Parents know no greater joy than the birth of a baby, and no greater sorrow than the death of a child
This year alone in the United States, 228,000 infants, children, teenagers and young adults will die. Each year, out of an estimated 4.4 million confirmed pregnancies, there are more than half a million miscarriages, 29,000 stillbirths and 39,000 deaths under one year of age.
“Parents who lose a child need family, friends and their community,” says Donna Roehl, executive director of The Pregnancy and Infant Loss Center. “It is often difficult to know how to be supportive. Whether the loss is early in the pregnancy, at term or after a child is born, the grieving process ensues.”
Experiencing the death of a child is like being struck by lightning. One family has been struck not once, but three times.
In August last year, Terry and Julie Fasching made all of the preparations that new parents do. The Minnesota couple had painted walls, hung borders, bought tiny diapers, prepared a crib and selected just the right accessories. The nursery theme was stars.
“As I look at the stars in Geneva’s room,” says Julie, “I never imagined how prophetic they would be.” On August 25, the Fasching’s daughter, Geneva, died suddenly.
There was no warning. Geneva was born a healthy 7-pound, 13-ounce girl. The nurse noted her chubby cheeks and chubby legs and gave her Apgar scores of 8 and 9 out of a possible 10. She lived for 6 hours.
A full autopsy revealed no cause of death and her case was ruled “Sudden Unexplained Death.” A premature infant brother, Tanner Michael, preceded Geneva in death in June of 1999. The Faschings also suffered the miscarriage of twins in the fall of 1999. At this time, Terry and Julie are undecided about future plans.
“For months I have felt like I was living someone else’s life,” Julie said. “Terry and I were convinced that we’d wake up from this nightmare, and Geneva would be able to come home and see her room.”
While nothing family or friends can say to Terry and Julie will erase their pain, there are ways to cope with the unbelievable despair that accompanies the death of a child.
For any family, it would be a struggle to survive such a heart-wrenching experience.
Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., psychologist and author of “Empty Cradle, Broken Heart,” (Fulcrum, 1996) tells bereaved parents that “the anger, sadness and despair may run so deep that you wonder if you will ever emerge from the abyss called grief.” The Pregnancy and Infant Loss Center suggests on their Web site, www.pilc.org, 10 ways of coping which, in hindsight, many parents point to as keys to surviving their grief – and their baby’s death.
- Respect your own needs. You may read or hear a lot of advice. Some suggestions may be more appropriate than others, depending on your unique situation, your personality and where you are in your grief. Keep what fits and discard what doesn’t.
- Have realistic expectations for your grief. Grieving is a process that takes time. Throw deadlines out the window. Just knowing that ups and downs are normal and sometimes unpredictable, can make your journey easier.
- Have faith that eventually you will feel better. Instead of imagining grief as a bottomless pit, imagine a tunnel. When you are in the middle of it, you may not see any light. But as you work through your feelings of yearning, anger, guilt, failure, sadness and hurt, you will come out the other side.
- Let your grief flow. When your feelings are rising, do your best to take the time to honor them. You may be tempted to put off your painful feelings; you may be afraid of being vulnerable or appearing weak and cowardly; you may worry that your feelings will be detrimental to your family; you may fear losing control of your emotions, your mind, and your life. By suppressing feelings, you may think you are controlling your grief, but in reality, you are increasing its power to run your life.
- Dwell on your child and your memories. While you (or many people around you) may believe that the quicker you can forget and move on, the better off you’ll be. The fact is, you will benefit from a gradual goodbye. Do things that help you feel close to your baby.
- Accept the support of others, however clumsy it may seem. Generally, your friends and family mean well and want to be helpful, though they may not know how. You may hear things like “It was only a miscarriage,” “You’ll be pregnant again soon,” or “Aren’t you over this yet? You hardly knew this baby.” Do remember that in our society, many people try to ignore, belittle or erase grief in an attempt to “help.” In the past, you too may have offered these platitudes, but now you know how isolating and hurtful they can be. Forgive your friends’ ignorance as those before you have forgiven yours. For those people you trust and lean on the most, educate them about what you need. Tell them, write them a note, or give them a bereaved parents’ book to read. After all, they want to know how they can be a support to you.
- Pursue those things that help you face and cope with your feelings:
- Talking with your partner, family or friends
- Attending a support group
- Seeing a counselor
- Writing about your baby and your feelings in a journal
- Reading books about coping with grief, personal accounts of loss, or books and articles on medical, ethical or spiritual issues
- Engaging in creative or athletic endeavors
- Leaning on your spiritual or religious faith
- Being open to suggestions from other parents who’ve been there, using whatever seems helpful and passing by whatever isn’t
- Make a conscious choice to get through your grief without letting it destroy your life. This can be a significant key to survival. You can decide whether to face or to hide from your feelings; you can choose whether to triumph over your loss or be defeated by it. 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’re ready, you can do that too.
- Allow yourself to hold onto some hope for the future. Whether this may include another baby or not, your life can have meaning beyond “bereaved parent.” You will always remember your precious child, and eventually, you can move on in peace, bringing your memories with you.
- Remember, you are not alone.
For grieving parents in search of support and information, visit the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Center’s Web site at www.pilc.org or call (952) 473-9372.