Living without your baby is daunting. How can you keep going when your child is not here with you? What kind of life can you have with a gaping hole that could never be filled?
These questions are hard and your path through them will be unique to you. And no answer I could give will magically fix anything. However, experience and research show that the following small steps can help ease or prevent additional suffering in your grief. This is not a to-do list but rather a gentle guide to help you navigate your grief in a way that feels right to you.
Simplify everything. Then delegate.
Right now, your mind is rightfully preoccupied with thoughts of your baby and your grief. And with the trauma of your loss, your brain physiologically cannot function like it normally does. Demand less of it. Simplify any part of your life that you can. Talk with your partner to decide which priorities are worthy of your limited mental, physical, and emotional energy. Delegate the rest.
Here are a few ideas that may help you get started: Let a loved one organize meals and other tangible support for your family using an online platform, such as Give InKindGive InKind was founded by loss mom, Laura Malcolm, who wanted to create a simpler way to support loved ones experiencing a life-altering event.. Assign an outfit to each day of the week to cut out one more decision you’d normally make. Use the same grocery list each week, and if you can, have groceries delivered. Delegate the decisions that are not important to you. Automate all your bills. Ask a loved one to accompany you to important appointments, such as your follow-up doctor’s appointment or to the funeral home to make arrangements. Ask them to take notes for you. If work is too demanding, contact human resources to find out any time off or accommodations you qualify for.
Facing life without your precious child is complicated enough. Simplify, then delegate, whenever you can.
Focus on self-care.
As we discussed in “What to Expect When Your Baby Dies,” your body is under significant stress from your birthing experience as well as from grief. Taking care of your body is foundational work upon which the rest of your grief work relies. For instance, your mind will be at a serious disadvantage if you’re chronically dehydrated, sleep-deprived, and have low blood sugar on top of dealing with grief brain.
Pregnancy After Loss Support founder Lindsey Henke, MSW and LICSW, says, “Grief is embodied. . . . The way of healing is mind and body.” This is why both self-care, and allowing others to care for you, are important. “Find out how to nurture yourself,” she continues. “You can’t mother your baby, but you can mother yourself. How you would take care of your baby is how we would want you to take care of yourselfInterview with Lindsey Henke, MSW and LICSW, May 28, 2020..”
Allow your body to rest. Your emotional, mental, and physical energy all come from the same reserve. (Which explains why after a long crying session, you may feel like you just ran a marathon.) If you can’t sleep, talk to your provider. Now is not the time for strict diets or exercise regimensUnless ordered by your doctor. Always follow your physician’s advice regarding your health.. And it is not the time to try to power through your pain. Instead, it is a time for nurturing, comforting, and tender care for your body.
Many well-meaning people will give you advice on what you need to do in your grief. “You just need to get out more,” they may say. Or, “Just stop thinking about it so much.” But you are the expert on your grief. No one else. You will likely receive bad grief advice at some point. And it will feel all wrong because it often is wrong. That part in your soul that says, “that doesn’t feel right for me” . . . trust that intuitionYou should not act on any impulse if it is unsafe for you or others. If you feel the urge to hurt yourself or hurt others, please reach out to a crisis hotline for support. You can call … Continue reading. There will come a time when your body is trying desperately to tell you that it needs something to change: to exit that conversation, avoid that baby shower, or even go back to work. Trusting yourself to know what you need, then acting on that need, can be hard work. But being true to your individual grief process is vital.
Get (the right kind of) support.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score*, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, says, “Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind. For our own physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safetyBessel van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma* (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).”
There are three different sources of support you can look for:
As I share in my book, Unexpecting*, self-support is not a to-do list. But rather it’s an approach to life that says, “I matter.” It means you give voice to your needs. You ask for help and accept help when you can. It means you take care of your body, actively take care of your mental health, and nourish your soul.
No one should have to go through baby loss alone. While not everyone can walk with you for every step of your journey, there will be people who will come for a season to help you get through to the next season. Allow into your circle those who are safe. Safe people will accept your grief and your expression of grief. They do not challenge it or put you on a timeline. Instead, they affirm that you are an expert in your grief, and they trust that you know what you need. Allow people to support you from their strengths and find others to fill in areas where they may be weak. Community support could be from your friends or family, faith community, or even a support group.
No matter where you are in your grief process, therapy may be a helpful option for you. Over time, you may find that others around you are less able to hold space for your story. They may be looking at your story transactionally, as though you simply wanted to give them information—rather than relationally, where they are giving their empathetic ear, and you are working to understand your own story by repeating it. Having a safe person designated to hold your story, such as a therapist, can be immensely helpful. Another place of professional support could be your medical provider as they help address any underlying health concerns either around your birth, fertility, or mental health.
Emotions help you understand your values, priorities, and needs. Emotions communicate. They deserve to be expressed and explored in safe, healthy ways. While crying is one way to express how you feel (and it serves a double purpose of releasing stress chemicals from your body through tears), it is just one way of many to express yourself. You could write in a journal. Tackle a new project at home or work. Go on a long hike or run. Walk. Bake. Sing or listen to music. Get into nature. Tell your story in a blog or podcast. Vent to your therapist. Break something (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.) Or laugh at a funny movie.
Give your emotions an outlet that feels right to you. Remember, you have every right to feel whatever you feel.
Validate your grief and your right to grieve.
