Grieving Someone You Never Met
**Trigger Warning. This blog is about grieving the loss of a baby. It mentions stillbirth, miscarriage etc. **
Grief and loss are hard enough to figure out. But how does one grieve someone they never met due to a miscarriage or stillbirth? It certainly complicates the process.
Death is scary. It is uncomfortable to talk about and think about. I used to have an immense fear of death. Who am I kidding? I still do. I am just better at hiding it. I remember very distinctly when one of my clients, early on in my career, informed me that I changed the subject every time she brought up death and dying. I had no idea. The thought was so scary to me that I had been depriving clients from processing some very necessary thoughts and feelings of their own. This prompted me to go to therapy and to deal with my fear. Not only did I deal with the fear, but I ended up volunteering at a bereavement camp for children who lost a parent or sibling. Hey! Go big or go home, right? (Sorry. Humor is one of my well used coping mechanisms). I went from not talking about death to fully immersing myself in a camp where we talked about death and grief for an entire weekend. It was an amazing, and life changing, experience.
While we don’t talk about grief enough, there tends to be enough conversation to give most individuals some sense of what to expect, and how to manage. Of course, no one can be prepared for what loss really feels like, but not all loss is the same. I am not saying that one type of loss is worse than another, but not all loss can be grieved in the same way and not all loss is so freely spoken about. I am speaking very specifically about the loss of a pregnancy, a loss of a baby. Yes, the loss of a baby is inherently awful, but the loss of a baby creates a unique challenge when it comes to the grieving process.
When you lose someone in your life, you get to hold on to the memories. You can think of the good times, remember the inside jokes etc. What do you do when you have no memories? What do you do when all you have are the thoughts about the future you would no longer have with this baby? What do you do when those thoughts only make the loss feel worse? What happens when you are the only one who knew this little human being and what they felt like inside of you? The hiccups? The kicks? The backflips? What happens when the loss is so horribly real for you, but less so for those around you, because they never had the opportunity to meet your baby? How do you grieve? How do you mourn? How do you talk about a loss when you have nothing but crushed hopes and dreams to fall back on? When the only “memories” you have reinforce the immense loss that you experienced? What do you hold on to?
I don’t necessarily have the answers (I know. I’m sorry). I can tell you what helped me, or what would have helped if given the opportunity.
- Talk about your baby, even if it feels weird at first. Talk about your baby and what it felt like to have your baby inside of you. Talk about your hopes and dreams for that baby. Acknowledge their existence. Honor their memory.
- If your baby was given a name, say the baby’s name. Help yourself, and others, to know that while your baby may have never come into this world breathing, they existed and deserve to be remembered and spoken about.
- If given the opportunity, and if you feel comfortable, create memories with your baby following their birth. Bathe the baby. Change their diaper. Hold them. Read them a story. I wish I was given this opportunity. It provides memories to hold onto. It can provide some closure. It gives you an opportunity to nurture and parent your baby in very concrete ways.
- If given the opportunity, and if you feel comfortable, take pictures of the baby, and take pictures of you holding the baby. It may not be something you can look at for a long time, but it may provide comfort one day. And if comfortable, show these pictures to those closest to you…or to the world. This is your baby. You have every right to celebrate them, even if it makes others uncomfortable.
- Decide how you will, or won’t, incorporate the baby into your life. Some of you may sign holiday cards with your baby’s name. Some of you will incorporate the baby’s picture into future family pictures. Some of you may put a picture of the baby in your living room. Some may create a day to honor their baby. Some may make a cake to celebrate the baby’s day of birth. Some may hold a box of memories and keep the memories to themselves. There are no right answers. It is important that you grieve in a way that is best for you.
- Go to a support group. Even if you never say a word, don’t underestimate the power of being with people who just get it. Even if it’s not in a group setting, find your people. Find a place where you don’t have to worry about making others uncomfortable when talking about your baby. Find a place where you can talk about all the awful comments people inevitably make.
