Fourteen years ago I gave birth to a baby girl. Four hours later she died because of an internal malformation that was undetectable during my pregnancy. During my short hospital stay, nurses and doctors seemed to avoid me and my questions. What they did say was about the same as what my friends and family were saying. "You're young. You'll have other babies. Try to forget."
I didn't want any other baby; I wanted that one! Forget? How could I forget? Instead I was overwhelmed with crushing, breathtaking grief. I remember how empty I felt the day I left the hospital...an empty womb and empty arms. I never really knew her but I missed her and ached for her so desperately.
Soon after I returned home, everyone acted as if they had already forgotten her, as if they expected me to also. Someone had removed all the baby items I had acquired before coming home, hoping to spare me the pain. Instead, it felt like a further denial of her existence. When I tried to talk about her everyone became very quiet, or changed the subject, or left the room. Friends were very careful not to say anything that might remind me of my experience. Baby shower invitations didn't come in the mail. Birth announcements didn't come in the mail. Many stayed away because they simply did not know what to say. My husband had three days to "get over it" before he was expected back at work. The world kept on spinning as if nothing had happened. I remember thinking that I must have lost my mind. I thought that if my baby had lived for a while, if people had gotten to know and love her, maybe then I would have been given the affirmation to grieve the way I needed to. But I was the only one with any memory of her, the only one who had the chance to love her. I had no one to share that with, not even my husband. Most of his grief was for me and for the dreams we had shared for this child. I felt all alone as I began my mourning.
Over the years, after much healing, I have had the opportunity to speak with other parents who have had experiences which were similar to mine. As a result of that, and also as a result of my search for answers to all those unanswered questions, I have compiled a list of several "truths and non-truths" concerning the grieving process as it relates to perinatal bereavement.
This is not intended to be the absolute word on the subject, but rather a gauge for the unexpected emotions felt by parents who have suffered this type of loss. Most of the parents I have spoken to agreed that the uncertainty of their grief was frightening and may have been alleviated had they known what to expect.
Friends and family may also benefit from reading this over so they might understand the special kinds of pain and emotions involved in this type of loss and allow them to be expressed.
The Truth Is...
1. The truth ISN'T that you will feel "all better" in a couple of days, or weeks, or even months.
The truth IS that the days will be filled with an unending ache and the nights will feel one million sad years long for a while. Healing is attained only after the slow necessary progression through the stages of grief and mourning.
2. The truth isn't that a new pregnancy will help you forget.
The truth is that, while thoughts of a new pregnancy soon may provide hope, a lost infant deserves to be mourned just as you would have with anyone you loved. Grieving takes a lot of energy and can be both emotionally and physically draining. This could have an impact upon your health during another pregnancy. While the decision to try again is a very individualized one, being pregnant while still actively grieving is very difficult.
3. The truth isn't that pills or alcohol will dull the pain.
The truth is that they will merely postpone the reality you must eventually face in order to begin healing. However, if your doctor feels that medication is necessary to help maintain your health, use it intelligently and according to his/her instructions.
4. The truth isn't that once this is over your life will be the same.
The truth is that your upside-down world will slowly settle down, hopefully leaving you a more sensitive, compassionate person, better prepared to handle the hard times that everyone must deal with sooner or later. When you consider that you have just experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a family, as you heal you will become aware of how strong you are.
5. The truth isn't that grieving is morbid, or a sign of weakness or mental instability.
The truth is that grieving is work that must be done. Now is the appropriate time. Allow yourself the time. Feel it, flow with it. Try not to fight it too often. It will get easier if you expect that it is variable, that some days are better than others. Be patient with yourself. There are no short cuts to healing. The active grieving will be over when all the work is done.
6. The truth isn't that grief is all-consuming.
The truth is that in the midst of the most agonizing time of your life, there will be laughter. Don't feel guilty. Laugh if you want to. Just as you must allow yourself the time to grieve, you must also allow yourself the time to laugh. Viewing laughter as part of the healing process, just as overwhelming sadness is now, will make the pain more bearable.
7. The truth isn't that one person can bear this alone.
The truth is that while only you can make the choices necessary to return to the mainstream of life a healed person, others in your life are also grieving and are feeling very helpless. As unfair as it may seem, the burden of remaining in contact with family and friends often falls on you. They are afraid to "butt in," or they may be fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. This makes them feel even more helpless. They need to be told honestly what they can do to help. They don't need to be told, "I'm doing fine" when you're really NOT doing fine. By allowing others to share in your pain and assist you with your needs, you will be comforted and they will feel less helpless.
8. The truth isn't that God must be punishing you for something.
The truth is that sometimes these things just happen. They have happened to many people before you, and they will happen to many people after you. This was not an act of any God; it was an act of Nature. It isn't fair to blame God, or yourself, or anyone else. Try to understand that it is human nature to look for a place to put the blame, especially when there are so few answers to the question, "Why?" Sometimes there are answers. Most times there are not. Believing that you are being punished will only get in the way of your healing.
9. The truth isn't that you will be unable to make any choices or decisions during this time.
The truth is that while major decisions, such as moving or changing jobs, are better off being postponed for now, life goes on. It will be difficult, but decisions dealing with the death of your baby (seeing and naming the baby, arranging and/or attending a religious ritual, taking care of the nursery items you have acquired) are all choices you can make for yourself. Well-meaning people will try to shelter you from the pain of this. However, many of us who have suffered similar losses agree that these first decisions are very important. They help to make the loss real. Our brains filter out much of the pain early on as a way to protect us. Very soon after that, we find ourselves reliving the events over and over, trying to remember everything. This is another way that we acknowledge the loss. Until the loss is real, grieving cannot begin. Being involved at this early time will be a painful experience, but it will help you deal with your grief better as you progress by providing comforting memories of having performed loving, caring acts for your baby.
10. The truth isn't that you will be delighted to hear that a friend or other loved one has just given birth to a healthy baby.
The truth is that you may find it very difficult to be around mothers with young babies. You may be hurt, or angry, or jealous. You may wonder why you couldn't have had that joy. You may be resentful, or refuse to see friends with new babies. You may even secretly wish that the same thing would happen to someone else. You want someone to understand how it feels. You may also feel very ashamed that you could wish such things on people you love or care about, or think that you must be a dreadful person. You aren't. You're human, and even the most loving people can react this way when they are actively grieving. If the situations were reversed, your friends would be feeling and thinking the same things you are. Forgive yourself. It's OK. These feelings will eventually go away.
11. The truth isn't that all marriages survive this difficult time.
The truth is that sometimes you might blame one another, resent one another, or dislike being with one another. If you find this happening, get help. There are self-help groups available or grief counselors who can help. Don't ignore it or tuck it away assuming it will get better. It won't. Actively grieving people cannot help one another. It is unrealistic, like having two people who were blinded at the same time teach each other Braille. Talking it out with others may help. It might even save your marriage.
12. The truth isn't that eventually you will accept the loss of your baby and forget all about this awful time.
The truth is that acceptance is a word reserved for the understanding you come to when you've successfully grieved the loss of a parent, or a grandparent, or a beloved older relative. When you lose a child, your whole future has been affected, not your past. No one can really accept that. But there is resolution in the form of healing and learning how to cope. You will survive. Many of us who have gone through this type of grief are afraid we might forget about our babies once we begin to heal. This won't happen. You will always remember your precious baby because successful grieving carves a place in your heart where he or she will live forever.