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Infant Loss: How to Heal and How to Help

October is Infant Loss Month

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This past July, the internet was buzzing over an article written by Meghan McCain for the New York Times. It was titled, What I Learned from My Miscarriage, and in it McCain delivers in heartrending detail the emotional and physical struggles of a woman who, despite her time in the spotlight, at the end of the day is simply a mother grieving for a lost child. 

Her story is just the latest piece in a string of articles by celebrities who are doing the important work of showing women that pregnancy and motherhood is not always the way it looks in the media. On the contrary, it often comes with pain, heartache, and emotional trauma — negative side effects that even our enlightened age tries to repress; to slap a filter on; to talk about in hushed tones, if at all.

Meghan and others are bringing important exposure to these “taboo” topics, teaching women that it is normal to be in pain at the loss of a child — even an unborn one — to suffer in silence or in public, to blame yourself, to be angry, to be heartbroken. In times of grief, here are some important lessons that these women are teaching us. 

It’s not your fault

Perhaps the most heartbreaking quote from McCain’s piece are the words, “I blamed myself.” Grief can often lead to thoughts of guilt and self-blame: “Was I too old to have a baby?” “Did I wait too long?” “Did I not want this baby enough?” “Did I secretly want this to happen?” “Did I want this too much?” “If only I hadn’t, maybe I should have, what if I had…?” 

Self-accusation is inevitable after you lose someone dear to you; and in pregnancy, when your baby’s life is so closely intertwined with your own, the feeling of responsibility is even more acute. Feelings of guilt will follow loss, but it is important not to indulge or entertain them — they are ultimately unhelpful. If you are concerned that lifestyle choices may have impacted your pregnancy, take the opportunity to talk to your doctor and make positive changes in your life. 

If you find yourself slipping into thoughts of guilt frequently, reach out to a support group, partner, or health professional and acknowledge what you are feeling. Asking others for forgiveness and admitting to your feelings of guilt, even if there is nothing to be forgiven or feel guilty for, can be the first step on the path of forgiving yourself and feeling resolution. Don’t bear the burden alone.

Process on your own terms

Maternity is an odd moment of time in which our private life suddenly becomes a subject of public concern. Often people, including strangers, view a growing belly as tacit approval to offer unsolicited advice, ask personal questions, and — God forbid — even touch you without your permission. 

This can make a miscarriage all the more painful — what you perhaps prefer to be a private grief is often a matter of public commentary, and well-meaning people can say incredibly hurtful things without meaning to, like, “Don’t worry, you can always have another baby!” Not only is this not a guarantee, but it can seem incredibly dismissive of the particular life and experience that you are grieving. 

However you choose to honor and process your grief is the right way to do it. It’s okay to be private about your grief. It’s okay to be public. It’s okay to have a funeral service for your lost little one, it’s okay to post on social media about it, it’s okay to write letters to your friends and family letting them know of your tragedy, and it’s okay to do none of those things. 

Whatever your path to consolation, be sure not to keep your loss a secret. The amount of detail that you choose to reveal is of course up to you, but acknowledging to yourself and to others that you are going through a difficult time and that you are experiencing a real loss is essential to the healing process. Just because your baby was not born does not make them any less your baby or any less worthy of grief.

Make your own decisions

There is no one-size fits all approach to grief, and what is right for some may not be right for others. When it comes to the logistical decisions following a tragedy, like what to do with all the baby things around your house, there are many options and no right answer.  

Seeing things around your home that were bought for your lost baby can trigger a string of emotions. Finding a friend to pack up and store, donate, or sell your baby’s things is one way to start the healing process. For some, however, it can be cathartic to sit in the nursery or sort through the baby’s things yourself. The decision is entirely up to you — and waiting to make a decision is always a good option. Think about storing items until you are in a better place emotionally: you may find that in time when your wounds begin to heal, you will want reminders of your baby around you.

Some mothers may never experience loss, and that is a wonderful gift. For those who have never lost a child, be kind through your own pregnancies. If a friend or peer doesn’t rejoice with you the way that you hope or expect, be patient — it may be that they are processing feelings of grief that prevent them from entering into your joy as fully as they would like. 

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