While losing a child is one of the most difficult trials that a parent can endure, the loss of a baby due to miscarriage, stillbirth or newborn death poses unique challenges.
“We see couples struggle with the length of time that it takes to move through the grief process and the difficulty of seeing other pregnant women and babies,” said Amy Creamer, who is a volunteer counselor at Sisters of Charity Hospital’s Footprints on the Heart program.
First-time parents also experience the invisibleness of being a parent without a baby, Creamer said. “Many people will not recognize them as parents, and it can be very hurtful to not be seen as the parent that they are.”
The Grieving ProcessWhen grieving the loss of a child, there are typically two paths that someone will follow: that of the feeler or that of the doer.
The feeler wants to talk about his or her experience, write about it, look at pictures of the baby and talk some more.
The doer wants to put his or her emotions into action by doing or creating something.
“Often they will make a casket or scrapbook, start a foundation or find an organization that is related to their loss and volunteer for it,” said Creamer.
Although women most often take on the role of the feeler and men the role of the doer, people can switch between roles, beginning as one and then moving into the other.
Couples can avoid misunderstandings by being open about how they’re feeling and what their needs are.
“Communication about when they need to talk and when they need space will help them to negotiate the times that they need to be alone and when they need the support of one another,” said Creamer.
Support GroupsFor some parents, support groups can be therapeutic.
“Attending a support group helps you to realize that you are not alone on your journey and that there are many other people like you who are enduring the same difficulties. It also gives you an opportunity to speak about your loss, acknowledge what you have been through and not hide from the pain of the experience,” said Creamer.
"The support groups offer hope to their members. Today may be a bad day, but tomorrow may be better. And if it isn't, they have someone to call."
The Footprints on the Heart program, led by Registered Nurse Fran Kane, offers several support groups for couples and their families who have experienced the loss of a baby.
Click here to learn about support groups that meet on the Sisters Hospital campus.
Individual CounselingParents grieve their loss in different ways, and the support group setting is not for everyone. If you are not ready to attend a support group, Fran Kane offers individual support by phone or email.
Click here to learn how to contact Fran.
MemorialsWhile there are many ways to remember or memorialize a baby, photographs are often a parent’s most treasured object.
"Babies who are miscarried, born still, or die shortly after birth have photographs taken by the nurses in the hospital," said Kane. "We print several photos for the parents immediately and place them in their memory box. A CD of the rest of the photos is given after discharge."
Parents who experience a pregnancy loss only have one chance to see their baby, and photographs can serve to remind them of details they don't want to forget.
"Parents always say they have too few photographs, not too many," Kane said.
“A company called Our 365 will create a beautiful package of photos for parents at no charge to them. Disposable cameras were also donated to all area hospitals and are given to families in the event that they are able to take some of their own poses. A local family who experienced a stillbirth donated them because they were in shock when they delivered and do not have enough photographs. Therefore, the nurses encourage the families to take as many as they can. The family wanted to try to make sure parents know how important those photos really are.”
In addition, an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) is available for photographs at the hospital.
Supporting Parents Who Have Experienced a LossIf you know someone who has experienced a loss, give them the time and the space that they need to grieve.
"The best way to support a friend or family member is to be available for them to talk to you if they need to, but do not push them," Creamer said.
Don’t make assumptions about what the grieving parents need or how they are feeling. Every person goes through the process differently. Some parents may cope by talking about their loss, but for others, it may be too painful.
The best thing to say to someone who has just had a loss is, "I am so sorry to hear about your baby. I cannot imagine what you must be feeling. Please know that I am here for you if you need anything, whether that is space or a shoulder to cry on."
Understand that grief has no set time frame, and allow them time to heal.
"Parents may grieve much longer than other people are comfortable with and may be told that they should be over their loss when they have barely begun the grief process. This can be hard because then they feel as though they are doing something wrong,” said Creamer.
Offering to cook a meal for the grieving parents or to just come and sit with them can be helpful.
Although the loss of a baby is devastating, it is possible to heal. You can learn more about the resources available to bereaved parents at the Catholic Health website.