What is the first thing you think of when you hear that an infant has died?
Often, hearing about the death of an infant is heartbreaking and confusing. Often, we are, unavoidably, faced with our own beliefs about death, dying, and any afterlife. Sometimes being faced with these tough topics diverts attention from what is happening in the here and now for the woman and family that directly experienced the loss. Instead, we are consumed with our own discomfort about the loss of the baby. Being present for the family or woman who experienced the loss can feel overwhelming, confusing, sad, disconnecting, incomprehensible, frightening, and much more.
The truth about infant loss is that it is no different than any other type of grief……while also being much more complex and drastically different. Just like other forms of grief, the process is not linear. Unlike other forms of grief, decisions about what to do next and the physical impact on the woman who carried that baby are much more complicated.
Frequently, a mother’s response to her deceased baby is uncomfortable to those around her. She may want to hold her deceased baby. She may question whether she heard her baby take a breath, heard a heartbeat, saw a movement, etc. This happens regardless of the baby being born alive or stillborn. She may want to sleep with her baby. She may have difficulty releasing the body for the next steps. She may not want to acknowledge what happened. Ever. She may be quick to release the baby’s body for the next steps. She may struggle to reconcile a healing surgical wound from a cesarean section with having empty arms. She may struggle with hospital bills for a baby she cannot bring home. She may struggle with continuing to look pregnancy after a vaginal delivery, knowing she cannot bring her baby home. She may become upset when someone asks her when she is due because her body still looks pregnant. She may never speak of the baby she could not bring home. She may talk incessantly about the baby she could not bring home.
These responses to the death of an infant are no surprise to a grief therapist. They also do not mean that the woman who lost a baby is handling her grief in an abnormal way. In fact, these responses are typical! Loosing a baby is hard. In many ways, the above responses are protective. If a woman experienced all the emotions of her loosing her baby at one time, she would quite likely become overwhelmed by all the emotions….and move into concerning grief patterns. The above reactions to loosing a baby protect the mother from becoming so overwhelmed by her emotional experience that she is unable to address her grief in manageable ways.
It is important for a woman who has lost an infant to feel supported in a way that helps her to lean into her grief in a tolerable way. Just like Goldie Locks, her grief experience needs to be not too hard and not too soft. There is a just right process for walking through her grief story. Each woman’s just right grieving process is different. As a family member or friend, you can help the bereaved mother in your life find her just right path by asking questions and being a present listener. Being present and adaptable to your bereaved mother’s needs facilitates the process of mourning.
Mourning is the outward expression of our grief, according to Dr. Allan Wolfelt. Without external expression, we are not able to move to the next phase of grieving. Asking a woman to move on from the loss of her baby is like asking her to remain prisoner to her grief. Let her tell you her story, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Outward expression of her grief is the only way that she can reconcile her grief experience and move into a life full of joy for what remains present with her.
A woman grieving the loss of her infant needs opportunities to sit with her story of loss in manageable ways, such as drawing, quiet time, telling her story (at her own pace), memory making, and much more. There is no time limit for her grief, and mourning should be expected to last about two years. The best support during this time is caring and loving family or friends. If the bereaved mother in your life needs more support, group or individual therapy may be a helpful support system that can facilitate the mourning process. The ideal situation is for those around her to love her well and remain present. Mourning will become less intense over time, though grief will remain for a lifetime.
Have you told the bereaved mother in your life that you love her just the way she is? Recently?