Wearing the Bereaved Parent Badge: How to Cope & Help Others (Part 1)
My husband Jared and I met in high school; I was 14 and he was 16. We dated for almost a year and a half. When he graduated, he wanted to enlist in the Air Force while I still had two more years of high school left. At the time, we made the difficult yet mature decision to break things off and let him focus on the military and I focus on finishing high school. After five years or so of dating other people, we eventually found our way back to each other.
Jared proposed my senior year of college, and we were married a year later (April 2012). I was also commissioned into the Air Force as an Intelligence Officer. We have been married for over ten years now while being a dual-military couple. Our careers have kept us very busy, and we made a large effort to try to plan our future lives with children to the best of our ability, and honestly, it could not have worked out better.
The stars literally aligned when I became pregnant, taking into account timing career-wise for both of us, and I had a truly magical and healthy pregnancy. Our daughter Stevie Jo Martin was born at 6:17pm on May 26th, 2021, weighing in at 7lbs, 3oz. Obviously every parent is going to be biased that their child is the best, and I echo those with our daughter. Stevie was an absolute sweetheart and our love for her grew daily.
“Hello. My name is Kaylee and this is my husband Jared, and we lost our baby girl Stevie Jo when she was 8 weeks old, on July 21st, 2021. She died from pneumonia, but we believe she may have also had an undetected metabolic or mitochondrial disorder.”
The sentence above is how we introduce ourselves at every session of a support group we attend twice a month. Our support group is for parents that have also experienced pregnancy loss or infant loss under the age of one year old. And that is what I am here to talk to you about today.
This article is meant to give a voice to those who have experienced similar loss but feel silenced because they are paralyzed by their own fear of talking about it, they feel guilty talking about it, or because it is still too painful to talk about.
Grief is one of those things that no one really likes to address in society, probably because no one enjoys feelings associated with grief. Grieving the loss of a child is arguably, according to society, the worst form of grief. It is interesting to think that no one really talks about grief, no one really teaches one how to grieve, and then it ends up being a burden for the grieving to carry – we are the ones having to explain how and why we feel the way we feel. It is a bit unfair, but I also think it is important to share. Today is for me to share and educate.
I want to share things that have been helpful or not helpful to us as we continue our grief journey. I also hope to bring awareness to those who have not experienced this type of loss and include things that are helpful for those people to say/do or not say/do.
As a reminder – I am not a grief counselor nor do I have any type of credentials in teaching others how to cope. This is merely a compilation of what my husband and I, along with other parents in our support group, have found helpful and not helpful.
One thing for everyone to remember when experiencing the loss of a child or trying to help someone through this trauma is that everyone has a different experience. Some may experience a 10-week miscarriage, while others may experience a second-trimester miscarriage. Others may have a stillbirth, and some may birth a child that lives in the hospital and passes a few days later. And others experience the loss of a child months after they were born. Each of these experiences carry with it varying levels of trauma and emotion, but the bottom line is that they all absolutely suck.
Trauma like this does not define us, but it has fundamentally changed us.
The Immediate Aftermath (days to 2-3 weeks after the traumatic event)
This phase of pregnancy or infant loss is characterized by: Shock, disbelief, hopelessness, extreme fatigue with the inability to sleep, depression, lack of appetite or increase in appetite, inability to make decisions (any/all), constant crying, feelings of guilt, anger, emptiness, inability to survive this, extreme confusion, and self-blame.
Motherly and/or Postpartum feelings to note:
- Mom may still be healing from vaginal delivery, C-section, thoughts of feeling flabby, saggy, hormonal, low confidence in body image, postpartum body but no baby to show for it, learning how to safely wean if breastfeeding, etc.
Other events to note that are happening at this time:
- Phone calls/meetings with the Sheriff’s department (if the child passed away outside of the hospital, an investigation has to occur).
- Phone calls with the medical examiner about the autopsy (if the child passed away outside of a hospital).
o (Some autopsies may still occur at the parents’ request)
- Organ donor organizations may call. This can be particularly annoying and insensitive depending on how the organization contacts you. In our case, it was awful. They wanted to know if we would be willing to donate Stevie’s heart and they had to have an answer within 24 hours. This request, however, depended on when the autopsy was scheduled and the immediate findings. The organization went around us in an attempt to reschedule the autopsy for earlier in the morning so they could get an answer faster. They also called me by the wrong name and thought Stevie was a boy. Their behavior alone was what made us deny any type of donation.
- Determining if you want a burial or cremation
- Beginning funeral arrangements
o This is exhausting but necessary. Every step takes a gargantuan amount of effort to accomplish. It can be very difficult to determine the best way you want to honor your child, especially when even funeral homes are not as well-versed in this type of service because it is less common. In the end, do what feels right. This is not about pleasing others; this is your way of honoring your baby.
Note It is not uncommon during this phase for family and friends to run to the rescue and ask what you need or how they can help. And almost every parent that has experienced the loss of a child will tell you – it is very easy to tell you exactly what does not help, but pretty difficult to know what you need.
Helpful Tips for Parents:
- Focus on small things – getting out of bed, showering, trying to eat.
- Understand that you and your partner may grieve in different ways and that is ok.
o Keep communication open between yourselves.
- Lean on each other.
- If you have other children, let them see you cry and let them know that they can cry and feel sad too.
- Understand that telling your family is the next hardest thing you will have to do, but also understand that the event itself will end, and you will get through it.
- Find a support group
o This was one of the few things I knew I needed. I was burning to talk with other parents who have experienced the same trauma. I had to know from them how they survived if they went on to have more children, and anything/everything related to help us. It helped to know we CAN survive it too.
- Find a therapist or mental health counselor
o I started this a few weeks after and went to a few sessions but found that it was not much different than what I was getting from our support group. However, I know other parents that continue to see a therapist years after.
Helpful Tips for Friends/Family:
- Meal train and/or cooking all meals for the couple.
- Sit in silence with them.
- Listen to their thoughts and feelings, regardless of how sporadic/rollercoaster-like they are.
- Check-in to make sure they got out of bed, showered, and tried to eat something that day.
- Help them clean up the house if they want it
o I.e. closing the door to the nursery, putting away baby’s items/things that trigger bad feelings.
o I say if they “want” it, because some parents may want those things to stay out.
- Help them start preparations for funeral services.
o Many of our family members helped out significantly with this undertaking (in our case, we held two services – one at our duty station and one in Ohio where we are from). Our family helped purchase picture frames, pick up photo prints of Stevie, reserve a location for the services, read a poem at her service, ensured music/setup was accomplished according to our wishes, packed up vehicles to transport flowers/gifts/pictures afterwards, etc.
Next week in part 2 Kaylee will be talking about what to expect months later as well as discussing anniversaries, big no-gos for family and friends, and preparing for the next child.