“I find,’ he says, his voice still muffled, ‘that I am constantly wondering where he is. Where he has gone. It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind. Whatever I am doing, wherever I am, I am thinking: Where is he, where is he? He can’t have just vanished. He must be somewhere. All I have to do is find him. I look for him everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience. That’s what I am doing, when I look out at them all: I try to find him, or a version of him.”
― Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
The loss of a child in any capacity (miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, illness, accident, adoption, foster care, estrangement) feels like the ultimate violation of the rules of life. No parent expects or can prepare for this completely backward sequence of events. Which is why surviving, coping, living on the other side of this loss is some of the hardest work one will ever do.
I remember my grandmother saying—upon hearing the news that I was planning on birthing, holding, naming, and taking pictures of my already dead daughter—“Seeing her is just going to make it worse. You don’t want those images in your mind. The sooner the doctors take her away, the sooner you can start moving on.”
My grandmother wasn’t alone. Many friends and family were surprised by how directly I faced the tidal wave of grief and let it tumble me down. Because there’s an assumption in our society, a knee-jerk reaction, that the solution to loss is to run from any and all pain.
We bury ourselves in work.
We escape into alcohol, pills, food, or sex.
We transfer our pain onto others in angry outbursts.
Sometimes, we try to literally escape our pain by moving to a different city, state, or country.
There is no way to escape grief and loss of any kind. The emotions surrounding any significant loss show up repeatedly and unexpectedly throughout the rest of our lives. They creep up and crash over us on anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and random Tuesdays. These emotions are our body’s way of remembering those we’ve lost, of carrying them with us. And this remembering and honoring is an important piece in surviving loss. Especially the ultimate, untimely loss of a child.
So, what do you do in those first months and years after the loss of your child when the pain is too sharp? And how will you react when those same emotions resurface or are triggered later on?
One of the healthiest ways of coping with the intense pain of losing a child is to do what grief requires of you. It seems simple, but it can be scary. It can feel silly. For me, it was having professional photos made of my daughter after she was stillborn. It was planting a pink dogwood tree over her placenta. It was sleeping with her small urn beside me, no matter where I go. These days, I rarely look at the photos. I don’t sit by her tree often. Occasionally, I leave her urn when I have to travel by plane. But knowing they are there, knowing I have a physical reminder of her to cling to when the unexpected wave of grief hits, brings me daily comfort.
So, take a moment and sit with your grief. Get to know it. Listen to what it’s asking you to do. How is it telling you to honor and remember your child? This will look different for each family, but some healthy ways of coping with grief are to:
- Create a memory box, shadowbox, or collage.
- Put together a video or slideshow tribute.
- Plant flowers, trees, or bulbs in remembrance.
- Purchase jewelry or a holiday ornament with your child’s name or special date on it.
- Write a letter to your child.
- Celebrate his or her special day each year.
- Name your child (if you are grieving their loss before birth).
- Make a donation in your child’s honor.
- Make a quilt or stuffed animal using some of your child’s special blankets or clothes.
When I think about what my grandmother said to me, it reminds me no one escapes or moves on from the loss of a child. Not even my grandmother.
You see, my grandmother lost many babies throughout her life. As she tried to bury her grief, she grew angrier and angrier and more and more anxious — intent on controlling every aspect of her little world. The losses she endured were, understandably, too hard for her to face. But, as it turned out, they were even harder for her to escape.
I can’t help but wonder how my grandmother’s life would have turned out if someone had listened to her shattered heart, validated her all-consuming grief, and encouraged her to do what grief required of her.