October is Pregnancy, Infant, and Child Loss Awareness month. My fourth October as a loss parent began, just as for many other loss parents, with the very public news of the loss of Chrissy Teigen and John Legend’s son, Jack. In addition to sorrow for them, I feel immense gratitude for their willingness to share their raw sorrow and pain very vulnerably. Their sharing reaches such a wide audience and does what all loss parents hope to do this month.
This month is about decreasing stigma and raising awareness to an experience that many have had but most others try their hardest not to imagine.
Pregnancy, Infant, and Child Loss Awareness month is not for those who have experienced it, it is for others who have not. It is to help inform so that others may understand this pain and know how they can be supportive to the millions of parents who have suffered this kind of grief.
So, what do bereaved parents want others who have been lucky enough to not experience a traumatic loss to know? What I want you to understand this October is that pregnancy, infant, and child loss changes a person forever. A dear loss mama friend of mine recently described this kind of loss as life-altering. This is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of pregnancy and infant loss.
The grief does not end after the first few months or the first few years.
The grief continues for the rest of that parent’s life. Their identity as a parent and a person is forever changed.
The days and months right after each of my losses were dark and heavy for my partner and me. They were hard. The grief was overpowering. The sadness was so strong.
Early on in my experience as a bereaved parent, I knew that this pain would change me, but I did not fully understand what that meant. I remember thinking that as time went on, and especially once I had a living child, I would be able to move on in some way or that I would be healed. I thought that once I finally had a baby in my arms my losses would be less painful and I wouldn’t ache for the babies I lost any more.
In some ways this is true. Time spent actively grieving, getting good support, and taking care of myself has provided healing. Our rainbow baby, our first living child, has brought more joy than I can describe. When she was born, she brought relief with her and a sense of arrival at my dream of being a mom. Her life validated my motherhood. I was finally a parent in the way I wanted to be, not just a bereaved parent, which no one wants to be.
Because losing a child changes you forever, having a baby after loss can bring healing, but it does not take away all the pain.
The pain of my losses is less intense than it once was. The day to day of our lives is not as dark or heavy as it was in the immediate aftermath (which lasts months) after our losses, but our pain is not gone.
While the pain ebbs and flows, the trauma of losing babies will never fully leave.
As we near the third and fourth anniversaries of losing our sons, Lentil and Danny, the intensity has increased again. Rather than thinking about my losses and my sons in the “part of my life” kind of way that I do most days, I feel sad about them. I miss them. My soul relives the sorrow that I felt three and four years ago. There is often an echo of that sadness in my soul, and that echo is louder when we get to the season of our losses.
The loss of a baby, at whatever stage, changes a parent forever.
For many, the world feels less stable and less trustworthy than it once did. You no longer feel the promise of tomorrow for you, your partner, or your child. After loss, parents are more anxious about the health and safety of their living children. They know that there are some things that can happen that they cannot prevent, but they will go out of their way to prevent accidents and injuries that may be preventable. They could not stop what happened to the child they lost, and although they know the reality that it could happen to them again, they will do everything in their power to prevent it.
When you have lost a child, the reminders are everywhere.
The anniversary dates, the seasons, and the holidays near their losses are not the same as they used to be. They all carry with them a memory of the loss. Pregnancy announcements, baby showers, and birth announcements are a reminder of the trauma you experienced where others have only experienced joy. They make it clear that your experience was not the same, and they can make you feel isolated in your pain. A pregnancy announcement no longer brings the promise of a baby.
Specific memories of the child or children you lost can be triggered by seemingly innocuous things. Sometimes this can make you happy, and sometimes it can be sad.
For example, I recently saw an advertisement for a “Boy Mom” shirt that was like a punch to my gut. It was an example of something that should have been my identity but is not. It was a reminder of the baby boys I carried in my body but never got to hold alive. Other women get to purchase the shirt because they have their boys, but I do not.
Being a bereaved parent can make you feel different than the people around you.
Many loss parents talk about feeling like they are a different person than they were before their loss(es). They may long to go back to the person they were but know that they cannot. Post-loss, they want to talk about their babies and own their experiences but struggle to know how to do this. It is difficult to trust that others will respond supportively when you share that your baby died, because others often don’t want to face that this can be a reality. This can make it hard for loss parents to relate in the ways they used to. It often results in them struggling to fit in and form new friendships with others who have not had a traumatic loss.
If you can understand that loss affects bereaved parents for the rest of their lives you may be more able to understand that our babies are still a part of our lives and our families.
You may be more able to recognize our need to keep our babies present in our homes and the ways we maintain their memories. If someone in your life has had a loss, you may not realize the ways it continues to impact them. When you talk with them about things such as the ages of their children, the size of their family, the number of years between their children, their identity and style as a parent, and the sex of their children, remember that the child(ren) they lost factor into this as well. It shapes them in every way. Be mindful that this is not something that they grieved in the past but that they continue to carry with them in many ways as they move forward.