Typically I write about topics related to chronic and painful conditions. However, today I am writing about the pain of complicated grief, specifically of parental grief after stillbirth. I chose today, because on this day, 13 years ago, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s son Dominic was born still. My sister-in-law gave birth to an angel, their son, and then they had to say goodbye.
Mothers, like my sister-in-law, whose child is still born, give birth, they have contractions, push and labor until they birth their child, a child who will not take a breath. As parents they get to know their child, planned for life together and had hopes and dreams for their child’s life. They experienced months of joy, of preparation, little kicks and seeing their baby on ultrasounds. However, after giving birth, they do not experience their child’s first breath, first cries, they will not take their child home and fulfill the hopes, dreams and plans they had for their child and their family. Instead their baby will never take a breath and they will only be given a short time to say goodbye to their child who was born an angel.
On awareness days for infant and pregnancy loss, the main focus is on remembering the child and acknowledging their existence, which of course is important. Indirectly we are acknowledging the experience of the parents but does society really honor the magnitude of the parents life changing experience, and their painful journey? I think the answer is no, society does not focus sufficiently on the parental experience. I base my answer on the comments below that I have heard over the years, whether in my experience as a social worker, feedback from other grieving parents or in relation to my experiences after Dominic’s death. Society is not great at honoring grief .
“This used to happen all the time years ago, it wasn’t such a big deal.”
This statement lacks empathy, just because something is not a rare occurrence, does not mean it bears any less pain and significance. Furthermore, I’m sure it was a “big deal”, how would the death of a child not be important? Finally, by implying that it is not a “big deal”, the grief of the parents is being invalidated and a judgement placed on their feelings. Cancer happens all the time, does that negate the pain and significance to the person, and their loved one’s? Even if it happened to every person on the planet, would that cause the person to grieve their child less?
“Should’t they be over their grief by now?”
In my experience, what the person is saying is, “shouldn’t they be done being sad?” It is typically said because the loved one is uncomfortable with that feeling and want it to go away. Again this is a statement of judgement. The process of grief has no timeline and is not linear. There are many stages of grief, such as denial, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. It is perfectly acceptable for the parents to return to experiencing sadness. By rushing this stage or implying that they should not feel sad after a certain time period is not honoring the pain the parents have endured. What the loved one should be asking them is how can I comfort you and how can I help. If you are truly concerned that this stage of grief has proceeded to a depression where the,parents is at risk of self-harm, recognize that and seek professional guidance.
“At least the baby didn’t suffer”
The “at least” or “look on the bright side”, does not put the needs of the grieving parent at the forefront. Statements like these are usually delivered, because the person has a need to “fix” it, it makes them more comfortable. Maybe the baby did not suffer, but the parents are suffering. This statement actually minimizes their pain, there is no “at least or bight side”, the parents have a deceased child. No parent would want their child to suffer or feel pain, however, this is little comfort when someone is grieving a loved one. The parents grief would be no deeper had their child suffered, suffering only changes the child’s life story, not the depth of the parental grief.
“At least you have other children” Again forcing the bright side on the parents, isolates the parents in their grief. It places a judgement on the parent that somehow they should be less sad. Furthermore, one child’s life could never replace the life of another.
“You can get pregnant again” That may be true, but it is not comforting, the parents wanted that pregnancy and that child. They knew that child and loved that child. Furthermore, it may not be true that they can get pregnant again.
“It is probably better they died before you really knew them” This statement invalidates the love and relationship they had with their baby. Attachment bonds are developed even in the womb. The parents form a loving relationship and bond with there baby. They felt their baby move, watch them grow, looked forward to every ultrasound few. The mother especially, knew when they slept, when they tended to move more, what sounds elicited a response etc. She focused on caring for the baby’s needs and health above all else
“Everything happens for a reason” This is a common statement offered in times of mourning. It usually is said to comfort the person saying it, to give them a sense of security, that there is order in the world. However, it is not an accurate statement. There is not a reason for everything, certainly we can attribute meaning and purpose to horrible events. However, discussing philosophy is not a comfort to a grieving parent. Furthermore, the parent may not be at a place in their process to be identifying meaning and purpose and it is no one else’s place to attribute meaning to their loss.
“This happened to me too” The sharing of similar stories can be a powerful tool in helping us feel we are not alone. However, this must be done carefully. We are not with the parents on their journey to process our pain. No matter how similar the story, everyone’s story is still personal to them, even the two parents who have experienced the same loss, experience that pain differently. A statement of empathy based on your experience is all that is really needed, unless your story is solicited.
“You should do this, it would help you, should you really be doing that” It is not helpful to judge how a person is dealing with their pain and loss. Unsolicited advice only serves to make the parents feel inadequate when they are doing the best they can.
Silence is deafening. Often the fastest way to isolate a grieving parent is not what is said, but what is not said. Parents deserve to have their grief and intensely painful experience acknowledged. If it is difficult and uncomfortable for you, imagine what it feels like to them. They want their baby to be remembered, their name to be spoken out loud. Less is more, just be present and “hold space” for them. “Holding space” means you walk along with them on their journey through grief, with empathy and without judgement. Some aspects of “holding space” includes unconditional positive regard, with respect and compassion. It is important to “sit with what is”, resisting the desire to change anything, especially their feelings. You are there to create a safe space for them. Allow the parents to feel whatever they are feeling. Do not usurp their pain. As you hold space for the parents, it may bring up your own pain, especially if you are family or if you have had a similar experience. Although you are in the trenches with them, you are holding their hand, not taking on their pain as your own. If you need to process your pain find someone to hold space for you. Do not try to fix it, that might make us feel better, but will only serve to make the parent feel isolated in their pain. The only way beyond the pain is to walk through it, walk through it with them.