Surviving the Loss of a Child
Ways to heal and honor your child's memory.
When a baby dies, it is beyond devastating. Hopes and dreams are shattered. Everything that should be—a joyous home, a new life, a vibrant child—is replaced by the most profound grief. There's no set time for how long it takes to feel solace following the death of a bay, says Penelope Bushman Gemma, a psychiatric nurse clinician at Columbia University School of Nursing, who works with families who have experienced the death of a child.
Some parents cry; others feel confused. Parents may experience anger, confusion, disbelief, a sense of failure, and sleeplessness, all of which are normal, explains Michael R. Berman, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. You can have such contrasting feelings, and all at the same time.
It's also common for parents to go through post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as nightmares. But perhaps most heartbreaking is the feeling of responsibility for the baby's death, regardless of what caused it. Parents who lose a child to SIDS, for instance, are often still questioning every decision they made.
Start the Healing Process
Even though the grieving process is unique in every family, there are things you can do to make life easier for all of you in the wake of tragedy. For couples whose children die of seemingly random causes, understanding the cause of death can help to bring some sense of peace. Your hospital can provide an autopsy that may reveal what went wrong. If parents can't bear the thought of looking at that information so soon after the child's death, they still have the right to look at the baby's medical records, even long after the loss, says Gemma.
Another source of comfort may be speaking with a professional, such as a bereavement counselor or member of the clergy. Friends and family can also provide support, whether in the form of a shoulder to cry on or preparing meals.
While leaning on loved ones for support helps, some parents find that what helps them most is talking to others who have had the same experience. As time goes by, though, the type of support that families need may change. Sometimes being around other families suffering through the same thing can feel like opening old wounds. At that point, you might want to switch to a private counselor.
It's also important to remember that what you don't do is key to the healing process as well. Certain situations—a child's birthday party, a baby shower—may be too painful to bear. According to experts, this type of self-preservation is very helpful. Even if it's a close friend's or relative's gathering, you have the right to choose what you can and can't handle, says Gemma. It's fine to say "I love your kids, but right now it's too hard for me to be there."
Handling Home, Friends, and Family
Your child's nursery, along with her toys and clothes, need to be dealt with. And you'll need to break the news to friends and relatives. How do you handle these tasks? There's no right way, but experts suggest taking the least painful path and asking for help. If going over your child's story again and again is too hard, for example, send a mass e-mail.
When it comes to the child's nursery, some parents choose to simply close the door until they're prepared to face it. For others, donating things to charity is a way to do something good in the wake of a tragedy. If you can't bear to pack the items yourself, ask a friend or family member to do it for you.
Honoring the Baby
Feeling better does not have to mean forgetting your child. There are many ways to honor the spirit of your baby. Life-affirming family rituals can also bring back a sense of hope.
The March of Dimes (www.modimes.org) offers a bereavement kit for families who have lost a baby. The packet includes a memory envelope, in which parents can preserve personal items, such as a photograph. It also provides information about the emotional issues surrounding loss, advice for friends and family, an insert for parents thinking about another pregnancy, a resource directory, and fact sheets on the medical reasons behind some infant deaths.
But you needn't do anything large to make an important statement about your child. For many, a contribution to a favorite charity is a soothing way to do something positive in your baby's name.
Though most parents feel like they'll never get over what happened, as the healing progresses, the intensity of grief eventually subsides. Parents who've lost a child will always have a part of that baby living inside their hearts and minds, but eventually they will reach a point in their lives where they can actually laugh again.
The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.