This story is for the friends and family of someone who has lost a baby. I hope my transparency will help you navigate supporting your loved one. Here we go…

They say when a child loses their parent, they are an orphan, and when a partner loses their spouse, they are a widow/er, but when a parent loses a child, there is no word, because it should never happen.

For my husband and me, it happened on September 20, 2019.

Our first children, twin boys, were born at 22 weeks and 5 days. My pregnancy had been routine until an ultrasound at 21 weeks revealed my cervix was prematurely dilating, to the point where labor could happen before it should. The plan was to bedrest at home until viability at 24 weeks, and then admit for hospital bedrest until I delivered.

Had my body held out just ten more days, I might not be writing this post. I might have instead spent tonight chasing my wobbly 16-month-old sons as they undoubtedly tore apart our house for the millionth time, defying bedtime with giggle fits. Just the thought reduces me to tears.

But my body could not hold on. Instead, I went into labor, and when we arrived at the hospital, we were faced with the first and hardest parenting decision of our lives – would we put our children on life support, or choose to have them breathe all their breaths in our loving arms? We opted for the latter, and although I know in my heart that was the right decision for our family, I will never stop wishing we tried to save them.

For an ordinarily happy couple, there have been some very dark days.

For weeks after their passing, the heartache was extraordinary – a physical tightening in my chest and throat that made me feel as if I couldn’t breathe. I remember like it was yesterday, waves of nauseating emptiness crashing through my body again and again as I relived every moment of the days leading up to their birth, pushing for babies I knew wouldn’t survive, leaving the hospital with nothing but a bereavement box (now my most precious possession).

Our community swarmed in to protect us and let us know they were there. Texts, calls, cards, flowers, food… anything they could do to make sure we knew we could lean on them. But the reality is, there was nothing anyone could do or say to make things better. We had lost so much that night. We lost our babies, our toddlers, our five-year-old boys in kindergarten, our awkward middle schoolers and our reckless high schoolers. We lost the fathers to our grandchildren and the men who would take care of us as we age. We lost entire lives we had dreamed were ahead of us. For months, we had been gearing up for a seismic life shift and just like that, it had evaporated. There was nothing to do but grieve and return to life as it had been before pregnancy.

I encourage you to read that paragraph again and think about the parent you know who has experienced loss. You understand they are processing the death of their baby, but did you really realize they are grieving loss of an entire life?

Even if you did, here’s what you might not know – processing the death itself is only the beginning.

Ahead of them are many, many events that will revive the pain. You can guess the obvious triggers – holidays, birth announcements, baby showers, the child’s birthdate. But most of them, you’ll never hear about. Here are a few of my darkest unknown moments:

First, it was signing my sons’ death certificates. In order to leave the hospital, we had to validate the fact that our babies were gone by signing four pieces of paper on a clipboard – a birth certificate, a death certificate, a birth certificate, and a death certificate, in that order.

Then it was suppressing my milk supply – three days after delivery, my milk arrived right on schedule, and I had to physically restrict my breasts for a week until my body understood that the babies it was trying to feed were dead.

Weeks later, it was returning to work, dodging acquaintances from the business next door who had no idea what had happened, or why I was back at the office with no belly.

A month after that, it was attending a funeral at the same mortuary where my sons had been cremated, and their ashes were still being held – I wasn’t yet ready to pick them up. And then, when I finally was, crying all the way home clutching the identical white tin boxes, overcome with guilt for not having come to collect my sons’ bodies sooner.

Mia and her husband holding their sons' handprints and footprints - Parenting After Loss: There are Five of Us, Even if You Only See Three

Author’s Personal Collection/Mia Elias

And perhaps the biggest unknown trigger of all, one that I fear many supporters do not expect, was our next pregnancy.

My husband and I were anxious to be parents when we became pregnant with the twins and that feeling only strengthened when they passed. We were lucky enough to become pregnant with their sister only eight weeks after their birthdate. Our friends and family were overjoyed, and I would guess a bit relieved. There was happiness ahead for the couple that had been through hell. But our loss had tainted pregnancy.

While we were grateful for a second chance at parenthood and certainly had moments of joy, those nine months were largely overshadowed by a dark cloud of fear, post-traumatic stress, and sadness. Every milestone reminded us of that same moment with the twins. How could they not? Our first peek at her little hands was in the same exam room where my doctor had drawn me a diagram of my prematurely dilating cervix just months before. But now that we were pregnant, that’s all anyone wanted to talk about. Very few people even mentioned our boys or acknowledged our grief. And not wanting to bring anymore sadness into a social life that had just started to feel normal, I didn’t either.

As a precaution, I was placed on preventive bedrest for the majority of my pregnancy, and despite never having battled mental illness previously, I fell into what I now recognize as a state of depression. I began resenting pregnant women, even my friends, for whom I was genuinely happy and excited. That they could live life without paralyzing fear that their growing baby might come early and die was just not fair. I spent so much time spinning in grief and anxiety and silence that it wasn’t until we hit the all-important 24-week viability date that I took a deep breath and realized, I had not yet fully accepted the fact that I was pregnant with a different baby, not my twins, and my twins were not coming. My heart broke all over again, sorry for the amount of time it took me to truly connect to her, and for them.

In August 2020, we welcomed our beautiful daughter.

Here’s what I’ve never told anyone. The moment they pulled her from me, I cried sad tears. I cried for my boys. For the first few minutes I held my living, breathing, screaming, fully developed daughter in my arms, I was crying for my boys. If that isn’t the epitome of life as a parent who has lost a child, I don’t know what is. And in the weeks that followed, I fell deeply in love with my daughter, and I also dropped down into one of my lowest crevasses of grief. We “celebrated” our sons’ first birthday with our six-week-old daughter. I know it was easier to endure the day with our new baby in my arms, but that doesn’t mean it was easy at all. She could help us, but not take away our hurt.

So, this is what I would like you to take away…your friend or family member who has lost their baby has a crack in their heart that will never fully heal. They will suffer triggering moments that you will never know about, or don’t even recognize to be painful, for the rest of their lives. And they will be thinking about the child they grew to love and dreamed of raising forever, whether you chose to talk to them about it or not.

I cannot speak for every parent who has lost a baby, but I bet I speak for many of the parents on this site when I say…support is not avoiding the subject.

For me, avoiding the topic diminishes my babies’ lives to a dark secret, rather than celebrating all the good they brought to us and acknowledging the incredible rollercoaster of grief I have been riding since their passing. Instead, support is helping me stay connected to my children by bringing their memory into the present day. Support is saying my boys’ names out loud in actual conversation and referring to them as part of my family. Support is checking in on me when times appear to be good. If I’m actually okay, it will help my healing to hear myself say that out loud. That’s progress. And if initiating the conversation is too much for you, which I totally understand if it is, then the least you can do is not wince and change the subject when I mention them. Your momentary discomfort is minuscule in comparison to my heartache. If I can talk about them, so can you.

My advice is, lean in and help your friend keep their child’s memory alive. Don’t wait for them to bring it up because chances are, they won’t. Instead, when the moment feels right, ask them how they’d like their child to be woven into their family story. That way, you can make sure to be a part of that effort. We want our twins to be remembered as our oldest children, as our daughter’s big brothers. My biggest supporters keep the boys with us by simply acknowledging that they existed, and that our family is more than just the three of us on earth today. The simple gesture takes a little extra thought, a little extra courage, but in return gives me a huge boost of strength to keep pushing forward, knowing their memory is being carried by more than just us.

Find the courage to help a family stay connected. I promise you; it will mean more than you know.

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