- Address the shame. This kind of loss is associated with so much shame. I will write more about this at another time. Shame will complicate your grief and this loss is complicated enough. Talk about your shame with a therapist, close friend, or significant other. Challenge it. Don’t let it rob you of the ability to connect with others as process your grief.
- Know that it is ok to not do ANY of these things. There is no one way to grief, especially the loss of a baby. If you were not comfortable holding the baby, that is ok. I promise. If you are not comfortable showing pictures to others, that is ok too. I remember thinking that I was grieving incorrectly because my grief didn’t look like anyone else’s. But, months later, I finally came to the point where I was able to sit with the fact that my grief shouldn’t look like someone else’s grief. I had to honor myself and my baby in the way I felt appropriate. It was just another way that I got to be my baby’s mother.
- Be angry when you need to be. Nothing about this is fair. Feel the anger, but don’t let yourself stay there for too long. You will miss out on the beauty of your village, standing there to help you. You will miss out on the beautiful moments in life that your baby would have wanted you to experience.
- Remind yourself that it is ok to laugh, to smile, to feel happy. None of that takes away from your loss. Know that every holiday will bring a sense of happiness, but a reminder of loss. You will eventually learn how to balance all the mixed emotions.
- You will forever be a parent who lost a child. That is a reality that takes a long time to wrap your head around. People around you will move on and will expect you to move on as well. It is ok to remind them that you are still grieving.
I also want to talk to the people in your life. Friends and family! Here is how you can help your friends and family members who have endured such a horrible loss.
- Provide space for your loved one(s) to grieve and process. Don’t push them to grieve quickly because they were “only a few weeks along.” Don’t ask them when they plan to have another baby. Don’t tell them that it is time for them to move on from the loss. Tell them that you are there for them when/if they need to talk and then be there for them. Don’t offer advice. Just listen. There are no answers that you will be able to provide, as powerless as that make you feel. They just need someone to hear them.
- Provide space for your loved one to talk about their baby. Yes, it will make you feel uncomfortable. That is ok. This is such a huge part of the healing process. This baby existed and it is important that you acknowledge the existence of the baby by giving your loved one permission to talk about their loss. This helps to validate what they went through and to know that they don’t have to go through this alone.
- Say the baby’s name (if the baby has one). Many choose to name their baby. They often had a name picked out from the very beginning. That name is part of the child’s identity, and it helps your loved one to hear the baby’s name acknowledged and honored. You may never see what that baby looked like but acknowledging the baby’s name can make the baby more real in your mind. Participate in the ways the family chooses to celebrate their baby’s memory. Let them know that you would be honored to participate if they are inviting people beyond the immediate family. Assure them that this is something you are comfortable with and something that is important to you.
- Manage your own discomfort to help ensure that your loved one can focus on their own grief rather than having to take care of you.
- Don’t assume that a loved one is not grieving because the loss was early on in the pregnancy. Let them know that their loss is just as significant as someone who lost their baby further along in their pregnancy.
- Never tell a grieving parent that things happen for a reason. Don’t make statements that start with, “Well at least….!” (At least you are young and can keep trying.) These statements may make you feel better, but they are not helpful to those who are grieving.
- Be understanding when your loved one does not participate in family and/or friend events, especially baby showers. While they would love to celebrate these important events, it is also very triggering and brings up a lot of heart ache. Give them permission to miss the event if they feel that it is too much. Acknowledge their pain.
- Don’t assume because time has past that your loved one is no longer grieving their child. This loss never goes away. The pain of this loss will follow your loved one with every passing year, every holiday, anniversary, celebration, etc.
I wish for a world where all the babies who never got to experience this world were acknowledged, talked about, and remembered. I wish for a world where we all provide a safe space for grieving individuals to talk about their babies. Grieving the loss of a pregnancy/baby is a very unique type of loss. It is a very lonely type of loss. But it doesn’t have to be.