As far as the parenting world is concerned, the only struggle greater than that of raising a child is to lose one. It’s a struggle of loss, of grief, of identity, of recovery, of hope.
And it is one that is often kept silent. It’s a topic seldom openly discussed, and consequently one that most people are inept at dealing with. Here, I wish to do my part to normalize this conversation, to show the inside workings of the mind of a parent who loses a child and how they manage to keep on going.
The following is an interview with a good friend of mine who first experienced a miscarriage. She then had a stillbirth last year. Her loss has been apparent, but her struggle has been discreet. Friends don’t broach the topic because we don’t want to upset her. However, through this interview she has shared with me her most closely guarded thoughts. She talks about the unique struggles of returning to work in a medical field. She talks about protecting her marriage. Of moving forward without forgetting.
If you know someone who has suffered the loss of a child, share this with them. Maybe the little shadows walking next to us will be more bearable if we walk in a crowd.
As per her wishes, her identity is protected.
Q: You experienced one of the most difficult things a person can. How did you start the healing process? How did you cope with getting back to work? With facing people?
A: I think that at some point I realized that I was experiencing the different stages of the grieving process. It wasn’t planned but around the “Anger” stage I realized that’s the path I was on. There were days when I felt better and stronger but then there is a trigger, something as small as watching a parent play with their child, and you go back to where you started. My approach to the early weeks was keeping myself distracted. It wasn’t with productive things, just anything that kept my mind off my pain. Things like binge watching TV shows. Spending time with my family. But when I got back to work, it was a completely different struggle.
I see patients every day. They would ask questions like, “How far along are you?”, “When are you due?” and you have to recount the story repeatedly. Then because you want to spare them the awkwardness, you sum it up by ending on a positive note and say things that they would want to say to make you feel better like, “I am OK. I’m going to work through this and I’ll be fine”. Eventually, you have answered the question so many times that you have an automatic, detached response.
Every individual would react differently. Sometimes people would share their own experiences of loss, which helped. Sometimes they would give advice that came from a good place but hurt. No one can say the right thing if they haven’t experienced the loss of a child. In addition, how people react to a situation of loss is dependent on their age, gender and religious and cultural views. Older women were generally quick to provide advice. They said things like ‘you waited too long to have a child’, since I was over thirty with my first pregnancy. Someone actually asked me if on a subconscious level, I had not wanted this child to begin with. Religious people referred to scripture. Others said, ‘Oh don’t worry you’ll have more children in the future.’ The best responses however came from older men. They never knew what to say so they would say, “I’m sorry” and then just stay quiet. There is a kind of a comfort in knowing that someone cares but doesn’t need to say it in so many words.
Q: How did you approach grieving as a couple? What kind of impact has it had on your marriage?
A: I had heard stories of other couples where the loss of a child took a huge toll on their relationship. I had a close friend whose marriage suffered after a stillbirth. She and her husband had misplaced feelings of anger and resentment, which they sometimes projected at each other, causing miscommunication and hurt.
So my husband and I decided early on that we had to deal with this as a joint unit – us versus the world. We communicated openly and convinced each other that this wasn’t our fault. There were times when one person would blame him or herself, little things like “I should have eaten better” or “I should have cared for you more”, but we were always able to vocalize it. And then other person would act as the rock and pull the first one out of the negative space. We switched roles all the time.
Sometimes it can be hard to say that the loss of a child is not your fault. Even though, logically you know very well that it isn’t, it’s just hard to accept that idea when the child was growing inside you. You feel that saying ‘It wasn’t my fault’ is brushing personal responsibility under the rug. And not knowing the cause can be horrible because there is no closure. We were fortunate enough to have this unshakable faith in our relationship, and the idea that marriage is sacred so that we channeled our feelings in the same direction instead of at each other.
Q: You are someone who is incredibly strong and not one to openly express herself. What helped you process your feelings?
A: I wasn’t able to cry at first and people kept telling me that I had to, that it was unhealthy not to. So I would try to break that disconnect I felt internally. I would look at this box of memorabilia I had made; clothes we had bought for our son, his footprints taken after birth, the gender reveal ultrasound, little shoes, things like that. I would look at it to trigger those emotions, to open the floodgates so to speak. And it just wouldn’t work.
Then one day this sweet old lady came at work. She was a patient and I hadn’t seen her in some time so she didn’t know about the pregnancy and the loss of the baby. I was wearing a shirt with butterflies on it and she kept saying how she absolutely loved my shirt. Then she explained that her husband loved butterflies and when he was buried, his grave was surrounded by them. She absolutely loved seeing that image. So I went home that day and stared at the box of memorabilia. The box had butterflies on it. And so for the first time I let myself cry freely and come to terms with my emotions. Since then I have written letters to my son as a way to express those unsaid feelings.
Q: I remember you and your husband dressed up and went out for Halloween, which was just a few months after the loss of your baby. And I remembered thinking that resilience is so beautiful. Was it a conscious decision to get back out there?
