Statistics say that 1 in every 5 births will result in a loss. More number crunching will reveal that the majority of these losses will be miscarriages, and in the early first trimester. Numbers can be helpful. They can tell us a lot. But in the case of pregnancy loss numbers leave a lot more untold then told. Numbers can’t tell you how to react when a friend or relative tells you their baby will not be born alive into this world. Numbers can’t tell you what to say or what not to say. They can’t tell you what to do or not do. Numbers can’t possibly prepare you for the reality that a life began and ended too soon. They can’t tell you how you will handle the new reality that losing a baby brings. Numbers don’t tell you how to comfort and support someone experiencing this kind of loss.
So I would like to try.
As a birth and bereavement doula I assist women who are experiencing a loss or a birth in any trimester, in any circumstance. It is my privilege to support women and families during a very emotional and sad time. Beyond being a Birth and Bereavement Doula, though, I have personal experience. I have sent 7 babies Home to Eternity ahead of me. Four of those babies I held. I kissed them, though they couldn’t feel the kisses. I wrapped them in impossibly small blankets. I made burial arrangements for them and visit their graves with my living children. I buried my children. The other three I didn’t get to hold. One was a blighted ovum, a life gone almost as soon as it began. One was an early miscarriage, I was only 7 weeks. The last was ectopic. All different, all my children. So I would like to take my experiences and share with you what would have been comforting to me. What helped and what hurt. What eased the pain and what made it worse; so when you are given the news that someone you know has experienced the loss of a child, you won’t be caught wondering or worrying over what you can say or do.
It has been my experience that most people will not say or do anything because they are afraid that in acknowledging a loss, they will cause more pain. I can understand this thought process, but I can assure you that the exact opposite is true! As a bereaved mother what I would say to you is, I know my baby died, I can’t forget. You won’t be reminding me. My biggest fear is that my baby will be forgotten. So by acknowledging my baby and my loss, you bring me comfort because then I know my baby’s life mattered. So my biggest piece of advice? When faced with saying something or not saying something: SAY SOMETHING. Even if it is only “I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.” Or “I wish I knew what to say. Your baby’s life mattered.” Even if their loss happened years ago.
I will never forget holding an elderly woman, somewhere in her seventies, as she cried over the baby she had lost when she was in her early twenties. A mother’s heart never forgets, and a mother’s heart doesn’t really want to.
After acknowledging the loss, ask if there is anything they need. Or anything you can do. Or how they are doing. Send flowers. Drop off a meal. Grief takes a long time. Acknowledge what would have been the baby’s Due Date as it approaches and a year later the “birth date” if the parents remember their baby’s life that way. I can promise you that you won’t be “opening a wound” or reminding the mother of her loss. I can guarantee you that she already remembered. You will bring her comfort by letting her know YOU remembered. That she isn’t alone in the memory of her child. I cannot tell you what a huge comfort that is.
There is a sad misconception in society that tells us that somehow it is perfectly acceptable to grieve the loss of a loved one like a parent or grandparent for months, even years; yet parents are expected to simply “get over” the loss of a child. This is so sad! And so hurtful and confusing to bereaved parents who begin to think there is something wrong with themselves if their grief lingers longer than “socially acceptable.” After my first loss, I took so much comfort from sympathy cards, flower deliveries, Mass and remembrance cards, and people dropping off meals. I recalled when my grandparents died and people did the same things. In my mind, the fact that I was receiving this attention for my baby meant that she was a real person. That my loss was real.
After my fourth loss though, those sympathy cards didn’t come. There were no flowers, no meals, no condolences. I cannot tell you how much this hurt. I think many people figured I was probably “over” the whole loss thing by now. That since this particular baby’s loss wasn’t dramatic like some of the others were, it didn’t matter as much. Maybe my friends and family were just burnt out from all my losses. Whatever the reason, the lack of acknowledgement hurt me so much more than I anticipated. I was angry that it seemed like some of my babies mattered more than others. I was hurt because it felt like I wasn’t being given permission to grieve. I was sad because it made me feel like I couldn’t talk about this baby like I could the others. I took away a big lesson from this experience. That no matter how many losses a woman endures, each one is unique. Each one needs to be acknowledged. Each and every life, however brief, matters.
I want to take a moment to say something about bereaved fathers. It has been found that in the case of stillbirth and pregnancy loss, fathers tend to grieve 6 to 12 months AFTER the loss occurs. The reason is mainly biological. When a woman loses a child her whole body, mind, and heart grieve. It is birth; but birth without a squirmy pink baby to hold. It is a birth that results in empty arms. This is a profound experience for a woman. (Did you know that many women’s arms actually ache after a miscarriage or stillbirth?) While the woman is experiencing all this, the father is a witness, not an active participant. As a result, his male instincts to protect become heightened. Fathers who are watching or witnessing the mother of their child lose that child overwhelmingly want to protect her, to stop her pain, to fix things. This biological reaction is imprinted on men’s psyches. It is natural and good – at one time this would have protected women experiencing a loss from real danger. Now a days, there may not be actual danger to protect her from, but this response to her grief is still real for men. As a result, they tend to not begin the cycle of grief until months or even a full year later. This leads many people to mistakenly believe that the father is “fine.” That he is “over it already,” when the fact of the matter is “it” has most likely not even begun for him yet. This is important to know because while the initial attention is on mom and her grief there WILL come a time when dad needs to mourn and grieve. He will need support and compassion when his time comes too. In my experience as a Doula I can speak anecdotally to what I have noticed: the more dramatic and sudden the loss, the later dad’s grief will set in.
The issue of miscarriage and stillbirth is a tricky one. It makes us all feel uncomfortable because it just feels wrong. Anticipating the birth of a baby is supposed to be a time of happiness, not sorrow. It is jarring and unsettling when we learn that someone we care for has lost a baby. Despite all this though, there ARE ways you can bring some comfort to a mother or family experiencing loss even if it feels unsettling or uncomfortable. I hope I have been able to take away some of that discomfort and give you some examples of ways that will bring some comfort to a newly bereaved parent.
Do you remember your middle school or high school reproductive health class? When I think back to my education about periods and “How babies are made” my memories are brief. I can remember short parts of videos or awkward condom demonstrations and disgusting pictures of STDs. Does this sound familiar to you?