Wearing the Bereaved Parent Badge: How to Cope & Help Others (Part 2)
One to Two Months Later:
This phase is characterized by idle time. Now that the event has passed and parents do not have anything really occupying their time (funeral arrangements, etc.), they are left alone with tons of thoughts.
- Why did this happen? Why us? What did we do to deserve this punishment?
- What could we have done differently?
- What if it was something we did? What if we are to blame?
o It’s probably our fault. How do we live with that?
- Let’s retrace our steps in the months/weeks/days leading up to the event, surely there is something we should have done differently.
Parents are also likely anticipating going back to work and/or getting back into a routine.
Helpful Tips for Parents
- Have a plan for returning to work.
o Depending on how far along you were in the pregnancy, there may be co-workers that knew you were pregnant but still do not know what happened.
o Understand that co-workers will ask and you need to have a plan for how to respond.
▪ It helps to practice saying your response out loud beforehand (you will be shocked at how hard it is to actually say the words versus reciting them in your head).
▪ Remember that these events will be extremely difficult, but they will end.
o Let your boss know your needs.
▪ This may include having a quiet place to shut the door and cry, having your boss inform your co-workers on your behalf, having a schedule to work from home if able, time to see a therapist/counselor if during work hours, and emphasis that you do not want to be treated differently, etc.
Improve your self-awareness
Other factors can intensify your grief, and it is important to be aware of these.
- Fatigue, poor sleep, work stress, PMS for women, and alcohol, among others can all play a factor as to how you are feeling on any given day. On days when your grief seems complicated, do a self-assessment on other factors that may be playing a role.
Understand your emotions and how they may cause you to respond in certain situations.
- Your reactions may be different now than in the past.
- Let yourself feel the emotions as they come, and work through the bad thoughts as they come.
o This is dependent on timing – sometimes it’s just not ideal timing to grieve (i.e. at work, at a social event, etc.) BUT, do not put it off too long. Grief emotions are like “contents under pressure”; they will continue to build and if the pressure valve is not opened/the emotions are not released, they will blow eventually. This can result in extreme episodes of grief, crying, hysteria, etc.
- It’s extremely important to work through the traumatic thoughts as well.
o Thinking about the day I lost Stevie initially caused visceral, physiological reactions and I hated it. My experience involved her going limp and she stopped breathing while I was holding her, and I had to perform CPR until paramedics arrived. Therefore, I had some post-traumatic stress symptoms to work through. I so badly didn’t want to think about that day. But facing those thoughts was like facing fears. I had to face them to feel better and move forward.
o While it may sound weird, sometimes scheduling or setting aside time for your grief is very beneficial especially if you are in a high-demand job/very busy. I also like to think of this as my time with Stevie – it does not necessarily have to be sad thoughts, but it can include just talking about my day with her.
Start thinking about how you want to honor your child
This will vary from parent to parent, and at the end of the day, it’s completely up to you. Whatever you decide to do will be your best decision.
- We have a small spot on one of our living room shelves where we have Stevie’s urn, three photos of her, and 3D prints of her hand and foot. On the bottom of the shelving unit, we have a trunk full of her belongings, cards from her services, pictures of her, her baby book, and her baby blanket. We say good morning to her, talk with her before we leave for the day, and at night before bed.
Helpful Tips For Friends/Family
- Talk with them about their plan to return to work.
o Encourage them and let them know you believe in them, and they will get through the first day.
- Encourage them to rebuild a routine.
- Let them know that they can talk about their baby with you, whenever they want.
By this point, parents have likely gotten back into a routine and are building experience in dealing with grief. There are a lot of things that may still be occurring that can be annoying, frustrating, or cause anxiety:
- Receiving hospital bills in the mail.
- Receiving autopsy results (ours’ took 16 weeks).
- Consulting with every doctor on the planet in an attempt to determine what happened.
- Being referred for genetic testing and the process that involves.
- Googling any possible reason for what happened will consume any free time.
- Triggers – pregnancy apps, targeted Facebook ads for nursing bras, maternity attire, baby-anything.
- Friends having babies or becoming pregnant.
o I know, this sounds callous, but it can stir up involuntary emotions of annoyance, jealousy, and unfairness/contempt.
Helpful Tips for Parents
- Understand that you will be able to plan for certain events listed above; for example, receiving autopsy results.
o Jared and I both worked the day we found out, however, that led to a 3-day weekend that we had if we needed it to process emotions.
- Know that the people involved in trying to help you will go the extra mile.
o Our genetic counselor, geneticist, Medical Examiner, military doctors, referred-to doctors, etc. were all incredible. Most of the time their heart aches with you and they will help you with anything you need.
- Control what you can control.
o If social media triggers you, take a break from it. You can always go back to it at any time.
