Symbols of the holiday bring comfort and joy—familiar symbols remind us of loved ones and favorite rituals. But when these symbols are paired with the loss of a baby, they become painful. Their meaning becomes layered with the loss—it becomes difficult or perhaps impossible to separate these favorite symbols from what is now a sad and life-changing event. This is one reason why the holidays are so hard for those who are grieving. You expected to be 15 weeks pregnant at Christmas. Or perhaps you had images of holding your newborn while gifts were being unwrapped by the tree. It’s normal to grieve the loss of these dreams along with the loss of your baby.
One of the consequences of pregnancy after loss (PAL) more generally is the loss of what I call “everyday” symbols.
These are triggers that are very ordinary things. For the majority of people these things are not associated with pregnancy or babies or loss. This can lead to avoidance of certain places, people, or situations.
In one mom’s situation, driving by the hospital where she delivered her baby who had died became a symbol of the loss. She had to detour around the hospital and inconvenience herself almost daily to avoid this trigger.
Another mom just couldn’t bring herself to eat citrus fruit in her pregnancy with her rainbow—she had loved oranges in her last pregnancy but now eating them made her feel sad and anxious.
For me, yellow Post-It notes are forever linked with my loss.
On the day I received the bad news by phone, I wrote the details on a yellow sticky pad. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote as my doctor spoke to me but it was the closest paper I could find. The periphery of the room fell away and it was just me and this yellow sticky pad in the room. I wrote on that pad as if my baby’s life depended on it. (I know now that I felt out of control and powerless in that moment–but if I took careful notes, at least I was doing something.) To this day, I think of the baby that never made it to term when I see a yellow Post-It note.
These are the everyday objects that can serve as triggers. Sometimes, these triggers are easily avoided or substituted. But for others, the loss of everyday objects has the potential to feel very heavy. It can feel to the PAL mom that the triggers are everywhere—there is no situation that is safe.
It also feels unfair.
In PAL, the triggers are the symbols or situations that are supposed to be joyous—a baby bump on a friend, the baby aisle at Target, or tomorrow’s scheduled ultrasound where you normally would be excited to see your baby. I reassure the PAL moms I work with that it is very normal to feel upset about the loss of these everyday symbols, however small or idiosyncratic. Options for healing include creating new symbols of meaning in the new pregnancy or reclaiming the old symbols in an act of defiance and courage—I have resumed using whatever Post-It note is closest at hand. And if it’s yellow and it makes me feel sad in the moment, then I welcome those feelings as a way to remember and honor my first baby. I remember how carefully I wrote on that pad for her. And in recognizing this early act of good parenting, I feel more at peace. I hope you all achieve some version of peace this holiday season.