Wednesday, January 18, 2012

For the Newly Bereaved

I have been thinking about where we were two years ago today: planning Ellie's memorial service, crying, staring, sleeping, crying, sitting in her room, drinking, arguing, screaming, crying...on and on and on. I was so lost. How could this have happened? What the hell do I do now?

I wish someone who had experienced the loss of a child would've helped. I didn't know about any organizations at that time. My mother-in-law lost her two month old 42 years ago, but losing her granddaughter seemed to push her off the edge a bit. I talked to her a little, but neither of us were functioning very well.

So, one of my resolutions this year is to help other bereaved families more. Below is my attempt at that!


Let me start by sending my deepest, deepest condolences. This is so unfair. It’s unnatural. It just sucks…there is no other way to say it.

Grief is one of the most powerful emotions out there next to love. When you combine the two, it is a miracle one can even function.

It doesn’t feel like it now, but you will learn to cope and you will start to heal—although that hole in your heart never will. You have to get up every day and continue to love the memory of your sweet child and love the bright future of their legacy. Everything will have to be okay, because you are currently surviving the worst possible situation a parent can experience. Although it feels like your heart will just stop beating; that your lungs will cease to fill with air; you will survive this. 

I know nothing will help your pain. Time helps a little as does a good support network of loving, patient friends and family, but you will never truly ‘feel better’ (people will ask if you ‘feel better’ or ‘how are you feeling?’ often). That is not meant to sound dire or give anyone permission to ‘check out’.  It doesn’t mean that there won’t be good days and happy memories.  But, the situation is what it is.

So, I wanted to offer some words of advice and encouragement, if you can imagine that, during this horrific time.

The first few days after your child’s death will be a blur. Focusing on the funeral arrangements (and you should be involved or you may regret it later) and/or caring for a surviving child or grandchildren will help time move, but you are in shock...on autopilot. You will probably be bombarded by emails, calls, letters, and texts from caring and loving friends and family. Some people may come across insensitive or may tell inappropriate stories of other children passing--but they do it out of love and pain. They don't know what to say and just want to comfort you. You may feel you need to make them feel comfortable by being polite or thanking them, but no one should expect that right now. They are there because they care and love you. They don't expect anything in return. It is hard to ask for help and one never thinks they will experience the death of a child. But people are amazing in these situations; so caring and self sacrificing. Let them help.

You may go through an array of emotions if you haven't already: anger, guilt, sadness, fear, loss, etc. You may question your beliefs or find extreme comfort in them. But your grieving will be your own process that cannot be directed or explained. There certainly isn't a timeframe. You just need to be.

When visiting friends and family begin to leave, you will continue to go through the motions, writing thank you notes, possibly going back to work, cleaning out your child’s room, caring for surviving children, etc. And you will re-live everything over and over again. You may snap at family members or need to be alone. You may need to talk about what has happened or you may need to stay busy. Or you may just need to sit and cry and stare. You may talk about getting pregnant right away or about never having another child again. You may drink and sleep a little too much and bathe and eat a little less often...and that ok for the moment (but don't let it consume you). You will be in survival mode. Be irrational and sad if you need to. As long as you aren’t hurting yourself or others, do what you have to in order to get through this incredibly difficult time. What has happened is horrific and not fair; it’s hard for the brain to even process. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real…a horrible nightmare.

Some may tell you, or you may read, that the divorce rate is higher for couples that have lost a child. This is not true. There is no supporting documentation or cited study for that statistic. You both are experiencing something no parent should have to. You have been through a roller coaster of emotions and have argued more than ever and loved deeper than before. It is a struggle because everyone, especially men, grieve differently (this is both due to personality types and societal pressure). But communication, space, patience and love are the key. It is not pretty at times, but you can be stronger as a couple for everything. No one else knows your pain better than your partner but don't expect them to know what is going on in your head. Lean on them, talk about what you feel and offer your understanding too.

