9 Things I Want to Tell the Parent Who Has Just Lost an Infant
Fifteen years ago our first child, Johnny, was born at 38 weeks via urgent C-section after a failed inversion. When he struggled after birth, everyone thought it was just from lack of oxygen from the procedure and that he would be fine.
However, it quickly became apparent that he had suffered severe brain damage at some point much earlier in the pregnancy, and that he would never be able to breathe or function on his own. When he was 12 days old, he spit out his respirator and we chose to let him go. We are now parents to two amazing, surprising, intelligent and beautiful girls, 14 and 8, for whom we are thankful every day. Even the hard ones.
Nothing can prepare you for the grief you’ll experience when you lose a child, but I can share some things that helped my husband and me get through this trying time.
1. Ignore the people who say the wrong things.
People say things like, “It’s for the better” and “He’s in a better place now.” Um, what’s a better place for a baby than alive with their parents?
But it’s not these commenters’ faults, really. They care about you and don’t want to see you hurting. You might hate everybody at this time. Nobody will respond perfectly because it’s a horrible thing. You will connect with these people again someday. (Or maybe not.) But in the meantime, find your tribe — friends who aren’t afraid to talk about it with you, other people who have experienced loss and family who appreciate dark humor.
2. Don’t ignore each other.
Grief is a tough thing to share, like a too small, scratchy wool blanket. Couples usually take turns with grief, being there for each other when one is hurting. But in this particular clusterf*ck, you’re both grieving the same thing at the same time. There’s just not that much room for someone else’s hurt. What makes it worse is that your grief may not look alike. It may be ugly, and it may be hurtful. This can be even more confusing because you’re so close. You’ve been through so much together. It’s hard to be so close and so far away from someone at the same time. I wish we had been more gentle with ourselves. I’m thankful for the therapy we had. It’s truly the gift that keeps giving.
3. Sex can be hard (and healing).
See #2! Oh, sex. So complicated. So important. For me, sex was riddled with fear: my c-section scar, fear of pregnancy, anxiety, fear of opening up again. For my husband, sex was a lifeline: connection, hope, support, escape. Did I mention therapy is awesome? So is trust, orgasms, reaching out, intimacy, patience, pillow talk and hope.
4. Another pregnancy can be hard (and healing).
Maybe you need to get pregnant again right away, or maybe you need to never do it again. Maybe you need to tell every pregnant person you see your story. (They seem to take it surprisingly OK.) Maybe you need to pretend to your childbirth group that this is your first pregnancy. (This is not betraying your baby. This is surviving the people who don’t know what to say.) Maybe you need to hide out for nine months and watch TV. These things are all OK. Things that aren’t OK: blaming yourself, blaming yourself, blaming yourself.
5. Get a tattoo if you want one.
There’s just no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s a big f*cking mess. People say don’t do anything drastic for a year. In my opinion, you can do whatever you need to get through it. Get a wild puppy. Get a tattoo. Whatever you do, it’s yours to do, and it will become part of the messed-up story of your pain. This is what we learn: Things aren’t easy, they can’t all be planned and they don’t always come out the way you want. Regrettable body art or a wild puppy are not as bad as other unplanned things.
6. You will be changed.
Not in a dark and gloomy way, but in a permanent way. Because it’s a big deal. That’s how much you love your baby.
7. You will be a better parent for this, not a broken one.
I remember being so sad and thinking that if I ever had kids again, they would only know this me — the hurt me, the broken me. But what really happened is my kids have come to know a better me. I am better at loving them fully, better at letting go of the stuff that doesn’t matter and better at being grateful every day for them.
8. If you go on, you won’t lose them.
You are not betraying them. Their memory won’t disappear. Someday you will be able to think of them without sadness being the first emotion. You will be able to breathe again. You will incorporate you baby’s life into your living kids’ birth stories, or into the new life you birth for yourself. You will always wish, however, that you had more photos.
9. Your heart is big enough to hold it all.
The thing about losing a baby is the double shock of it. Never before had I experienced such love, wholeness, happiness and light. And then, boom. Dark. Heartache. Emptiness. Hopelessness. It seemed impossible to make sense of. I didn’t think my heart could hold it. But no one does until they have to. And then, a new surprise: what love makes room for and what love can build out of so much pain and hurt. Our hearts are bigger now because of him. There is room for it all.
October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 23,000 infants died in the United States in 2013. Based on the data gathered for that period, the CDC reports that for every 1,000 babies that were born, six died during their first year.
There are a number of groups that help parents with the grieving process, including First Candle and Remembering Our Babies, both of which offer online support networks for parents who have lost their newborns or had a stillbirth.
Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experience and isn’t a substitute as medical advice.
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