Shawna L. Ehlers, Ph.D.
Infant death is one of the most devastating experiences any parent could face. Although nothing can take away the pain or fill the baby's place in your heart, it can help to acknowledge your grief and share feelings with others who've had similar losses.
Here, Shawna L. Ehlers, Ph.D., a psychologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and an assistant professor of psychology at College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, answers challenging questions about dealing with infant death.
No one wants to talk about my baby's death. How can I feel secure acknowledging my loss?
It's important to find social support for your grief. Acknowledging your baby's death — as well as your lost hopes and dreams for the baby's future — is an important part of the grieving process. It's often comforting and therapeutic to connect with other parents who've experienced infant death. This can be done through face-to-face support groups or websites devoted to grieving the loss of a baby.
Consider professional counseling at any point, especially if you don't feel supported in your grief or you don't notice any improvement within six months.
How can I help my friends and loved ones understand what I'm feeling?
Grieving is physically and emotionally exhausting. Friends and loved ones might not understand the intensity of your grief or your need for unconditional support. Focus on spending time with friends or loved ones who offer the type of understanding and encouragement you need. To help others understand what you're experiencing, you might want to share material on infant death from your doctor, support group or helpful websites. Avoid being drawn into arguments, however. If you're facing someone who doesn't support your grief, you might explain that the situation is just too difficult to discuss with him or her.
If you ended a much-wanted pregnancy, carried a pregnancy to term knowing the baby wouldn't survive or discontinued life support for your critically ill baby, you might carry an even heavier emotional burden. If others pass judgment on your decision, you might feel isolated and even more desolate. Support from an understanding grief group or professional counselor can be invaluable.
I feel like I'm on an emotional roller coaster. Is this normal?
An infant death is traumatic. You might be plagued with anger or guilt — or perhaps you're tormented by questions that simply can't be answered. All of these emotions are normal. How you handle your emotions is up to you. Remember, everyone copes with grief in different ways. Some parents find solace in creating a memorial for their baby. You might hold a funeral or memorial service, assemble treasured photos of your baby, create plaster molds of your baby's handprints or footprints, or store a baby blanket or favorite toy. As you come to terms with your feelings, maintain your physical health. Eat a healthy diet, include physical activity in your daily routine, and spend time with supportive friends and loved ones.
When my baby died, so did my plans for the future. How can I go on?
You might find it difficult to invest renewed hope and excitement in any part of your life after your baby's death — but learning to continue living is part of the grieving process. For help making the adjustment, seek support from other parents who've been able to find solace in living. When you're ready, participating in family activities and special occasions can remind you that you're loved and supported.
My partner and I don't seem to be grieving in the same way. How can we find strength in each other?
Grieving can take a heavy toll on marriages and other intimate relationships. Accepting your partner's response to grief can be one of the most challenging aspects of grieving as a couple. It can be tough to accept your partner's coping mechanisms if they don't fit your concept of grieving.
For example, perhaps you feel closer to your baby by talking about him or her every day — but your partner copes by looking toward the future. If you don't recognize these differences, you might wonder whether your partner supports you or even cares about your baby's death. Still, the differences don't need to pull you apart. To strengthen your relationship, work toward compromises.
You might agree to limited discussion times, encouraging the more talkative partner to supplement the need for conversation with understanding friends or support groups. To respect the other partner's need to look ahead, schedule a social event once a week during which you agree to focus on the pleasurable aspects of your life together.
How does the grief of infant death ever reach resolution?
As time goes on, your grief will begin to fade. Eventually you'll find it easier to engage in other aspects of life. The first anniversary of your baby's death and other poignant reminders will be difficult, but they'll get easier with time.
If you feel stuck in your grief — especially if you're isolating yourself or having trouble handling your usual daily activities — seek the help of a support group, grief counselor or other mental health provider.
Sadness surrounding your baby's death might be permanent. With time, however, your heart-wrenching grief is likely to move toward a new normal of loving remembrance.