Everyone talks about the village needed to raise a baby. The need for support from relatives, support from other other parents with similar aged children, support from daycare and schools, and support from the overall community. Parents can't simply do it all on their own, especially in today's modern world where the expectations for parenting can be downright overwhelming.
From the minute a pregnancy is announced, the expectant parents hear all sorts of advice like "nap when the baby naps" or "you think you're tired now, just wait..." Some families luck out with a village - they have the support in place to get them through the rough days, someone else to rely on for advice or just to be a listening ear.
But what happens when the pregnancy ends unexpectedly? When the unthinkable occurs and the baby dies? The village tends to disappear. Maybe not right away, but often within weeks after the baby's death. The funeral is over, friends and family leave, and then the check-ins with the bereaved parents tend to become more and more spaced out. The world goes back to normal while the heartbroken parents are left to grieve alone, feeling more isolated than ever.
Some hospitals have a social worker helping while the parents are in the hospital, some have a clinician who will call to follow-up in the weeks following. But many hospitals do not have these procedures in place or are understaffed to adequately provide the ongoing bereavement care the parents will need. Some parents are handed a folder of resources but often the last thing a bereaved mother or father wants to do is read.
The village is needed so desperately to grieve the baby - not just in the weeks following the death, but in the months and years following. Grief is ongoing and while it may change over time, parents will never forget their baby and will always wonder what could have been. Bereaved parents deserve just as much support as they would have received should the baby lived - this is what our society needs to recognize.
As bereaved parents, we often feel like no one realizes how much we miss out on when our baby dies. The milestones, the “firsts”, all of those precious memories we wanted to create are ripped away. The minute you take a pregnancy test or receive a phone call to confirm you're expecting, you can't help but imagine a future with that child. Creating a list of names in your mind, browsing through the baby aisle at Target just to take a peek at all the cute clothes, wondering which features they will inherit from you.
The first word they speak, their first steps, the first day of kindergarten...how can you not think of those special moments immediately? Some parents even think farther ahead with high school graduation and walking their daughter down the aisle or dancing with their son at their wedding. In just a few moments' time, you are imagining an entire lifetime with someone you haven't even met yet.
It's absolutely incredible how your heart starts to swell immediately with all the newfound love for your baby. It's a parent's instinct to care for their baby, to teach their baby, to love their baby. That instinct is engrained from the very beginning, before we even truly know who that baby is.
We didn’t just lose a pregnancy.
We didn’t just lose a baby.
We lost an entire future of hopes and dreams.
A common myth surrounding grief is that you can only be sad, depressed, angry, indifferent - the more negative feelings that typically come first to mind. The myth continues with if you are feeling "good", you can't truly be grieving anymore. But that's simply untrue. You may feel excited but tearful at the same time about experiencing something without your baby, and that can be confusing. It may even cause you to feel guilt. This is where the gratitude part comes into play - how can you be thankful for things in your life when the person you want has been taken away?
Having that mix of feelings is completely normal - there is room in your heart for these emotions to co-exist. You don't have to be just happy or just sad...you CAN be both at the same time. You can be grateful while also being angry. It just takes some time to recognize it's okay to feel that way. Our society constantly pushes these ideas into our heads that missing someone who has died means you can only feel sad and that for you to experience joy again, you have to move on. The reality is that you can miss your baby and still feel the positive emotions.
A question we often receive in our support groups is HOW can I feel grateful again? There's no easy answer for this as it truly depends on the individual - your past experiences with grief, your coping skills, your support system - they all shape how you can move forward in your life without your baby physically with you. And let's be clear - grief involves learning how to move forward, NOT moving on. Training yourself to be completely present in the moment is a suggestion to try, though do not be discouraged as it does takes work. To start, instead of forcing yourself to be thankful for the big things, like your job or your home, focus on the little things. The comfort food from family that has gotten you through the really tough days. A hot shower that melts away your tears. Recognizing a random pink flower that connects you to your baby. A long hug from your partner. These things may seem simple but they add up and they will help you cope as you are on your grief journey.
There is room in your heart for both grief and gratitude.
There is room in your heart for both pain and joy.
There is room in your heart for both tears and laughter.
Bereaved parents are masters at hiding their emotions. Carrying on with work and putting on a happy face so co-workers don’t ask insensitive questions. Saying everything is “fine” when it most certainly is not. Pretending to have moved on and be okay with attending a friend’s baby shower. Becoming experts at forcing back tears, avoiding certain aisles at Target, and ignoring the insensitive small talk at holiday dinners.
