Those who have never experienced the death of a baby frequently assume that the immediate aftermath—giving birth or having a D & C and planning a funeral or memorial service are the “hardest” parts. They may expect that all will quickly return to normal for the parents as they ease back into their daily lives. However, for many bereaved parents, nothing is further from the truth. It is often the mundane daily life events that provide the most challenges once the initial shock has worn away. It can be difficult to find ways to be helpful as the day-to-day times that moms and dads find it challenging to get through are varied and can depend on the particular circumstances, background and support systems of each family. What may be difficult for one may not be difficult at all for another. Some parents might find hope and comfort in situations that others find distressing. As with everything else you encounter while you are grieving, know that your feelings are valid, whether or not others in your life think they are.
As I began gathering thoughts and ideas for this article, I decided I wanted to talk with parents whose losses were not recent because I thought they would be the perfect ones to give some insight, perspective and hope to newly grieving parents. Reflections shared by these parents are only meant to reassure those of you who are newly grieving that the emotions you may be feeling and the situations you may be struggling to cope with are completely normal as well as give suggestions for dealing with them. If you feel differently, please know that is okay. You may have found other ways to make it through trying times. Your feelings may be constantly changing, and something that does not resonate with you in this moment may at a later time. Unfortunately, that is the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of grief.
There were several common themes the parents I spoke with mentioned. One topic they all spoke quite candidly about is how the support they typically received in the early days after their loss often tapered off or even disappeared within a few short weeks, much sooner than their need for support ended, and how painful that was to endure. Without exception, each parent was confused by this, even to the point of severing relationships that were once close. One mom spoke through tears as she told me about her best friend who came to the hospital, held her son who was born still at full term due to a cord accident, and then didn’t call or contact her for over a year. Others remarked how distressing it was when their loved ones did not talk about their baby or ask how they were doing. One mom told me about her family members who were incredibly supportive in the early days, but quickly moved on and didn’t want her to talk about her son to them after the memorial service because it was too hard for them to deal with. Others were offended and hurt if their babies were not acknowledged on important dates such as due dates and birthdays, unable to understand how their child, who is so important to them, could be ignored on these meaningful days.
Each parent who shared with me the sense of abandonment and neglect they felt from their loved ones had different ways of dealing with those emotions and situations and eventually coming to terms with them. The mom whose friend didn’t contact her for a year explained that when she did finally talk to her friend, she chose to listen to her reasons for silence and forgive her because the friendship was important to her. She gave her friend another chance, and she is glad she did as that friend is now one of her biggest supporters and honors her son in numerous ways; she was frightened at the time and didn’t know what to do so she did nothing. Another mom told me that she let go of a friendship because her friend never did apologize or offer any explanation for her absence during her time of great need.
Another topic that everyone addressed was their inability to function in the ways they used to. I heard repeatedly from parents who had a hard time even getting out of bed to shower, cook, do housework, go to work, or take care of their other children; even going to the grocery store turned into a torturous chore. Many of the routine daily tasks that most people do without giving them a thought can seem insurmountable when your baby has died. This is something that caused each of them angst because it was so contrary to how they normally were. They each had great difficulties coming to grasp with the new person they became and struggled with how to overcome it and how to weave the person they were after their baby’s death into their life and relationships. Several moms told me they just wanted to get back to normal while at the same time realizing they would likely never completely feel like the person they once were. It made things more agonizing when others would say, “I just want you to be back to yourself” or similar sentiments.
Again, parents dealt with life in the early days in a multitude of ways. Some had friends who stepped in and took over tasks they were unable to do. Others gave themselves permission to let things go that were not crucial. Still others were able to eventually force themselves to do things they didn’t feel like doing. However, they all confessed that just getting through normal daily life and tasks was the most troublesome thing they had to do in the early days. What helped them were things such as talking with a counselor, taking time off from work, attending support group meetings, finding online groups and even throwing themselves into an intensive project such as making a garden to memorialize their baby and making items for NICU babies . Still others eventually came to a realization that they must go on because that is what their baby would want them to do—one mom said, “We wanted the name of our precious daughter to be known and so we did everything we could to make her proud.” Another expressed a similar sentiment when she said, “I had to go on for my babies. They would not want me to spend the rest of my life being sad and unhappy.” Still others said that the only way they were able to get through those initial days, weeks and months was by leaning on their partner and keeping the lines of communication open. One dad shared with me that when he asked his wife if she needed to talk, she often said no, she was fine. However, when he could sense that she was having a bad day, he would just hold her, let her cry, and eventually, she would open up to him. If he could give one piece of advice, he told me it would be this: “Do not give up, do NOT give up. Keep talking, even if it is the last thing you want to do.”
Often, returning to work is something that provokes anxiety for many bereaved parents; it can be very trying to face co-workers and clients, especially if they do not know what has happened. Parents frequently dread questions such as, “How is the baby?” Some parents, however, find it worse when no one says anything at all. “I hated being known as the person whose baby died,” one mom explained. She continued, “Everyone looked at me with such pity, and I hated going to work each day.” The parents who seemed to have an easier transition back to their job were those whose co-workers had been told ahead of time what happened. One mom related how a parent who had experienced the death of her own baby had a meeting with the staff on her team to help everyone understand what she might be feeling and going through when she came back to work. She checked in with her each day to see how things were going, and that helped her tremendously. Others found that openly talking about their baby put their co-workers at ease because they no longer had to wonder if it was okay to talk about what happened.
Another common struggle that most bereaved moms and dads face at some point is pregnant women, baby showers, and the birth of new babies amongst family members, friends and acquaintances. Often, when one is in the stage of life of having young children, it can seem as if everyone around you is having babies, which can make your loss seem even more isolating and devastating than it already is. You may receive invitations to baby showers, which often brings on a myriad of emotions. Some moms cannot bring themselves to attend showers or welcome new babies, while others love to snuggle the new babies that come into their lives. Some moms shared with me that they would become quite angry when shower invitations arrived in the mail, but one mom told me that it upset her greatly when they didn’t because she didn’t want people to think she wasn’t happy for them even if she couldn’t bring herself to attend those showers. It also made her feel as if she had become an outcast. One mom told me that looking back, she wishes she had the courage and strength to be honest with everyone and tell them that while she was happy for them, it was too hard for her to see and hold new babies. She felt as if her honesty would have saved her and everyone else a great deal of hurt and misunderstood feelings. Unfortunately, when you are in the depths of despair, it can be next to impossible to think of the best way to handle situations you dread.
Grieving the death of a baby can be a life-long journey that is not the same for everyone. Your experiences are uniquely yours, and it can be difficult for your friends and loved ones to understand what you are going through. While the initial days, weeks and months can be quite challenging to get through, and even small, everyday tasks may require a great deal of effort and energy, life will slowly become easier. If you glean nothing else from the experiences shared here, it is my hope that you have learned that there is no right or wrong way to feel and that it is important to take good care of your own heart and needs.