“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Dr. Seuss
Andrea Werner Insoft, LICSW
There is no word in the English language to describe a person whose child has died. If your wife dies, you are a widower. If your husband dies, you are a widow. If your parents die, you are an orphan. All of these are tragic losses. But there is no word for a person whose child has died. That kind of death defies spoken language.
Our western society does not do a particularly good job of supporting people through death, grief and mourning. It seems that mourners are allowed 1-2 months and then it is back to the usual routine. Any mention of the deceased is done in whispers and behind closed doors. Nobody wants to upset the bereaved by mentioning his/her loved one. If this is how we handle the death of an adult, imagine how much more complicated it is to support someone after the death of a child.
When a child dies during pregnancy or shortly thereafter, it is hard to know how to mourn. How do you grieve someone you have never met, or met only briefly? And yet, the connection with that child started months earlier – at conception or even before. You have an image of what your child might look like. How you want to raise him or her. Piano lessons, baseball, chess. The options are endless, your future feels so bright and sure; and then, in a flash they are taken from you. You have to grieve your child and your dreams. Molly Fumia wrote, “Grief is a journey, often perilous and without clear direction, that must be taken. The experience of grieving cannot be ordered or categorized, hurried or controlled, pushed aside or ignored indefinitely. It is inevitable as breathing, as change, as love.”
I’d like to explain my word choice here. I specifically refer to people who have experienced a pregnancy loss not as having “lost” a child. You did not “lose” your child. You didn't leave your child in the supermarket. You have experienced the death of a very desired and longed for child…I call every grieving person who walks into my office a parent. It does not matter that you do not have a child living at home, tucked nicely into a bassinet with hand knitted blankets. You have loved a child just the same. You have wished for and dreamed of this child. You are a parent in every sense of the word.
Each person’s journey through this grief is unique. Some people may bristle at my calling them a parent. When a client tells me that he or she is not a parent, I respect that feeling. I truly do. But, I don't believe it.
As I write this article, it is a cold, damp January evening. The holidays have just passed and we are settling in for the long, New England winter. When I finish writing, I will turn on the TV to “veg out” a bit. And what will I see when I turn the TV on? Commercials. Many, many commercials for all sorts of child related items and activities. You know the ones; AT&T, Huggies, children with puppies. Well, to a couple that has suffered childbirth loss, this is far from the most wonderful time of the year. All the reminders of back to school shopping, sales and necessities only reinforce the isolation following the death of a child. How can you cope? How can you put one foot in front of the other and take the steps necessary to get through your day?
·Turn off the TV/radio.
It is too much and can be flooding. You may have been on the road to recovery and hearing or seeing a particular commercial can send you right back. And that is the nature of grief. Healing is not a linear process. It is more a meandering path. Allow yourself to wander the path and look at everything you encounter. Also, please allow yourself to get off the path and take a break.
·Surround yourself with people who understand. Or, if they don’t actually understand, at least they try. They are able to say things like, “Tell me what’s up for you today.” Or “Do you want to talk, walk, see a movie, get some coffee?”
·Realize that the goal is not to let go. I believe that the goal is to hold on. It is only in the holding on and the belief that this child will always be a part of you that you can heal.
·Talk about your child.
Use his or her name. He is real. She lived, if only for the briefest of moments. Your child touched you and has changed you.
·Embrace the ways in which you have been changed. Many clients tell me that they are so much softer around the edges. They are more compassionate. They are comfortable reaching out to others. Some say that had they known their pregnancy would end the way it did, they would not have changed anything about the experience. They are grateful that they got the opportunity to meet their child. Look for the changes you see in yourself and hold fast to them, for they exist because of your son or daughter.
·Find ways to honor your child and yourself as a parent. Plant a garden, name a star, send balloons up with messages for others to find, volunteer for an organization that has meaning for you. I have found that many people find solace at the Children’s Memorial Lighthouse in Edgartown.
I’d like to end with a quote from Harold Kushner who wrote so beautifully on the importance of living after the death of a child.
"We cannot choose. We can only try to cope. That is what one does with sorrow, tragedy, or with any misfortune. We do not try to explain it. We do not justify it by telling ourselves that we somehow deserve it. We do not even accept it. We survive it. We recognize its unfairness and defiantly choose to go on living. I now tell bereaved parents: you have inherited from your child all the years he or she never got to live… you inherited their unlived years. Those years are a precious legacy from them to you; use them well. Don't be afraid to enjoy life just because your loved one isn't there to enjoy it with you. Live their years along with your own, and feel their presence as you do so."
In this season as in all, I wish you peace, healing and hope.