When a Baby Dies: Why is this so hard?
Understanding the layers of loss and challenges of mourning can help you embrace the depth of your grief.
When a baby dies, parents can experience a grief so profound, they wonder how they can survive it. If you’ve experienced the death of a baby, it’s normal to worry about your sanity. It can help you to acknowledge the many layers of loss and special challenges that can affect the course of your mourning. Layers which can make a baby’s death so very difficult to endure. Understanding why this is so hard can affirm your baby’s importance and validate the depth of your grief.
You may experience some or all of the following losses and challenges.
Death is taboo in our society
Rather than being seen as an inevitable and natural part of the cycle of life, death has become something we consider scary and distasteful—even disgusting—and best avoided. As a result, most people feel uncomfortable with death and dying. They don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it. When a baby dies, it is especially unthinkable and unspeakable. Unfortunately, this leaves bereaved parents alone and adrift, which only adds to their suffering.
A baby’s death violates expectations
Modern medicine and standards of living have greatly improved the prospects of having a healthy pregnancy and giving birth to healthy baby. As such, expectant parents are not likely to seriously consider the possibility that their baby may die, particularly after the first trimester of pregnancy. This assumption accompanies the belief that by “doing all the right things,” guarantees a healthy baby.So when a baby dies, the parents’ expectations are cruelly violated.
A baby’s death is a traumatic bereavement
Trauma happens when you experience an emotionally painful event over which you have no control, and it leaves a lasting imprint on your brain—and your life. A large part of what makes a traumatic experience is that everything is okay. But then suddenly, and unexpectedly, it’s not. So when your baby dies, the road of recovery is long, winding, and hard.
The weight of responsibility
Particularly as the mother, you may wonder about what you did or did not do that might have contributed to your baby’s plight. As the father or the mother’s partner, you may wonder what you could’ve done better to protect your baby or ward off this tragedy. All of these normal feelings originate from the natural and biological urge to protect your children. Particularly if you hold tight to the common belief that you have control over what happens to you, these feelings of responsibility can contribute to painful feelings of guilt.
Feelings of helplessness
It is normal for the mother to feel betrayed by her body’s inability to create or sustain a healthy baby or an uncomplicated birth. Your baby’s death can also undermine a sense of being masterful and able to fix anything or solve any problem. Many fathers, in particular, feel this keenly. Feelings of helplessness also go against the grain of an accomplishment-based life, and may contribute to a sense of failure or loss of control.
A loss of innocence and faith
When your baby dies, it makes you realize that bad things can happen to good people. You don’t have total control over your destiny, and you cannot shield your children from death. For many parents, a baby’s death triggers a crisis of religious faith or they may struggle with the senselessness of it all. You may also feel anxious or angry as you face your new knowledge that you are vulnerable to tragedy.
A loss of identity as a parent
When you found out you were pregnant, your identity as a parent to this baby began to form. When this baby dies, you have to figure out what it means to be a parent to a child who is no longer with you. Particularly if you don’t have any other surviving children, you may question whether you’re still a mother, or still a father.
Feeling uncertain and unsure of yourself
Before your baby died, you may have seen yourself as emotionally sound, responsible, in charge, and invincible. Now you must develop a new identity. Allow yourself to feel distressed, confused, unmotivated, and vulnerable. You may also have to redefine what it means to be a woman or a man—or an adult. Your role as a friend and family member may change too, as you may find it impossible to deal with the seemingly endless stream of new babies in your social circles. And if you quit your job, because you anticipated staying home with your baby, you may feel uncertain of your financial role, your career, or what to do about it. Finally, you may wonder about “trying again”. You may feel uncertain about whether or when to have another baby.
Feelings of isolation
You may feel abandoned by friends and family members who don’t understand your grief or your need for support. People may avoid the topic as they don’t want to upset you by asking about your baby or how you’re really doing. Some may feel so uncomfortable or unsure about how to behave that they simply avoid you. Even your midwife, doctor, or nurses may feel awkward and uncertain about how to broach the topic of your baby’s death or how to support you in your grief. As a result, you may feel like you’re the only one who remembers or cares about your little baby.
Not enough time spent with your baby
When the length of time spent with the infant is brief, coping with a baby’s death becomes particularly difficult. When you never or barely get to know your baby after birth, you may feel cheated. Cheated of the chance to learn about this child’s special qualities, or fully express your love and devotion. If you were blocked from spending sufficient time with your baby before death or before relinquishing the body, these are other losses to bear.
A lack of memories and mementos
Your baby’s brief life also means you had few opportunities to gather memories and mementos, which are important to the bereaved. When you have few memories or mementos, you may find it challenging to validate your baby’s existence, acknowledge your baby’s importance, honor your bond, and experience a more gradual goodbye. And when the “hello-goodbye” is so abrupt, this can add to your trauma and complicate your grief.
A lack of mourning rituals
Many parents are not sufficiently encouraged to engage in rituals of mourning. Spending time with the body, arranging a funeral, attending the burial, making formal public announcements of the death, and recognizing a mourning period—all of these rituals are designed to support the bereaved. Traditional rituals- taking the body home for many days, having a home funeral, and green burial are becoming more prevalent, but these rituals take time and run deep. This is at odds with fast-paced, skate-on-the-surface, modern societies. As such, these rituals are often denied, overlooked, or minimized- especially when a baby dies.
A loss of a part of your future
Not only do you grieve for your baby, you also grieve for your lost visions of parenthood. The moments you had looked forward to—parental leave, family gatherings, and holidays—can seem worthless or trivial without your baby. If you preferred to have all your children by, say, age thirty-five, or spaced a certain number of years apart, the death of your baby might mean that your family isn’t what you imagined. If you anticipated the birth of twins, triplets, or more, you will grieve for the lost chance to raise multiple babies together. And your baby’s death represents a missing branch of the family tree as you consider the prospective generations that might have been. All of these deficits in your future make it particularly painful to get on with your life. In fact, your baby’s death puts you on a different path.
You can grieve and survive the death of your baby
As you identify and affirm your layers of loss, challenges, and trauma, please know- your baby’s death is a huge deal. You may feel deeply affected. Also, while your layers are unique to you, you share much common ground with other bereaved parents. You are not alone. And in spite of all these barriers and difficulties, you can grieve and survive the death of your baby. Just as other parents grieved before you. Indeed, you may find it immensely comforting to read about the experiences of other bereaved parents—or seek out their company, which can serve as a lifeline to you.
Read more about grieving, coping, and surviving the death of your baby:
Sources of bereaved parent support:
Experience the healing that comes from telling your story—or reading the stories of others:
Deborah L. Davis, PhD is a developmental psychologist and writer who has authored several books that support parents who’ve experienced the death of a baby. She is most well known for Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby (the much-awaited Third Edition comes out November 1) and A Gift of Time (with Amy Kuebelbeck), which supports parents who seek perinatal hospice after receiving a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis for their baby. Since 2011, she’s been blogging for Psychology Today, where she writes about resilience, including coping with perinatal bereavement. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/laugh-cry-live
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