Except it's impossible to ignore the harsh comments, reminding us "it's time to move on" or "don't worry, you'll get pregnant again." The reality is everything is not fine. None of it is fine. Grief is beyond exhausting. The heaviness weighs down on bereaved parents every single day. It's a constant battle of taking steps forward and then having triggers interrupt any progress we felt we made.
Finding a support system to walk alongside in the grief journey is important. Being heard and seen by others who have similar loss stories can make an incredible impact on your own healing. We are here when you need to let your mask down (figuratively and literally). It's okay to let someone help you carry the weight of grief. ❤️
1. Allow yourself to mourn. This is the most important and the hardest part of grieving. Grief is the collection of internal feelings you experience after your loss (sadness, anger, etc). Mourning is expressing those emotions outwardly. Examples of mourning are planning a memorial ceremony, planting a remembrance garden, journaling, crying, etc. Many of us were raised that grief needs to be "swept under the rug" and you are "stronger" if you don't cry and keep your feelings to yourself. This is not true - it's so important to feel ALL the feelings while grieving and to give yourself grace. Take it one day at at time - sometimes you may need to take it one breath at a time.
2. Gather important keepsakes. You don't have to be crafty to make something special to honor your pregnancy and baby. Anything you do will be meaningful - trust us. Consider making a basket or shadowbox for special mementos such as your baby’s ultrasound photos, blanket, outfits, sympathy cards, etc. Many bereaved parents set up a shelf or bookcase for their baby's items. It can be very healing to see these physical things.
3. Write your feelings down. It can be incredibly difficult to explain to someone else how you are feeling - this is why we encourage journaling first. Journaling either on paper, on your computer, or even with an online blog can help express your feelings. Many bereaved parents will re-read their journal entries months later and be surprised how far they have come in their grieving journey. Consider writing a letter to your baby—what were your wishes and dreams?
4. Embrace your spirituality. Seeking to find that part of your life through prayer or meditation can bring a sense of peace to some families. But please know that spirituality doesn't have to mean organized religion and church. You could attend a yoga class or meditation workshop - try something that encourages you to focus on your breathing and taking a few quiet moments for yourself.
5. Develop a support system. You will find many people may say insensitive things to you after your loss - some simply don't know what to do to help you in this situation. We encourage you to find safe people or a support group that you can share your story with. Contact the Massachusetts Chapter of The TEARS Foundation for current groups, dates and times. We recommend attending at least three support groups to see if this is a good coping tool for you. It can be very healing to just listen to other parents' stories even if you are not comfortable sharing.
6. Talk about your grief. Say your baby’s name when speaking with others. Speak from the heart and be honest. Ignoring your grief will not make it go away. There is no quick fix for grief, but sharing your story over and over will help you acknowledge what happened. Please remember that every person's grief is different - there is no timeline or "right" amount of time in healing. You may also notice that you will feel better for a period of time and then a trigger may cause you to feel your grief heavy again - that is completely normal. Grief ebbs and flows just like the waves of the ocean.
7. Take care of yourself. Grief takes a toll on you emotionally as well as physically. Get daily rest—even if you have trouble sleeping, try to at least lay down. Lighten your schedule. Focus on drinking lots of water. Spend time outside - whether it's a short walk or just lying down on the grass.
8. It’s ok to say “No”. Your baby has died. Understand and respect your limitations. If you are not up to attending your cousin’s baby shower or the Christmas gathering this year, it’s always okay to say “No, I can’t attend. Please respect the time I need right now.”
9. Ask for help. Reach out to family or friends and tell them exactly what they can do for you (housework, taking care of other siblings, making a meal, shoveling snow, picking up groceries, etc). We know it can be hard to ask for help, especially months later when people tend to go on with their own lives. But family and friends do want to help you feel better - let them take care of things to help lighten your load. We also recommend speaking with a mental health professional as therapy can be very helpful as you navigate your emotions and start to find your new self. Reach out to the Massachusetts Chapter of The TEARS Foundation for counselor recommendations. Please remember you should not suffer alone - we are here for you.
10. Continue to honor your child’s life. On the anniversary of your baby’s birth or due date, find a way to remember your child. Bereaved parents are so creative and many ideas include lighting a candle, making a birthday cake, painting “kindness” rocks and hiding them at a park, planting flowers or a tree, writing your baby's name in the sand at the beach, making a donation in memory of, asking family and friends to send you pictures with your baby's name/symbol, wearing a special color, paying it forward with an act of kindness like buying coffee for a stranger, etc. We always encourage you to attend a TEARS Rock & Walk for Babies event to honor your baby as it's incredibly healing to see other families from the community together.
