An article on pregnancy loss and infant death does not make for easy reading. In fact, many who regularly peruse this column may skip it this month, rather than deal with the emotions and 'what if's' the subject is certain to generate.
Not surprisingly, we often react the same way toward individuals who have experienced such a loss. Friends and family members pull away rather than risk saying or doing the wrong thing. Or they grow impatient with misperceptions about how long -- or in what form -- a person's grief "should" take.
But as Fred Rogers wrote in Talking with Young Children about Death (available through the SIDS Foundation of Washington), "Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable can be manageable." With that in mind, here are some things to know about grieving parents, as well as ways to be of assistance -- or at least feel a little less awkward -- if ever someone you know is faced with such a loss.
Know that a parent never gets over the loss of a child
"My son would have been 8 years old on April 12, says Abbie Pointer, whose son Colin was stillborn two days before her scheduled C-section. "I will never wake up and not know at that moment how old he would have been."
Pointer currently leads a support group through Parent Support for Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Newborn Death (or P.S.). "The problem," she says, "is that at some point people will want to treat you like it never happened. And that's a scary thing for parents who will live the rest of their lives with the fact that he did exist. You'll get over the trauma, the shock, the 'physicalness' of grief...but that loss will always be there, and you have to learn to co-exist with it."
Reaching that place where you feel ready -- and able -- to live alongside the loss can take quite awhile, suggests Keri Wagonaar, Executive Director of the SIDS Foundation of Washington. "People have to make it through the first year," she says. "You have the days like Christmas and the baby's birthday and the anniversary of the death. Once they see they can survive that and find ways to get through life, things get better. But, there's no timetable. The last thing we want to do is make parents feel more guilty because they're not grieving right."
Acknowledge the loss -- and the child.
"I definitely felt like I wasn't supposed to talk about the miscarriages," says Laurie Carter, who suffered two miscarriages and terminated a third pregnancy when her son Matthew was diagnosed with Down Syndrome (Carter asked that her real last name be withheld). "Because you never (gave birth), people don't see it as a real loss. But anyone who's been pregnant for two or four months, you've already gone down the garden path on what it's going to mean."
This enforced silence can be very hard on families. "Parents are often afraid that people will forget the baby," Wagonaar says. "So to talk about the baby, or to share a memory or to send a card on the child's birthday, is very healing."
Wagonaar encourages people to be honest if they're uneasy with the subject. "Say, 'gosh, this is uncomfortable for me; I've never been around the death of a child. But I think it's horrible that Joshua died and I'm here for you if you need to cry.'"
Kristine Stewart, lead social worker in the Women and Children's Perinatal Services at Swedish Medical Center, also advises that men and women tend to grieve differently. "Women want to talk about it," she says, "and for a lot of men this is not really helpful." Thus it can be especially important for women to have someone there to listen.
Do something concrete to help a grieving family
Carter remembers a knock on the door some days after her termination. "And there was a woman from co-op. She handed me dinner and a card and gave me the hugest hug. I couldn't even talk, " she says. "I don't even know if I said thank you, and she closed the door and left."
Regular phone calls are important, Stewart says, especially for the mom. "Call her every day and say: 'How are you doing, what part are you thinking about today?' And on those anniversary dates, call up and say 'I remember. How are you doing?'"
Bear in mind, too, that families may need help long after the support has tapered off. "They'll appreciate it if, six months down the road, you take their kids out so the parents can talk or cry together," Wagonaar says.
Laura Fine-Morrison is a Seattle-based freelance writer and mother.
Resources for friends and family members
Videos and books
- "At a Loss for Words: How to Help Those You Care for in a Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Newborn Death Experience." Produced by Charity Hamilton. Offers suggestions on how best to listen, comfort and talk to bereaved parents. Also discusses grandparent and sibling grief and their special needs. www.parentbooks.ca
- You Just Don't Understand Me, by Deborah Tannen. Discusses how conflict resolution differs between men and women.
- P.S. of Puget Sound -- Parent Support for Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Newborn Death. Packet of information for families includes recommendations for creating memories and celebrating special days. 206-782-0054 or www.psofpugetsound.org
- The SIDS Foundation of Washington. Packet for families includes "Parents' Grief: Help and Understanding after the Death of a Baby," by Carol Parrott, RN. Offers suggestions for friends and family members. 206-548-9290 or www.sidsofwa.org
- A Place to Remember. Support materials and resources. Includes books for friends and family members, as well as announcements, remembrance cards and other memorial items: www.aplacetoremember.com
- Four Seasons Oasis. Retail store and professional services supporting the journey of grief, illness and loss. Includes many titles, encouragement-sympathy cards, gifts and comforting gift baskets. 2909B E. Madison St., Seattle. 206-726-0500 or www.fourseasonsoasis.com
- The March of Dimes. Web site includes suggestions for providing support to grieving families: www.marchofdimes.com
- Papyrus at University Village prepares birth and funeral announcements. 206-523-0055
- Price Photo Service will convert hospital Polaroid to regular photographs. 6108 Roosevelt Way N.E. 206-523-7575
- The Secret Club Project. Aims to break the silence surrounding pregnancy loss by exhibiting, publishing and presenting works of art. www.secretclubproject.org