me. Nothing, no amount of scientific fact or well-meant statistics could convince me of anything other than the fact that my children seemed to be dying inside me.
Four months later, I had a third consecutive miscarriage. It became a struggle to get up in the morning. Everything felt grey. Doctors continued to investigate my case: no underlying medical reasons could be found for my recurring miscarriages; it was almost certainly being caused by stress; there probably wasn’t anything that could be done except to carry on trying, reduce my stress levels - ha - and keep hoping.
But hope felt in grievously short supply, even as I looked around me and saw the trappings of an enviable life: a roof over my head, a supportive family, a loving husband, a gorgeous toddler, a job I adored. The more I knew I should be grateful for my lot, the guiltier I felt about how bleak I felt. And as for reducing my stress levels: yeah, right.
I got lost in music, riding one sonic magic carpet after another, and it was transformative.
I’m sharing my experience - and it’s a huge, huge admission for me - partly because I want to try and help bust the taboo of miscarriage, whose horrors so many of us have to suffer through in silence. But also as a way of sharing the wondrous thing that did eventually restore solace to my days.
In the aftermath of grieving three dead babies, everything I tried to do to wrench myself back just felt - well, wrong. Reading books, watching TV, going for a run, having cocktails with friends, playing Lego with my son, taking walks with my husband; the things that could usually have been relied upon to make me feel more human only made me feel emptier. I felt an urgent need to create something - perhaps inevitably - and yet everything I tried my hand at felt futile, a waste of time, pointless.
And then one day, my old friend Sophie called out of the blue. We’ve known each other forever, having learned music together when we were kids. (I’d played the violin very seriously until my mid-teens and music had always been a fundamental part of my life.) Did I want to come and play with her string quartet next Sunday evening, she wondered? I looked at my poor fiddle, lying in its case, untouched for ages, and knew immediately what the answer had to be.
That evening was a revelation. While we were making music, everything emptied from my wracked mind. I’ve never been able to get the hang of meditation but I finally understood what people were banging on about when they talked about that ‘being present’, or that ubiquitous buzzword, ‘mindfulness’. Music has been in my life all my life: it had been right under my nose all this time, but in my sorry state, I’d been ignoring it. I now knew I urgently needed to let it back into my life - if not to play every day, then at least to listen every day.
Almost as soon as I turned my little listening project into a daily ritual, I began to feel better: less anxious, less desperate. I got lost in music, riding one sonic magic carpet after another, and it was transformative. I listened to music made by parents who had lost children - Bach, Mozart, Mahler, the contemporary British composer Sally Beamish - and I felt a little less alone. I played compositions that energised, uplifted or calmed me, miraculously rearranging the molecules inside me so that, for the first time in a long time, I felt a degree of internal equilibrium restored. The panic attacks began to subside. I was receptive, once again, to the simple joy of being alive in the world. And I realised that if a daily dose of classical music could help me as drastically as this, then maybe it could help others too.
I can’t explain what it is that this music does, or why it has such power, but I do know that its effect can be miraculous. Classical music has a reputation for being elitist and inaccessible, yet the music itself is some of the most immediately affecting we have. It saddens and frustrates me that so many people feel alienated from classical music or worry that they don’t have the credentials to listen to it ‘correctly’ - when truthfully all you need is ears. And the composers who made it - who make it, for despite its stuffy image, classical music is actually a constantly evolving living art form - are just like us. From medievalists to millennials, often it was written by people with relatable concerns: humans wrestling sadness, grief or mental health problems; others simply expressing intense happiness. Composers, I realised, are people, just like us - and like the very greatest of old friends, the music they write can ultimately be the thing that saves us.
Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day by Clemency Burton-Hill is out now published by Headline. Its accompanying digital playlists can be found here.