I know firsthand the pain that comes from the death of a child. Thirty-five years ago, I said goodbye to my beloved daughter Jasmine. I will never forget the privilege of carrying life within me, feeling her every move, giving birth, nursing her at my breast and having her be an important part of our family for six months.
Jasmine’s death is one that I still grieve, but as a perinatal education specialist, it’s one that guides me and helps me connect with other parents during their darkest moments. I, too, know that the loss of a baby is also the loss of plans and dreams made, a future that will never be lived.
Grief is a strong, often overwhelming emotion that can numb us and inhibit us from carrying on with daily life. It can cause a wide range of emotions – shock and denial, anger, depression and detachment, sadness, disappointment, guilt and a struggle to find meaning. Grief is disorderly, irrational and lifelong. Grief can affect not only our emotional well-being, but also our physical and spiritual health. Just like healing from a physical injury, grieving a loss is something that takes time.
A Mother’s Grief
When a baby dies, the axis of the world shifts completely off center for a mother, both physically and emotionally. The baby is a physical part of the mother’s body, growing within her during pregnancy. Her entire system changes to accommodate the growing baby, her hormones, shape, breasts; with it, her thinking changes to love, nurture and bond with her newborn well before it’s born. The loss she’s experienced is uniquely personal. Having the support, love and comfort of others is something that will allow her to grieve on her own terms.
The Forgotten Grievers
We often refer to fathers, siblings and grandparents as the “forgotten grievers.” While it’s natural for people to ask about the mother and her emotional wellness, we often inadvertently forget to ask other loved ones how they’re feeling. In the case of the father, he too has lost his child and he’s left feeling like it’s his responsibility to hold everything and everyone together. This pressure often interferes with or delays his expression and understanding of his feelings of grief.
If there are siblings, their experience will be dependent on their age and ability to comprehend the loss. They will need a loving adult to whom they can talk to and someone who can explain to them what has happened. While children can be resilient and adaptable to change, the loss of a loved one can create confusion and have a lasting impact. And lastly, we need to remember that the grandparents experience a double loss. Not only have they lost a grandchild, but they are also devastated as they see their adult children in such pain.
Finding a New Normal
People often ask if it’s possible to overcome the loss of a child, and this is something I struggle to answer. We all grieve differently. So, rather than thinking of “overcoming a loss” as an actual moment or event in time, it’s important for families to find a new normal and a path to return to a meaningful fulfilling life. Over time we find ways to incorporate the reality of sadness into our normal happy day-to-day experience without making it the focus of who we are and how we are defined. By doing so, we’re able to move forward. By acknowledging the reality of our sadness, we honor the value of our loved one and, by finding a new normal, we place value on our own life and strength.
Say This, Not That
Bereaved parents need love and care and often are avoided due to fear. Know that there is nothing you can say or do that will make the pain go away. Don’t try to fix things, minimize the loss or ignore it. Rather, acknowledge the loss and express yourself in your own heartfelt way. Just say, “I’m so sorry” and give them a hug. They will be grateful.
Colleen Weeks, , LCCE, FACCE, CLE, CSE, RTS, is a certified childbirth and lactation educator, perinatal bereavement counselor and Perinatal Education Manager at Kaiser Permanente Orange County Medical Center.