Unfortunately, I cannot offer you one magical exercise or activity that will help you process all that has happened to you in the last few months.
A premature birth can be a life-altering event — something that can change the person you are and the dynamic of your family.
No matter how long your baby was in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), you might feel a series of emotions. Each preemie parent will process their emotions in different ways. Some will take longer than others to process their baby’s premature birth. I’d like to offer some advice on how to help yourself heal and move forward.
Here are things you can do that might help you process your baby’s premature birth:
1. Talk about it. It’s not a bad idea to see a therapist after your baby’s premature birth. In fact, if you lost a baby or your preemie was discharged with extensive medical needs, I think it is a must. But even if neither of those situations applies to you, talking will still help.
You don’t have to talk to a therapist. Heck, most of us preemie parents don’t have a lot of time between the doctor appointments and intervention schedules. I get that. But modern technology and social media can help you out with this, too.
Facebook is host to several private online support groups for parents of premature babies as well as full-term babies born with other afflictions that caused them to have a long NICU stay. You just need to request to join the group, and then only other members of the same group can see your posts if it’s a closed group. You can ask questions! You would be surprised at how many responses you’ll get, and in my experience, most of the responses are helpful. Or, you can just sit back and read what others have asked and answered. You will likely find that several questions you want to ask have already been discussed. It will make you feel as if you are part of a community that understands you — because they do.
Another great option for talking about your experiences is through a NICU support group at your hospital. Many hospitals offer them, but if yours doesn’t, you can join other online non-Facebook support groups such as The Morgan Leary Vaughan Fund, Preemie World, Graham’s Foundation, NICU Helping Hands, Hailey’s Hope Foundation or The Tiny Miracles Foundation.
2. Write about it in a diary or journal. I started a journal on a sheet of paper a nurse gave me the night my daughter was born. Days past before I could meet my baby. From my hospital bed, with intravenous lines and bags of blood being pushed into my veins, all I could think about was the fact that my daughter might die before I ever saw her face or felt her touch. This is because my daughter was born at 23 weeks gestation at 1 pound and 4 ounces. Her name is Joy.
Each day in the NICU (for 121 days), I wrote about Joy’s progress (or lack thereof), her medications, her medical procedures and her growth. I also wrote about the emotions surrounding my high-risk and life-threatening pregnancy. I wrote about my feelings and emotions as I stared at her through the incubator because I could not hold her for one month. I wrote about my three small children at home and what we did together and how they were reacting to Joy’s premature birth and time in the NICU. I kept her “NICU journal” going for a long time after she was discharged. My NICU journal became my weapon against misunderstanding, as well as a tool to help me heal. It helped me keep track of her hospital stay (in my own words) and I got to release some of my emotions at the same time. Expressive writing can be used as a therapeutic tool.
Please read my blog post for The Mighty titled “3 Reasons a Journal Is Essential for Parents of Preemies.”
3. Blog about it. Blogging can be an easy way to express your feelings without having to say them in person to anyone. You can type away and no one will talk back to you. And you will not be interrupted! Blogging is also an easy way for you to share updates on your baby with family and friends without having to call or email 50 different people.
You can share weight gain, changes in medical interventions and any other information with just a few clicks. You don’t have to make your personal story known to the world unless you want to. If you want to keep your blog private, you can add people to a mailing list and they will get notifications when you create a new post. You can also block certain people. WordPress explains how to change the privacy settings on a blog post here.
I started to blog about one year after my daughter was released from the NICU. That’s when I realized I had so many feelings and worries built up inside me, and I wanted (and needed) to get them out. I also believed that no preemie parent should be left to feel like they are alone. My thoughts were that even if one other parent felt what I did, then maybe my blog posts would validate their feelings and allow them to feel understood.
You can read my personal blog by visiting http://www.micropreemie.net/blog.
I’ve also written several blog posts for The Mighty, and you can view them here.
4. Give back. Sometimes small gestures of donating your preemie’s old blankets or preemie-sized clothing to your NICU can help you process and heal. Some people will collect coloring books or other items to donate to the NICU so that visiting siblings have something to keep them occupied. Other parents are crafty and knit or sew items to give to NICU parents.
My mother-in-law is an excellent quilter, and she and her group quilt isolette (incubator) sized blankets. I bring them to the NICU a few times a year. It’s one of my favorite things to do! The NICU nurses get so excited when I come with the bag of mini quilts, and they argue over who gets which designs based on their patients. I always feel great after I leave, like I’m paying it forward.
5. Volunteer to be a preemie parent mentor. This might be best to do after your baby has been home for at least two years. There are several reasons to wait. First, parents of newly released preemies will be busy with various doctors’ appointments and interventions that they will not have enough time to commit. Second, the first year after a preemie is taken home from the NICU is a time where us parents need to keep their baby away from as many germs as possible. You would not want to leave your baby in a daycare center while you mentor, or bring your baby to the hospital either. And you wouldn’t want to bring any germs home from the hospital to your baby.
Besides time and germs, there is another reason why becoming a preemie parent mentor should wait two years. You, as a preemie parent yourself, need to be emotionally disconnected from the NICU so you can be a great listener and not the person who needs to talk. A seasoned preemie parent mentor knows what questions to ask and how to listen and only shares the minimum amount of their own story (at least at first) because the parent you are mentoring needs to be doing the talking — even if they’re talking about sports or what’s for dinner. Once relationships are established, this can and should change.
Becoming a preemie or NICU parent mentor might help you process what happened to you. It’s a wonderful thing to do, if you can. It’s not the right choice for every parent. But who better to understand a scared or grieving preemie parent than someone who has walked in his or her shoes?
What else can I add to this list?
What helped you process your post-NICU experience and feel as if you have healed?
By the way, my former 1 pound 23 week preemie is now 4.5 years old and amazing. While she still has some complications caused by her premature birth, she is thriving!
November is National Prematurity Awareness Month, and November 17 is World Prematurity Day!
How will you help spread awareness?
To see our story and how you can help families with premature babies, view www.micropreemie.net.
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