October is a month full of remembrances and holidays – Breast Cancer, Halloween and more. But the day that’s nearest to my heart is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, October 15.
I’ve never lost a child or a pregnancy. I’ve never made the heart wrenching decision to continue a pregnancy when the odds were not in favor of my child’s survival. I haven’t buried or cremated any of my babies. I haven’t held my child as they took their last breath. I haven’t done any of these things for a child of my own.
My childhood was shaped in part by infant loss. My parents experienced a stillbirth when I was not quite five years old. My mother recounted to me recently that one of the hardest things was breaking the news to me in that quiet, bright hospital room. I thought about the birth of my sister about a year and a half later and my first question was whether my sister lived. Another year and a half later we buried a little boy next to his older sister. He lived a whole sixteen days. I did get to visit him in the NICU. I held him after he was removed from machines. I saw my father cry for the first time I can ever recall, cradling his newborn son.
I grew up on the outside of infant loss, looking into that abyss. I am forever grateful my three pregnancies and births were easy and uncomplicated. I know better than most that not everyone is so blessed.
My sister was not so fortunate. Her second pregnancy, her second son, was diagnosed in utero with a devastating heart defect. The second half of her pregnancy was spent in agonizing waiting – would the next test show improvement or bring even worse news? I went to her when she was in labor with him, and am glad I was able to be there for her, with her, as she worked to bring him into this world. My one regret is I left to go home and rest, only to wake up to the worst news anyone can hear. Not only was his heart too big with too many complications, but his lungs were far behind in development. She and her husband said goodbye to their little lion with angel wings.
In the aftermath of these losses, I know I’m not alone. There are others like me who have loved ones who have experienced a loss, and are themselves at a loss. If I have any words of wisdom, they are these:
You are allowed to grieve. This is perhaps the hardest thing to realize, because on one hand, it is not your loss. You may not be the parent suffering heartache, but your grief is real; you’ve lost a cousin, a niece, a nephew, a sibling, a friend’s child that might have grown up to be your own child’s best friend . . . you’ve lost what might have been. Don’t stifle your tears or hide your mourning. If there is one thing I’ve learned from the outside, looking in, it’s that the parents need to know that their child is remembered. Your grief honors them.
Don’t ask, just do. In the midst of grief, the bereaved family has a million people asking, “how can we help?” And unless they planned for the eventuality, and even then, they probably do not have the mental energy to coordinate an effort. Be specific in your offer. Ask “Do you need meals brought in?” or “Are there any days you need help transporting your older kids to and from school?” If you can spot a need and fill that need (like the lawn looks like it could use a trim) those are things that a family will be grateful for not having to think about.
Don’t forget to remember the lost. Not that you need to bring it up every time you talk, but don’t hesitate to mention the child lost, or check in with the parents afterwards. It’s a delicate balance giving them space to breathe and to grieve, but also making sure they know you haven’t forgotten. The healing process following the loss of a child is not a straight line. There are days when it’s easy to smile and laugh, and others where you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. The gut punch days still happen months and years down the line – the grief is as real and raw then as it was in the beginning.
Pregnancy and Infant Loss is a devastating experience. It’s life altering for the main people experiencing it, and not a lot easier for those on the outside watching loved ones grapple with life after loss. If you’ve helped a loved one through this and have tips you’d like to share, please do.
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