A: Yes. We decided that if we stayed locked up at home, we were only going to feel worse. I thought back to a loss faced by another friend and how she was out and about very soon afterwards. People said that she had moved on from her situation and it angered me to no length because that wasn’t the case; it was just her way of processing it. No one should be able to dictate how another person handles their loss.
The important thing to realize when faced with loss and grief is to do whatever your heart needs to at that time, responsibly of course. If it’s binge watching TV, reading, running, going out to party, whatever. Do what ever will bring you happiness in that moment.
I didn’t have it in me to attend a child’s first birthday party very soon after the loss of my son, but the adult Halloween party was something my husband and I decided to go for. We stayed at the party for maybe half an hour and couldn’t manage more. But it was important to us to at least try and be normal again.
Q: People have a really hard time interacting with someone who has gone through loss. They care, but they don’t know how to show it, how or when to talk about it, how to say the right thing. What’s the kindest thing friends and family can do for you during and after a time like this?
A: This will vary person to person. But I just wanted to feel normal again. I hated the ceremonial visits from people giving their condolences. It felt awkward and as if I were on display. More than clichéd phrases, gestures went a long way for me. When I was in the hospital after the delivery, my cousin came to visit and brought cards with her. She didn’t talk about what happened, she just played cards with me. It was a distraction and it was such a kind gesture of care. That sense of normalcy was huge. So I guess my answer would be do whatever you think the person facing the loss would want. If they are the kind who would want to talk about it, then listen to them. If they are the inexpressive type, then just show them kindness through your gestures and your presence.
Q: Besides the obvious, what’s the hardest thing about losing a child? What’s the silver lining, if any?
A: It’s just one more person to miss. I lost a grandparent in the last year too so now it’s another person you are grieving, even though you didn’t get to know them. And it’s the small things that hit you: seeing other people with their kids, milestone dates like 6 months, 1 year, wondering what they could have been like etc.
The silver linings are plenty. I realized that I have an incredibly strong support system around me. Family and friends who have helped me get through this rough time. My marriage has gotten stronger. I have a lot more patience now for small things that used to agitate me before. I have this newfound ability to roll with the punches and things don’t phase me as much anymore.
Q: On Mother’s Day I shared with you this post about mothers who have lost a child. You said it meant so much to you that someone else thinks of you as a mom. How has your view of yourself changed?
A: I think I realize that I am a mom, it’s just a different definition of it. Of course I don’t openly refer to myself as such but I realize that I will always be a mother.
Q: You have lost something that seems to come so easily to everyone else. How do you combat negative feelings about those who have children?
A: Early on, there was a point when I would see people with kids and wonder why that wasn’t me. Especially, when you see irresponsible parents, you can’t help but think, “Why do they deserve a child and I don’t?” But now I am at a point where I recognize that everyone has their own struggles, their own burdens to carry. Becoming a parent is just one part of life and it doesn’t make everything else easier. I know people who have healthy, happy children but then there marriage has gone to hell. Or they have lost their parents. I understand that the loss of a child was my burden to bear but this isn’t the only struggle one can face so it’s not fair for me to complain or be envious, even though sometimes it’s really hard. If I do feel the bitterness at times, I talk myself out of that thought process.
Q: How do you feel about the future?
A: I would say that I am cautiously optimistic, but it does change from day to day. It gives me anxiety to think that I’ll have to go through it all over again; the pregnancy and the delivery. I think I’ll be holding my breath throughout every pregnancy till a baby comes out alive and well. And a part of you doesn’t want to be too hopeful because the higher you go up, the harder you fall. I have considered the fact that it may never happen for me but till the day someone tells me that it for sure won’t, I will keep trying. And looking for alternative options like fertility treatments and adoption. But in the meantime, I can’t put a hold on my life and let everything become about just this one aspect of my life.
Q: Miscarriages and stillbirths happen very frequently but somehow a lot of people keep these things under wraps. How do you think we can normalize the conversation?
A: Most women don’t want to talk about their loss not because they have guilt or shame associated with it, but just because they don’t want to be a sympathy case. They don’t want to be viewed as damaged goods because unfortunately even today, a lot of people still view women with fertility issues in that way. I know certain cultures are worse with this issue but some women can feel as if they are being blamed for their miscarriage because they started trying at a later age, or were too stressed, or didn’t take care of themselves. And I agree that the conversation around miscarriages and stillbirths needs to be normalized as a society, but on an individual level, it is each woman’s prerogative if she wants to share her story.
I know I’ve been relatively vocal about this but a lot of people came to me after my stillbirth and told me that this had happened to them but they had never openly told anyone besides immediate family. A lot of people don’t know this but 1 in 4 women will have a miscarriage. This is something we are not actively educated about which makes it harder to deal with. I would say that if you are someone who has experienced miscarriage and/or a stillbirth, if you are up for it, talk about it, because without knowing it, you may help someone else with their struggle.