Making space for grief

How to help loved ones with the loss of an infant.

When Emerita’s parents died in Typhoon Haiyan, she began to be called an orphan.  When Bette lost her husband in Brisbane, she became a widow.  Ted and Lucy lost a child to miscarriage but what do we call them?  No word exists in English to describe parents bereaved of an infant child or one lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, or ectopic pregnancy.   To some degree, this dearth of a word is echoed in the lack of easy options to express, or even hold the space for, the immense grief that parents and others feel for the life that will not be lived.

International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day  15 October is a day for parents and families to honour their babies who passed away from miscarriage, stillbirth, or postnatal causes.  And there are many of them.  In 2011, there were a total of 2,992 perinatal deaths in Australia - 2,220 fetal (at birth with a minimum 20 weeks’ gestation) and 772 neonatal (within 4 weeks of birth). This is a rate of 9.9 per 1000 births.  In other words, 8.2 babies on average die every day, every single day of the year.

If you have had this experience, or even if you have only watched it happen through a friend or family member, you know how devastating it is.  Parents are shattered as they struggle to let go of the prospect of getting to know their baby.  No longer can they anticipate the many happy hours they might have spent with their baby, the many key life events their child will not now experience, and the life that they will not be able to share as a family.

In 1988 then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan set up the first day to help grieving parents who often not only had no outlet for their grief, but also had to shoulder the expectations of others – or even themselves – that they could just “have another baby” or that they should just “get a life and move on.”

Grief reactions Let’s be clear:  we are dealing with a death, and whether the parents knew the child for many years, a few weeks, or only through the ultra-sound pictures, it is still a huge loss, and it needs to be grieved without judgment or minimisation.  The grief reactions for an unborn, stillborn, or newborn child are the same as for any cherished person we lose.  They include:  disbelief, denial, anger, a sense of not being able to cope, yearning to coddle or be with the baby, jealousy or resentment of those who have healthy babies or are about to, sadness and depression, a sense of loneliness or isolation, decrease in self-esteem and confidence, fear, a desire to blame, a sense of betrayal, and – overwhelmingly – guilt.

The guilt
Let’s talk about the guilt.  Did you know that over 50% of miscarriages are thought to be chromosome abnormalities, where the pregnancy loss occurs because the baby isn’t developing properly?  Most other causes for miscarriage are equally out of the mother’s control:  abnormalities of the uterus, genetic abnormalities, weak cervix, fibroids, lupus, thyroid problems, or hormonal imbalances.  What this means is that guilt, while highly common, is usually not appropriate as the miscarriage is not typically the mother’s fault.

How to support:  early and ongoing
So what can you do if you know someone struggling with this enormous loss?  Early on, you can let the bereaved parents know that you are there to support them.  It doesn’t matter if you aren’t a professional helper.  If you don’t know what to say, acknowledge this (“I am so sorry for your loss; I don’t know what to say, but I care about you and I’m here for you.")  Instead of following that up with asking what you can do, however, it’s better if you offer some specific, practical things you would like to do, such as grocery shopping or laundry, minding the family’s other kids, or cooking meals for the family.  Don’t be offended by bereaved parents need to withdraw for a while; that is a normal reaction.

Recognise that the first year and the various first anniversaries are difficult. The parents will appreciate you checking in from time to ask how they are doing but you should be aware that their emotions might still be a rollercoaster.   You should try and be alert for signs of depression or not coping.  There is no set time that is “appropriate” for people to be in grief before they can be expected to move on; each situation is unique.  If the parents are contemplating a subsequent baby – or perhaps are already pregnant – fear and anxiety about the health of the baby are normal and you can reassure them about that.

Light a candle for the Wave of Light 
The Remembering our Babies website urges people all over the world to light a candle for one hour at 7:00 p.m. on October 15th, local time, creating a day of continuous light to remember and honor lost babies and their parents.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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