Your expression of grief does not need to look like anyone else’s for it to be valid, appropriate, and healthy. While one person may be outspoken about their loss, another may want to handle it privately. There is no wrong way to address grief—as long as it is being addressed and not just repressed.
Also, accept that you have every right to grieve. The loss of a baby may feel like an ambiguous loss, and therefore, feels harder to qualify what or who you are grieving. It can be tempting to compare your reaction to others who had similar losses—or to look at different gestations or circumstances and deem some worse than othersFor more on comparing grief in pregnancy loss, visit “The Secret Competition in the Baby Loss Club” at http://thelewisnote.com/the-secret-competition-in-the-baby-loss-club/.. Here’s what you need to know: Research shows it’s not the length of the pregnancy that determines how affected a parent is when their baby dies“It is thought that the more the mother has experienced or comprehended the reality of the baby the higher the grief. . . . Contrary to these findings, however, are a number of studies that have … Continue reading. It’s the relationship formed with that baby and pregnancy, the hopes and dreams, the impact of trauma, etc. In other words, the value of your pregnancy did not grow by weeks.
Trust that you get to be as upset by this loss as you need to be. No more. No less.
One of the biggest struggles after the death of your baby is coming to terms with the change in relationship with your child and figuring out your identity as a mother when your baby has died. What does that look like? Death, however, does not end a relationship. It just changes the experience of that relationship. Your love for your baby lasts through life and death.
While older grief wisdom implied that to heal, one must “move on” past their loss to make way for other relationships, newer grief theories identify that our relationships continue through death. This concept is known as “continuing bondsGrief expert Dr. Klass writes, “Bereaved people did not sever the bonds with significant people who had died as the accepted theory said they should. Rather people continued the attachment, albeit … Continue reading” This acknowledges you are still your baby’s parent. And while this is not ever how you would have chosen to parent—you do still have choices you can make on how to parent moving forwardYou can find more ideas on how to parent your baby after death at www.unexpectingbook.com.. For instance, you may create rituals or traditions to remember your baby. You might write her name in the sand at every beach you visit. You may write him letters, get him a stocking at Christmas, and donate books to the hospital where he was born. You may ask your loved ones to random acts of kindness in her memory. Or invite your closest friends and family to have cupcakes with you at her grave.
You don’t have to choose any of this right now. Or ever, if it doesn’t feel right. But if there comes a day where expressing your parenthood feels like the right thing for you, you have every right to still act like your baby’s mom. Because you are.
You do not have to be the best version of yourself.
In our “growth mindset” society, we often try to find a positive spin on every bad situation. But some things are just soul-sucking. There is no silver lining. I want you to know that surviving this traumatic loss is enough. Taking in that next breath, taking that next step, making it moment to moment . . . imperfectly, full of emotion or consumed by numbness . . . just showing up . . . that is enough.
You don’t have to emerge from this better. You don’t have to learn a lesson. You don’t have to have any more gratitude for life than you already do.
One day, you may thrive again.
But right now, surviving is enough.
And it gets to be enough for as long as you need.
For a comprehensive address on how to cope after the death of your baby, see Unexpecting: Real Talk on Pregnancy Loss*.
- Coping With Grief: What to Actually Do
- What to Expect When Your Baby Dies
- Branded, Marked, and Tattooed: Remembering my Babies who Died with a Memorial Tattoo
- 6 Coping Skills for Managing Stress During Your Pregnancy After a Loss
*This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase using this link, you also support PALS without it costing anything extra for you — a total win-win!
|↑1||Give InKind was founded by loss mom, Laura Malcolm, who wanted to create a simpler way to support loved ones experiencing a life-altering event.|
|↑2||Interview with Lindsey Henke, MSW and LICSW, May 28, 2020.|
|↑3||Unless ordered by your doctor. Always follow your physician’s advice regarding your health.|
|↑4||You should not act on any impulse if it is unsafe for you or others. If you feel the urge to hurt yourself or hurt others, please reach out to a crisis hotline for support. You can call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Line, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a licensed crisis counselor.|
|↑5||Bessel van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma* (New York: Penguin Books, 2014|
|↑6||For more on comparing grief in pregnancy loss, visit “The Secret Competition in the Baby Loss Club” at http://thelewisnote.com/the-secret-competition-in-the-baby-loss-club/.|
|↑7||“It is thought that the more the mother has experienced or comprehended the reality of the baby the higher the grief. . . . Contrary to these findings, however, are a number of studies that have evaluated the association between length of gestation and level of distress after perinatal loss, and could not find an increase in psychological distress with higher gestational age.” Anette Kersting, MD, and Birgit Wagner, PhD, “Complicated Grief After Perinatal Loss,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 14, no. 2 (June 2012): 187–194, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384447/.|
|↑8||Grief expert Dr. Klass writes, “Bereaved people did not sever the bonds with significant people who had died as the accepted theory said they should. Rather people continued the attachment, albeit in new circumstances. . . . Their dead children were an important inner reality to the parents, but an important element in the self-help process was that they worked hard to make the reality they felt so strongly within themselves into a social reality within the group, and within their extended families and other social networks.” Dennis Klass and Edith Maria Steffen, eds., Continuing Bonds in Bereavement: New Directions for Research and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2017), xv.|
|↑9||You can find more ideas on how to parent your baby after death at www.unexpectingbook.com.|