In the six and a half years since my 14 month old daughter died, I have read numerous books about losing a baby, grief, grief recovery, spirituality and grief, the stages of grief (they don’t exist) and so on. I’ve read stories of mothers who lost babies, young children and adult children. Husbands who lost wives, people who had a near death experience, people who consulted pastors for guidance, others who sought the help of a medium. I’ve read Christian authors and secular authors, daily devotionals, positive affirmations, and meditations. In the course of my reading I have yet to find a chapter that tells the bereaved to “Stay Strong”and yet there seems to be a generally accepted myth that we must “Stay Strong”or “Be Strong”for others in times of tragedy and loss. I call it a myth because by definition a myth is a “widely held but false belief”.
If you are a parent whose baby has died and you are feeling the need to “Be Strong” for your spouse, your other children, or other family members please understand that “Being Strong” may be hurting you more than it is helping someone else. When we deny ourselves the right to grieve we are pushing away our true and honest feelings. We are covering up our sadness and packing away our heartbreak, thus stripping ourselves of the freedom to express our human response to loss.
We expect to grieve when a loved one dies; when your child dies, your world turns upside down. I have felt no greater heartache than when my daughter died. Nor have I felt an ache in my bones so deep than when I left the hospital pushing her empty stroller. It does not matter how many breaths were or were not taken outside of the womb, the loss of a child is devastating. Period.
There is a grieving process parents of preemies often experience, as well. Having a premature baby or a critically ill infant in the NICU is a terrifying experience for most. Many of us grieve without even knowing that is what we are feeling. We are grieving the loss of a “normal pregnancy”, the typical birth story, the hugs and kisses and cuddles that come right after our child has entered the world. We are grieving the loss of the life we envisioned for our children, for our families at what was supposed to be a time of pure joy.
There is no shame in sadness, nor is there weakness in tears. Grief is not something that can be fixed or figured out. It is something we have to process, actively. If we expend energy in “Being Strong”we deny ourselves the ability to heal. We prevent ourselves from using that energy to find and experience a healing path on our grief journey.
If someone asks how you are and your canned response is “I’m hanging in there, just have to be strong for my kids/spouse/friend” we create an invisible barrier between ourselves and our concerned friend or family member. We have not invited them into our grief. We have not allowed them the chance to sit in the muck with us.
It may be true that not every single person inquiring about how you are actually wants to sit with you in the messiness of grief, but I guarantee there are some who do. There are some who desperately want to help you, but do not know how and just need a sign that it is OK to enter your grief alongside you. If we fail to be open and honest about our grief, our sadness and our despair, we deny ourselves the opportunity to feel loved and supported by those who truly do care.
Grief and depression often come hand in hand, both are very real and neither simply dissipate over time. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps and charge on through life without facing your pain and actively grieving. A fellow bereaved mom who lost two of her sweet triplet boys at 27 weeks gestation did just that while her surviving son remained in the NICU. She put on the happy face and no one had a clue that she was falling apart at the seams inside. One can only keep up the charade for so long and years later she saw her world crumble at her feet before finding the professional help she needed to process what had happened all those years ago.
If any of this sounds familiar please find a safe person to speak with. It may be a professional counselor, psychologist, or pastor, whatever feels right to you. Please don’t misunderstand the point of this post, it is not to say that everyone reacts this way to loss. It is merely a reminder that we are human beings with broken hearts and keeping up the façade of “Being Strong” can be counterproductive. Likewise, sitting in the muck of depression and grief without help is equally counterproductive. Ask for help. There is no shame in asking for help and there is no weakness in tears. It is quite simply being a parent who does not get to hold their baby in their arms each night.
Instead of “Being Strong”, can we make a pact to “Be Real”, “Be Honest”, “Be True”? If you are struggling to find someone with whom you can be real with about your loss or grief, Hand to Hold has a fantastic peer support network as well as resources to point you towards professional help if needed. Grief is hard work, but there is hope and healing to be found. I promise.