As time passes, that amazing support from countless family, friends, and strangers will fade. It is natural and doesn't mean people don't care or don't still hurt. But they will move on while you will be stuck. However, there will be people in your life that just cannot understand your pain (and only we know how truly lucky they are to have never experienced a child’s death). They might expect you to ‘buck up’ or ‘move on’ or some other absurd thing. If you have to remove them from your life or alter your relationship, do it now! You can spend an immense amount of time just getting people to try to remember and honor your child, but is doesn't mean that they will or even want to. Their ignorance only intensifies the grieving process.

Know that you will never (or shouldn’t)  just 'get over' what has happened and that there is still support there. You are forever changed - you belong to a community of grief. You are defined as a bereaved parent now although it doesn’t have to define you. But you will need support for a long time. One year will not be enough as some will say. Yes, the first days weeks, months, and year anniversaries of birthdays, holidays, and the deathday will be extremely hard. It does not get easier with time, just less painful. You eventually learn how to cope (most days). Greif counseling or joining online groups like the Compassionate Friends or Faces of Loss, Face of Hope can provide an amazing amount of support. You may also think about getting involved in charities or service activities in honor of your child.

Memorial items of your child are a must right now. A blanket they slept on or were wrapped in, medical equipment used in their care, clothing/toys you intended for them to have, etc. should be kept. If you have experienced neonatal death, you have very few items that were actually touched by your child, if any at all. Having a memorial item made such as a necklace, bracelet, picture, cast/mold, tattoos etc. with your child’s name and birth date might help keep your child close.

After a while, and it is different for everyone, you will be able to make it through a day without the lump in the back of your throat or knot in your stomach. You will be able to smile and laugh again although it seems so foreign right now. You will be able to talk about your child without crying (although it is ok to still cry). One day you will be sitting and realize you have gone an hour without thinking about your child or your pain and you will panic. It is ok. It doesn’t mean you love them any less.

There will continue to be triggers for a long time beyond the anniversaries and holidays. A certain song or book; another baby or pregnant woman; and toys could cause you to break down in tears. Leave the situation and don’t feel you have to ‘suck it up’ or attend functions that you know will upset you. If people can’t understand how much pain you are in and display some patience and understanding, then they shouldn’t be in your life to begin with. You can choose to talk to them about this by stating EXACTLY what you need (please don't invite me to baby showers; please warn me if a movie/book you are recommending shows a child being hurt or dying or bereaved parents; please say my child's name and remember their birthday/deathday; etc.). Youc an also chose to distance yourself. Reconcilation may happen in the future, but you have to make it through every minute, so do what you must!

You may have days when you cannot get out of bed and have to stay home. You may get angry and blame yourself (after all, as a mother and father it is our job to nurture and protect our children). These are completely normal feelings of truly amazing parents (and you are parents no matter how long your child was alive!). You may also incessantly seek answers to medical complications/genetic disorders or ask why and what-if or think of all the I-should-haves. It will be tormenting to run through all the different scenarios. But the past cannot be changed although we desperately try to will it so. Redirecting those repetitive thoughts is difficult, but can be accomplished by allowing yourself to do so (as well as help from good friends/family and/or a cousnelor). Allow yourself to grieve, but allow yourself to heal too.

This life is so hard, especially without our children. But you will heal. You will sincerely laugh again. You will be able to make it through a day without crying. You will feel yourself getting stronger and loving your child even more…if that is possible.


  1. This is a kind, moving, NEEDED blog entry. Thank you.


  2. Wow. I lost my daughter 29 years ago at 3 weeks of age. It's amazing how everything you have said is true. It can seem like a lifetime ago....and it can feel like it was yesterday. I agree with everything you have blogged and wish that I had had it back then

  3. One of the hardest things is that you don't want to even fathom moving forward without them. Leaving them behind as each day pulls the time you had further away. Hearing "You'll be okay" feels like an insult to their memory especially when you're still in the shock phase. How can anything ever be okay if they're not here? That's not only how I felt, but how I wanted to continue to feel in honour of my child's memory and impact. The world seems so much darker and far more pointless without them here. It's so hard to just get through the motions of life when your whole reason for living has just been torn assunder.

  4. This was helpful. We lost our baby girl at 22 weeks, after just a few short hours of life. That was on the 30th of September, just 2 months ago. The wound is so completely fresh, i'm only now beginning to seek out others who might be or might have been going thru the same or similar. Thank you for writing this.