- Reinvigorate something you love doing.
o Maybe you took a break from it in anticipation of the baby. This could be related to hobbies like baking, arts, sports, fitness, writing, etc. I got back into a CrossFit gym around 8 months post-partum and I wish I would have done it sooner – it really lifted my spirits, relieved my stress, increased my overall health & fitness, and helped with my social life.
Helpful Tips for Friends/Family
- Do not forget to continue to check in. They will still need it whether they tell you or not.
o This can be as simple as a text or as involved as a phone call.
- Be cognizant of sending invites to baby showers or gender reveals, or mailing baby announcements/photos.
o When sending an invite, say something like “We would love for you to be there, but we understand if attending is too triggering for you."
o When sending a baby announcement or photos from the birth, say something like “We have an announcement we would like to send, but understand if you do not want it.”
o Realize that most grieving parents are happy & excited for you, but these events also serve as stinging reminders of what they lost.
- Do not expect them to be their previous “bubbly”, “positive”, “social” [[insert any adjective]] self.
o As stated at the beginning of this article, this event does not define them but it most definitely fundamentally changes them. They are working through grieving their old self too, so keep any/all judgment to yourself.
- Remember that their anxiety levels can still be high and remain high. They may have perpetual underlying thoughts of “when is the next bad thing going to happen?”
- Remember that their level of concern in certain situations may also be heightened.
o Jared & I just took our dog to the vet to get a tooth pulled. I was so anxious about her going and receiving anesthesia, to the point that I was really savoring the moments I had with her the night before and the morning leading up to dropping her off. Simple situations like this, that logically we understand will work out fine, are now very different and accompanied by anxiety.
Eventually, parents will experience anniversaries. These may be anniversaries of the baby’s due date, the day the baby was born, the day the baby passed away, etc.
Also remember that aside from grieving the loss of a child, parents are also grieving the loss of the life they could have had. This is perpetual and typically includes:
- Thoughts of how life could have been, at any given time.
- Knowing how old their child would be, at any given time.
- Thoughts of who their child would have grown up to be.
- Grieving things as simple as family vacations, daycare pickup/drop off, and their child growing up with family pets.
- Knowing when their child would be hitting certain milestones – walking, talking, riding a bike, going to preschool, etc.
- …….There are no sympathy cards for grieving the times you will miss out on as a parent…….
Helpful Tips for Parents
- You know an anniversary is coming, so plan ahead.
o You may want to take off from work or plan a special event for those days.
- The anticipation of the anniversary is much worse than the day itself.
o It happens like this with all anniversaries, just remember that the days leading up are tough but those moments will end.
- Do not feel pressure to do anything extravagant. Just do what feels right to honor your baby.
Helpful Tips for Friends/Family
- Check-in with them (are you noticing a trend here).
- Ask them if they are doing anything in particular that day and if they would be willing to share that with you.
Finally, the BIG No-Gos. The things Friends/Family should NOT say/do EVER (there is never a right time for these):
- “You’ll move on.”
- “You’ll get over this.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “It’s been XX months/years, why haven’t you moved on?”
- “God (or any religious deity) must have had a reason.”
- “At least you have your other babies” (for those who already have children).
- “Why didn’t the doctors just save them??”
- Act as though what happened to them can spread to other parents like a communicable disease.
- No longer talk or interact with them/no longer be their friend.
- Make assumptions about their parenting skills.
- Make assumptions as to why this happened to them.
o Trust me – they already beat themselves up/blame themselves enough, they do not need your additional “expert” opinion.
Preparing for the Next Child:
Jared and I have yet to experience this, however, we have heard from other parents and mothers about the thoughts and feelings they have had when they become pregnant after the loss of a previous child.
Many have mentioned:
- They felt robbed of motherhood.
- They felt robbed of the excitement and anticipation of baby.
- They felt guarded / afraid to attach to the baby or become close to the baby.
- They no longer have the security of “the safe zone” (13-16 weeks/past first trimester).
- Every appointment with the OBGYN is accompanied by an immense amount of anxiety.
- Walking back into the hospital for delivery can be triggering, depending on how the hospital played a role in their previous loss.
Eventually, I will put together some tips for this stage.
Thank you all so much for allowing me to share this. I know some of this may seem shocking and/or surprising, but as I said above – not enough people share this information because it can be very difficult to talk about. Writing down my thoughts and sharing them with others has been extremely helpful in processing my emotions throughout my grief journey. If anyone is interested, I have a separate blog about our very specific experience, which can be found here: https://kmmartin41704.wixsite.com/steviejo.
Hopefully, none of you ever have to utilize these tips, but now you know where to find them just in case.
Big thanks to Caitlin for hosting me too! Caitlin and I have been friends for about 22 years now, and she continues to be an incredible human – empathetic, intuitive, brave, smart, hilarious – a truly delightful best friend.