“When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them. This month recognizes the loss so many parents experience across the United States and around the world. It is also meant to inform and provide resources for parents who have lost children due to miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, stillbirths, birth defects, SIDS, and other causes. Now, therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim the month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.”
On October 25, 1988, President Ronald Reagan uttered those words and designated the entire month of October 1988 as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), studies reveal that anywhere from 10-25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies will end in early pregnancy loss, that's about 1 in 4 pregnancies. When fetal death occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy, it is called stillbirth. These tragic deaths occur in about 1 in 160 pregnancies.
For black infants, that number is increased. Black infants have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate compared to white babies and are 3.8 times as likely to die from complications related to low birth weight. Marian F. MacDorman and T.J. Matthews in “Understanding Racial and Ethnic Disparities in U.S. Infant Mortality Rates” suggests that infants born to African American mothers are dying at twice the rate as infants born to non-Hispanic white mothers. In addition, Native American and Alaska Native women are about 1.5 times as likely to lose an infant before its first birthday.
So why aren't we talking about it? Why aren't we allowing parents to grieve? Why aren't we comforting these parents the same way we would if we attended a funeral?
Coping For Families:
Your profound bond gives rise to an even more profound grieving process. Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and the author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time, suggests that one grieving should:
- Accept your need to mourn and express your grief. Set aside time for grief to flow through you, whether you find relief in releasing emotions, moving your body, solving problems, or accomplishing meaningful tasks.
- Have realistic expectations about grief, viewing it as a complex process that has no deadlines, but many waves and unpredictable ups and downs, which eventually bring a gradual sense of healing that creeps up over many months and several years.
- Accept your preoccupation with your baby as a natural expression of your parental bond and a natural part of your grief. Indeed, reviewing your memories and telling your story can help your grief flow.
- Understand that the brevity of your baby’s life can make grieving especially complicated and painful. By identifying your many layers of loss and the challenges you face, you can embrace the profound impact your baby’s death has on you.
- Do those things that let you feel close to your baby. For you this might be visiting the cemetery; thinking or writing about your pregnancy and your baby; spending time with your keepsakes such as baby clothes and photographs; memorializing your baby such as installing a plaque, planting a tree or a garden, building a shrine or box to hold mementos, creating a scrapbook, making a piece of art, or donating your time or resources in your baby’s name.
- Pursue what helps you heal. Here’s a varied list of possibilities:
- Respect your own unique needs. Determine what you need to do to get through this. You deserve to get what you need.
- Ask for guidance and reassurance from bereaved parents who’ve been there.
- Attend a support group, so you can meet and talk with other parents who truly understand what you’re going through.
- See a counselor or therapist who can acknowledge your feelings and offer you coping skills.
- Engage in mindfulness practices, such as meditation, meditative breathing, yoga, and tai chi, which can soothe your grief-stricken body and brain.
- Practice self-compassion and self-care. This includes being kind, patient, and gentle with yourself, and making sure you get adequate sleep, eat nutritious foods, and move your body every day. Doing so will boost your resilience and help you tolerate the ravages of grief.
- Accept the support of others, however clumsy it may be. Tell people what you need. If they are true friends, they’ll be glad to know.
- Write letters to whomever you wish to vent—the rude neighbor, the kindly stranger, your doctor, the hospital, God, Mother Nature, fate. Don’t send them; the writing is for you. Particularly if you have regrets, write a letter to your baby, and then if you wish, imagine or write your baby’s reply.
- Read books on coping with grief, personal accounts of loss, or medical or spiritual issues. Be open to advice that seems helpful.
- Engage in creative or athletic endeavors. These encourage the expression of emotions or release of tension, as well as make you feel like you can accomplish something constructive.
- Lean on the parts of your spiritual beliefs or religious faith that comfort you.
- Find respite in the activities and experiences you can enjoy.
- Try to recognize anything positive—discovered strengths, new growth, enlightened perspectives, meaningful pursuits, better relationships. Although it can be a struggle to find treasure in adversity, doing so can help you to heal and to honor your child’s memory. In time, you will feel ready to do this.
- Make a conscious decision to survive. After a while, you can decide whether to remember your baby and move forward with what you’ve gained, or remain stuck with what you’ve lost. Many parents mention that eventually, they reach a point where they just decide to stop wishing it didn’t happen and start learning to live with it. When you are ready, you can do that too.
- Have faith that eventually you will feel better. Like the many parents who’ve come before you, you too can survive the death of your baby.
- Know that even as you grieve, you are healing. Take one day at a time and trust the process.
- Remember that your grief is normal and you are not alone.
Supporting & Comforting Families
- Listen: Pregnancy and Infant loss is not easy to talk about. It's especially harder to talk about if there is no one to listen. The best support can sometimes just be willing to listen.
- Support the Family: Members of the family who are experiencing this loss can all deal with it differently. Supporting the family means being there for the mother, the partner/spouse, the sibling, etc. who may all be coping/grieving in different ways.
- Acknowledge the baby: Don't ignore what has happened! If the parents have shared the baby's name with you, acknowledge the baby by calling the baby their given name. You may even feel more comfortable asking about the baby's name or about the baby's features.
- Follow their lead: If you are unsure of what to say or how to help, don’t be afraid to ask them what they are comfortable with. Be mindful and sensitive to their reactions.
- Choose your words carefully: It has become the norm (still unsure why) for people to ask you, "when are you having another one?" after you've had a child. Sometimes almost immediately. Refrain from things like, "I'm sure you all will have another baby." Saying this can be completely dismissive of the loss they are experiencing and can suggest their deceased child can be replaced. It's almost like saying, "get over it and have another one!"
- Offer practical help: this mom may have given birth and gone through the entire labor and delivery process. It's important that one asks what the parents might need and be specific. You may offer meals for a couple weeks or help around the house.
- Don't throw things away: It's can be easy to assume that parents may want to throw away or get rid of some things. However, the parents may either want to do it at a later point, or may want to use certain things to create a memory book, box, or memorial.
- Be there for them - don't avoid them: Grieving, especially a baby can feel uncomfortable for some who have never experienced loss in that way. Even if you don't know what to say, explaining that or just saying, "I'm sorry!" is better than avoidance.
- Be mindful of other pregnancies and babies: someone who has experienced pregnancy or infant loss may feel uncomfortable or triggered around other expecting mothers or babies. They may also be uncomfortable talking with you about your pregnancy or infant woes. Be considerate and mindful of your support system.
- Remember the baby: some parents may feel that they expected to "get over it" or "move on" from their loss. The reality is, some parents may and can grieve for a lifetime. They may wish to celebrate the short life of their child yearly or years down the line. No one wants to be forgotten, so we shouldn't forget the baby's short life either.
We can all support each other by beginning hard conversations, being a listening ear, and supporting one another.
Books for Pregnancy & Infant Loss