Pregnancy and infant loss is all around us. Mothers, fathers, and families the world over have felt the pain of losing a lovingly anticipated child. No matter how the child is lost – miscarriage, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome, complications, birth defects, or unexpected events – the grief is real and deep and living.
Noted grief educator and counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt attests to the reality of the deep pain that accompanies the loss of a child. He says, “With the death of your child, your hopes, dreams and plans for the future are turned upside down. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful, and overwhelming. The death of a child results in the most profound bereavement.”
But sadly, the society we live in is not always as compassionate and understanding, particularly in relation to pregnancy and infant loss. There are certain types of losses that go largely unacknowledged by society or are not given public expression. These losses are mourned in secret and are often not spoken of. We even have a name for this type of grief – disenfranchised grief. Dr. Ken Doka, who coined the phrase, describes it as, “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”
To the many mothers and fathers who have lost an infant or a child in the womb, society may not acknowledge the gravity of your loss, but your loss is significant and worth grieving. Your grief is not something that should be swept under the rug or spoken of in whispers. It is real, and it is important.
So, as you move forward in your grief journey, as you mourn the loss of the child who carried many of your hopes and dreams, remember these things:
You have the right to grieve your loss
Despite what society may say, your loss is real and legitimate. You have the right to grieve. Every parent has hopes and dreams for their baby, and when the baby is lost, those deeply cherished wishes are crushed. You are left with a hollowness in your heart. But remember this – your baby was special, unique, and you have a right to mourn what will not be.
You have the right to talk about what you’ve been through
Find people you trust or others who have experienced a similar loss and talk with them. Share the weight of your grief. You don’t have to walk through this journey alone – you can invite others in. By talking about the loss, you help us all move toward being a society that acknowledges the depth of pain associated with pregnancy and infant loss.
You have the right to feel whatever it is you feel
Grief expresses itself in many different ways. Shock, denial, confusion, yearning, guilt, sadness, depression, to name a few. None of these are wrong. They are all normal. In fact, there’s no “right” way to grieve. For every one of us, the experience is different. So, embrace whatever it is that you feel – don’t push it away. We must go through the pain to move toward healing and reconciliation.
You have the right to be physically and emotionally weary
Grief is hard work. All of the emotions swirling inside, often not finding expression, sap your energy. You may find it hard to sleep, and as a result, feel tired and overwhelmed. In some cases, people may even experience physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, and weight loss or gain. Please know – this is a natural reaction. The body is in distress, the same as the mind and heart. Be kind to yourself as you grieve.
You have the right to grieve differently than your partner
Since there’s no “right” way to grieve, it stands to reason that no two people will grieve in the exact same way. But just because your grief and your partner’s grief don’t look the same doesn’t mean you aren’t both grieving. Give each other room to grieve. Give each other grace to grieve differently. And move toward each other, rather than away, as you process this profound loss in your lives.
You have the right to be unashamed of your loss
Despite what society or insensitive people around you may say, your loss is legitimate. You have every right to feel deep emotions. You have every right to mourn what might have been, what you hoped for. Do not try to hide what you feel. Openly express what your baby’s loss has meant to you. If others don’t understand, that doesn’t mean you should try to conceal your grief. By no means do you need their permission to grieve.
You have the right to have your loss acknowledged
You do have the right to have your loss acknowledged, though you shouldn’t go around demanding that people do so. Forcing people into something is never truly successful. Instead, find comfort in the knowledge that your loss is worth acknowledgment, and because it is, awareness groups all over the country are working to bring it out of the shadows and into the light.
You have the right to experience grief bursts
A grief burst is a moment when something triggers a surge of grief. The trigger could be anything – your due date, another baby the same age as yours, a quote, a movie, an article of clothing. These bursts are a normal and natural part of the grieving process. Don’t be surprised when you experience them and find someone who knows your struggle to talk with when they occur.
You have the right to cherish your memories
There are many ways to cherish your memories. Collect keepsakes – ultrasound photos, handmade items, a lock of hair, photos, etc. – and create a memory box or scrapbook. Write your thoughts and feelings down or write letters to your baby. Have a piece of jewelry made with your baby’s initials or birthstone. Start a tradition that brings you comfort.
You have the right to move toward your grief and heal
Like any grief – recognized or not – you have the right to grieve and to heal. Dr. Wolfelt tells us that we never get over a death; instead, we learn to reconcile ourselves to the loss. He states, “Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent. Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future…. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”
If you take nothing else away, know that your loss is significant, and it is heartbreaking. You have the right to mourn the loss of a child much loved and gone too soon. Grieve in whatever way you need so that you can find healing, peace, and reconciliation.