They Knew Them Already
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
They were young and innocent. That was then. This is now. In a blink of an eye, a solitary moment, their lives were changed. Their baby died. Their baby was wanted, loved, and now missed. From a young age they had been told life is unfair. Talking about it is an intellectual experience. Now they have to live it.
Back in the 70’s when we medical professionals were being urged by bereaved parents to reconsider our well intentioned view of stillbirth, much of our care was driven by our own discomfort with death, our own sense of failure, and not trusting that these young parents could handle the disappointment of this tragedy. Our advice was to go home and make another baby, and better luck next time. We didn’t encourage parents to see, name, hold, or memorialize their baby. We meant well, but we didn’t ask the parents what they needed. We assumed they didn’t want to talk, when in fact, it was we who were uncomfortable with talking about death and grief.
We thought we were sparing them grief when we discouraged them from seeing their dead baby, and that this would help them get on with their lives more easily. What we didn’t take into consideration was that these parents had already bonded with their babies. They already knew them intimately. They had felt every twist and turn, bump and hiccup. They knew the foods their baby liked and the music that soothed them. These babies were already being talked about and counted as part of the family, even if the baby hadn’t been seen yet. But now, with our highly sophisticated ultrasound equipment, many parents have already seen their babies before birth.
Even though there are 50,000 pregnancy losses and infant deaths a year in this country, not to mention close to a million miscarriages, the death of an infant is still not a conversation topic that most people want to be part of. When infant death is mentioned, most people quickly change the subject. Parents themselves are hesitant to bring it up because they don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, or they don’t want to be judged. Others think if you don’t talk about the death of an infant the parents will find it easier to forget their loss.. But this inadvertent conspiracy of silence doesn’t help or heal anyone.
I have been sitting in support groups since the mid 70’s. Bereaved parents come seeking support, understanding and comfort. I see firsthand what the death of their baby does to them. I hear how they question themselves and wonder if they could have prevented this from happening. I see how this experience shakes their self confidence and causes tension in their marriage. I see how disappointed they are in family and friends who want to hurry them through this grief so they can get back to their “old selves”. I watch them rebuild their lives learning how to remember, not relive. One woman, when asked about her grief replied, “I don’t think the pain has gotten less. I have just gotten stronger.”
These meetings are not filled with light superficial chatter. Rather they are filled with a deep sense of gratitude that others really want to hear about their baby and what it’s like for them on this unfamiliar journey of grief. They are grateful to not be alone.
They let me see their pain. They trust me to not dismiss, minimize, or intellectualize their experience. They see that I can be a container for their pain and that I am not afraid of their tears. I am in awe of how these little ones that nobody else knew are able to bring new life to their parents.
If you haven’t had a pregnancy loss or sat by your newborn in the NICU watching their breath fade away, trust that these parents’ grief is real--just as real as the grief of anyone who has sat beside their 4 year old or 40 year old as their life was ending. They may not get to hold their baby in their arms, but they will hold them in their hearts forever. We can do a lot for them by helping them see we want to hear their story.
As we celebrate Mother’s Day this coming Sunday remember these women, too, are mothers and deserve to be acknowledged as such. This is a particularly hard day for them.
is a state of both the mind and the heart,
a sacred place that is yours
no matter the distance
between you and your child.
Not even death
can take it away.