** Trigger Warning** This post is about baby loss and grief. If you have experienced your own loss, this may be triggering for you!
On August 14, 2018, my daughter, Abigail Rose, was born sleeping at 24 weeks. I never got to hold her. I never got to see her smile, hold her hand, or watch her grow up. Due to a blood clot in my placenta, Abigail was deprived of the nutrients she needed to come into this world alive. It was every mother’s (and father’s) nightmare. I was traumatized. Everything about Abigail’s delivery is a blur. To this day, I am trying to put all the pieces together.
I remember feeling like I was in a dream when the doctor was breaking the news to me. I remember going home and crying. But it all felt so surreal. I was anxious throughout the pregnancy and had a feeling something was not quite right; however, I convinced myself that I was just being an anxious, first-time, pregnant woman. I tried to embrace the experience, and just as I let me guard down, I was hit in the face with the most horrific reality. My body failed me and it failed Abigail. The life that I had allowed myself to imagine for Abigail was never going to happen. I would never be the same again. How would I be able to survive this emotionally? I had no idea.
As people began to find out, they started to reach out to me through text and phone calls. There was always awkwardness when I would see people in person. They didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say. Some people said things that were helpful and comforting and some did not. I started having panic attacks when I went out in public. I was worried about running into people who did not know yet. One woman came up to me and grabbed my belly and asked when my little girl was due. I had to tell her that she had already been born. In order to avoid these awkward interactions, I posted what happened on social media. I didn’t want to have to say that my baby had died over and over again, and felt that this was the most efficient way to let everyone know. I realize now that a lot of my anxiety was out of concern for other people. I didn’t want to upset them or make them uncomfortable. When I did have to break the news, I found myself assuring them that I was fine (I wasn’t), and then I would focus on comforting them or alleviating their discomfort. It became easier to just avoid public places.
As a therapist, I understood that people were doing the best that they could. I understood that we, as a society, don’t deal well with death, and it makes us react in funny, sometimes unhelpful, ways. I also know that we don’t do well with strong emotions, and we do a horrible job of creating a safe environment where individuals can talk about infertility, miscarriage, and baby loss. However, understanding the behavior did not make it any easier.
The best thing anyone said to me after I lost Abigail was, “I am just going to hug you. There are no words.” It was true. There were no words that would take away my pain. There were no words to bring Abigail back to me. So why did people continue to try to make me feel better? I did not want to feel better. I wanted to grieve the loss of my little girl. I wanted to cry. And frankly, I wanted to know that they were sad too. I wanted to know that my child, who no one got to meet, meant something to you. I wanted to know that her life mattered, and that she would be remembered.
The most hurtful thing that people said to me was that, “everything happened for a reason” and “this was God’s plan.” It would make me so angry! I knew it was said with love and I would smile and nod my head. But inside, it was like a dagger to the gut. It made little sense to me. Why would God want this to happen? Why would God give me a baby in my belly for 24 weeks and then take her away? Where was the sense in that? I couldn’t make sense of why a soul would choose me and then never get to come into this world. And to make things worse, I was feeling so much shame. I felt like I did something wrong to cause this. I felt like my body failed. I felt as if I did not deserve to be a mother. So when people would say that this happened for a reason, my first thought was, “Exactly. The reason is that God did not want me to be a mother. He knew that I would not be a good one.” I know it does not make sense in hindsight, but in the moment it was the only thing that felt right. The statement that was supposed to bring comfort was making my grief even worse.
One way that I processed my grief was by separating from it and trying to understand it. So I spent a lot of time trying to understand other people’s reactions to my grief and I became hyper-focused on the use of this commonly used phrase. I was jealous of the really religious people who could believe this and find comfort in it. I could not. But…why not? And is it true that religious people genuinely find comfort in the belief that everything happened for a reason?
Here are some of my thoughts: (I guess all of this has been my thoughts, but you know what I mean!)
The belief that everything happens for a reason is an ending point, not a beginning. Let me explain. I know very few people, religious or not, who actually found comfort in the notion that everything happened for a reason when their grief was fresh. Some held on to that belief because it was something that they were taught and something they felt that they needed to believe in. The rest of us…well…it just pissed us off. Why? Because it completely negated our grief process. Most of us are not ready to even consider God’s plan for us. (And frankly, not everyone believes in God.) The reality is that we all need to grieve our loss. We need to feel it. We need to understand it. To dissect it. To over analyze it. To be angry. To question God’s existence. To be in denial. To be angry again. To resent others who don’t understand or who have not experienced this. Oh, and did I mention anger? When you tell someone that everything happens for a reason, it translates as, “No need to feel that dear. Skip to the ending and just believe that God has a plan and all will be ok.” That may not be what you meant, but that is what many of us hear. The reality is that the belief that everything happens for a reason is a soft spot that some of us may eventually land on because that is what eventually helps in our grief journey. But some of us may never land there because it is not something that actually brings comfort and that is ok.
For me, everything happens for a reason brought little to no comfort even now and I it has been almost two years since my loss. I found comfort in focusing on the good things that came from such an awful, painful experience. I have an amazing son. I have met some amazing moms and dads who have experienced similar losses and who have helped me grieve. I have discovered who my true friends are. I am reminded daily how amazing and supportive my family is. As a therapist, I have new perspective about grief and loss. Most importantly, I figured out exactly how strong and resilient I am. I needed to (and continue to) go through the grief process in order to get to this point and to appreciate all that I have. I needed to go through (and continue to go through) the grieving process in order to be a good mom to my son, a good friend, a good therapist, a good daughter etc.
I urge you not to rush another person’s grief process, or even your own.
I urge you to respect the process and to not fear it. It is important for all of us to sit with our emotions. Understanding our loss ultimately allows us to heal from it. And then it is important to move forward in ways that will honor your loss(es).
I urge those of you who are not ready to believe (now or ever) that “everything happens for a reason,” to go at your own pace and explore different ways to find peace.
I urge you to resist the notion to fast forward to a time when the pain is less. I remember saying to a friend that I wish I could go to sleep and wake up a year from now. My friend reminded me that the grief process was necessary. It was hard work but it was necessary and Abigail (and I) deserved to be healthy and whole (as much as possible) again. That could only happen if I allowed myself to grieve.
I urge you to examine your own feelings and fears regarding death. You may unknowingly encourage someone to skip their grieving process. Or you may feel that you have to skip your own. It often seems counter intuitive to sit with pain. We spend most of our lives doing anything humanly possible to avoid the experience of pain. But this is a necessary pain. The best way you can honor the loss of your baby, or any other loved one, is to grieve and find a way to heal and move forward in a healthy way. That takes time.
It is never easy to know what to say to someone who is grieving the loss of a pregnancy or baby, especially when that grief is new and raw. It is important to remember that you don’t need to say the right thing because the loss of a baby will never feel right. You just need to be there, bear witness to their pain, and if comfortable, sit with them in their pain. Be a friend. In the case of a baby loss, remember that baby’s name (if given one) and say the baby’s name, remember important dates, celebrate the baby’s memory, and acknowledge his/her existence. Be supportive of the grieving process and don’t fret if the process is taking longer than you would expect. (Seriously, who decided that there needed to be a timeline anyway? That’s for a different blog entry!) Lastly, loss is a part of life. Grieving is a part of death. To live life you have to grieve death. Let’s all make a concerted effort to be more comfortable with our feelings of sadness, grief, and fear. It will make us better family members, better friends, and better human beings.