What other ways do you honor your baby and cope during your grief journey? Please share them with us.
by Jillian, Patrick's mom
I follow a lot of pregnancy and infant loss groups. The last couple of days have been filled with posts defending Chrissy Teigan. It has triggered so many emotions to hear of the backlash she is receiving for sharing her experience and pictures. I have been very open about Patrick. But in those first few months after his birth I tried to do what I thought I had to. I tried to hold regular conversation with those that visited. Laughed. Joked. But I will tell you that in those few months I honestly did not think I was going to survive it. One night, over three months later, and after a bottle of wine, I decided to sign up for the March of Dimes walk and share Patrick in a more public way. I was so scared of the response I would get. But it was amazing. And it saved me. He was being acknowledged and there was no better feeling. It wasn't about me or Pat. This was about Patrick. We held our son while he died. That instant love we felt with the girls was no different for him. The thought of just acting like he didn't exist was debilitating. We were asked if we wanted an obituary. The fact that it was even a question was hurtful to me in that moment. Everyone else gets one, why wouldn't he? He was here. He existed.
For those that believe some celebrity had time to pose for pictures, I'm happy this is something you clearly never had to experience. Studies have proven the old way of dealing with baby loss were actually damaging women. So hospitals evolved. There are actual organizations that work with hospitals to come specifically for these moments. We didn't have a chance to have one there, but the nurses knew enough to take our phones and snap away. I had no idea until a couple of days later. And I am so thankful. We don't see what others might see. We see Patrick. We see our only moments with him.
Keeping Patrick to myself was sending me in a direction that was not good. Sharing him sent me in a direction that has kept our marriage strong and given us three beautiful girls.
You don't need to understand or agree with someone's coping skills. But respect them. Or at least keep your opinions to yourself before you cause more damage.
By Emily, Lena's mom
I delivered my daughter stillborn on January 10th, 2016. In the days and weeks following her death, many people reached out to me and expressed how sorry they were for our loss. “I can’t imagine the pain you are feeling” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” were common things said.
But how about, just for a moment, you try to imagine it. Try really hard to put yourself in this situation. Imagine you are lying on the table at a routine OB appointment as your doctor waves the Doppler over your belly, patiently waiting to hear a heartbeat. Minutes pass. No sounds detected. You follow your doctor down the hallway, half knowing that something is terribly wrong but half believing you be proven wrong. You lay on the table in the ultrasound room, and then you hear the words that will break your heart into a million pieces: “I’m afraid something has happened. This is where the heartbeat should be.” Now your reaction may have been different to mine – we react to shocking news in unique ways. But try to imagine what your reaction would have been in that exact moment. Screaming. Crying. Disbelief. Shock. Anger. Sadness. Questions. So many questions. Why? Why? Why?
Imagine having to go back home and wait two days before being induced. Imagine that your baby, who was living inside of you for more than five months, is no longer kicking, her heart is no longer beating. Imagine being at the hospital, in a room similar to where your son was born three years ago, but with the understanding this outcome will be very different. Imagine going through hours of excruciating labor only to know you won’t have a healthy baby at the end to make the pain all worth it. Imagine feeling so scared when it’s time to push – you know this needs to end but you don’t want it to, because then it will be truly real.
Now imagine this – the silence. Deafening silence. And then imagine holding your stillborn baby - examining her features, noticing how even though she is tiny, she looks very similar to her big brother. You want to scream as you hear a newborn cry down the hall while you hold your lifeless baby. Imagine watching your husband sob as he carefully holds your daughter. Nothing in these moments makes sense. You are thinking, “why did this happen to us?” “We’re good people, we don’t deserve this.” “This is so unfair.”
Weeks pass and sympathy cards and gifts arrive. Many struggle with what to say. “At least she wasn’t full-term.” “At least you’re young, you can have more babies.” “At least you have your son.” There is no “at least” when a baby dies. Imagine how hurtful these statements can be. Whether 8 weeks, 38 weeks, or 8 days old...your life changed the moment you saw the positive pregnancy test. Dreams for the future are gone, forever changed.
The next time you are about to say, “I can’t imagine”, I suggest you reconsider. Saying something like “I can ONLY imagine what you are going through” is more sensitive to a bereaved parent and shows you are willing to take on their pain, even if it’s for just a moment.
This is where we share more resources and YOUR stories - your loss matters, your baby matters, you always matter.