When parents experience the grief following miscarriage, or following a diagnosis during pregnancy of a baby with a life-limiting condition, or when a baby is stillborn or when a baby is born alive but dies within the first week of life describes parents who will be experiencing Perinatal Complex Grief. As a mother and family who lost our baby Ozzie due to a life-limiting condition at 26 weeks in utero I can tell you the difficulty this type of grief creates is one that cannot be dealt with alone and in isolation. The deep soulful need to feel your tragic untimely loss is seen and understood by your family, friends and community is one that when experienced through, there acknowledgement of your loss coupled with love, support and empathy has a far better outcome emotionally the bereaved parents.
On October 18th 2002 we said goodbye to our second son, Ozzie Golland, it was and continues to be both the most painful emotionally and physically time in my life. Back then parents rarely discussed the loss of a child pre-birth. As a psychologist I knew that avoiding or protecting people from my own intense grief was unhealthy emotionally. I was compelled to never forget our son and for him to be grieved with a funeral service and to express our tragic and overwhelming loss with outward tangible expressions of his short life within our family. I was moved and healed by those friends who sent flowers, cards and memorialized him with donations of trees in his name in Israel. When the sisterhood of our reform synagogue put our family on the meal deliveries for two weeks, I was brought to tears due to being seen in our pain and the community’s acknowledgement of the depth of the loss we as a family were experiencing. At that time 19 years ago, these actions were outliers and felt novel. I am pleased to say they are now the norm of how we, as mental health professionals, guide parents to handle this complex grief process. As a therapist, I encouraged and supported others to have memorials, get tattoos of the child’s name and also guided friends and family how to proceed during this delicate experience.
The summer of 2020 Chrissy Teigen and John Legend while in the throes of their own bereavement for their son Jack who was delivered at 20 weeks and died in their arms has forever changed the narrative around perinatal complex grief. Parents like myself who were in the secret club we never wanted to be a part of undoubtably understood their gut-wrenching loss and their desire to share their painful experience to ultimately help other parents and families experiencing this unimaginable type of loss. They used their platform and power to shine light on this for the sake of others who may find themselves in this overwhelming and confusing time. They showed others how to process this grief, novel steps to take, such as photographing the birth, no matter how painful it may be. They shared publicly the images of their baby in their arms shortly after he passed away. She was criticized and bashed by some on social media and her response to her critics captured what any of us bereaved moms felt at the time of the death of our babies.
Chrissy Teigen said, “I lived it, I chose to do it, and more than anything, these photos aren’t for anyone but the people who lived this or are curious enough to wonder what something like this is like. These photos are only for the people who need them. The thoughts of others do not matter to me.”
As parents their emotional bravery has changed the narrative and process around the issue of prenatal complex grief. By sharing their experiences and the tangible actions they took before, during and after their loss is now a guide post for those unfortunate families who in the future will be members of this profound and life altering club.
Perinatal grief is a unique experience of grief because mourning is retrospective. This means as parents we are grieving the loss of a future together. We have to sadly relinquish our hopes, wishes and dreams for the baby we are now saying goodbye to before or shortly after they are born. We grieve what may have been, our baby’s future suddenly disappears and our dreams and expectations are crushed.
You see, as a grieving mom our love is not experienced only because we can physically hold our babies when they come out of our bodies. Our love is experienced in unexplainable beautiful ways… like imagining the life they will live that we as parents will get to be witness to until we ourselves grow old and grey. It is in the elation that will come when we hold them physically for the first time welcoming them into this crazy world. It is the dreams of the moments they will share with their siblings. My own losses included the moments of my two sons running through the house chasing one another around our kitchen island and as parents our dreams of the days ahead together as a family of four. How with our two boys we would have had our own family language that would make us giggle. How we of course will cry, fight, disagree and slam doors with rage. When I think of our son Ozzie, I reflect on the loss as a mom of not getting to hear the sounds of his life. There will be no 1st birthday, family Thanksgivings and no Bar Mitzvah to be planned. Through the process of perinatal complex grief, we must internalize that though we have had to let go of our child physically we will never let go of our love for them.
Suggestions for Processing Perinatal Complex Grief
*Name your baby
*If possible, take photos of the experience and of you with your baby
*Have a memorial service or funeral
*Speak up about the pain and confusion of your loss to family and friends
*Tell people what you need or want – people want to do something but often do nothing because they are afraid of “bringing it up or triggering the grief”.
*Share how those in your life have been helpful with you being seen and understood with such things as cards, flowers, or donations in the name of your baby.
*Share your experience each year on social media – acknowledge for yourself how the enormous loss doesn’t go away with time. You will not only be healthily moving through your own grief you will be helping other parents who are in the throes of this type of loss.
*Remember your baby did have a life in your family – they experienced the parties and quiet moments they were just safely inside of you. But they had a real life to be remembered.
*Write a letter to them sharing the moments they did live with you… remember for them and remember for yourself so you can weave them into your life and not just remember them in the death experience.
This year I wrote our son such a letter. It was another level of processing my own perinatal complex grief even 19 years later.
I woke up early this morning thinking of you and not your death but your beautiful brief life in our incredible and crazy family. Yes, you lived a brief 26 weeks while I carried you inside of me but it was still your whole life… your life as a son, brother and grandson. So today I wanted to share the moments of your life. You Ozzie were dreamed of and conceived of after the near death of your daddy Michael in a horrible car accident that nearly took him from this earth. You see your light helped pull us through one of the darkest times of our life as a family. Your brother, Asher, was 1 ½ years old when you came to be. He would kiss you in my belly and talk to you only like brothers can do. I would cradle my belly, you, with my arms as we laid in bed together on dark nights. We did kundalini yoga together and you kicked me so hard sometimes that I would nearly fall over. The summer of 2002 we celebrated my 33rd birthday and your daddy’s 36th with a big cake, balloons, friends and you my son were there too snuggly inside of me while I danced at our party. As a family we went to Malibu beach for Rosh Hashanah and together cast bread crumbs into the blue ocean to reflect on the year past and hope for change for the year coming. As the leaves changed and Fall came around you, me, daddy and Asher built our Sukkah under the big maple tree on the red brick outside of the den. We hung fruit, birds and flowers with white ribbon. We draped twinkle lights to represent the stars and our bright future. We laughed, drank and sang songs with our neighbors at our Sukkot party. We dreamed, hoped and believed in the joy that would be arriving soon. You. But that was not written in our stars. I mothered you until the end of your short life. We would need the qualities you had been named for… Courage and Strength.
Ozzie you had a fun and incredible brief life in our family. You will always be counted among the Golland tribe. You are not only grieved and thought of on the day you died but you my son are woven into the memories of the life we once lived so long ago. You will be spoken of and felt in the sacred memories the four of us had together – as a family.
Pregnancy Loss Support Program
Postpartum Support International