October 1st marked the beginning of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month – a designation formalized in October 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. In his formal declaration, Reagan had this to say:
“When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them. This month recognizes the loss so many parents experience across the United States and around the world. It is also meant to inform and provide resources for parents who have lost children due to miscarriage, ecotopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, stillbirths, birth defects, SIDS, and other causes.”
Pregnancy and infant loss are subjects that aren’t commonly talked about, but they are unfortunately common. As a funeral director, you’ll work with bereaved parents from time to time, but you almost certainly won’t hear the issue being discussed outside of your facilities in polite company. Even people who have been through these horrific situations shy away from bringing them up to others unless explicitly prompted.
But sweeping the issue under the rug doesn’t make it go away. An estimated 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies will end in miscarriage (pregnancy loss before 20 weeks gestation), while one in 160 pregnancies overall will result in stillbirth (a loss that occurs after 20 weeks). SIDS – the leading cause of death for infants aged one month to one year – claims the lives of another 2,500 children each year.
Sadly, these statistics hit close to home for me, as my husband and I lost our first child to stillbirth in April 2013. Despite a perfectly normal and healthy pregnancy, our baby girl’s heart stopped beating at seven months pregnant. One night, I noticed that I hadn’t felt much movement throughout the day; the next morning, the hospital confirmed that she had passed away. A thorough autopsy and about a hundred medical tests on me failed to reveal a cause, meaning that we’ll likely be one of the roughly 50% of stillbirth families who never get an explanation for our losses.
It’s difficult to describe what it means to be a bereaved parent, but it’s important to me to do so to help you understand what the families you serve are going through. It’s hard because there aren’t words to describe that kind of pain, and also because I’m still fuzzy on different aspects of my own experience. There are plenty of holes in my memory from the delivery – almost certainly evidence of the brain’s amazing ability to only process the amount of information it can handle at any given time.
The recollections I do have are ones that no parent should ever have to process.
There’s the initial look of concern in the labor and delivery triage nurse’s eyes when the monitoring device that should be detecting a fetal heartbeat keeps coming up silent. The ultrasound wand which, later on, produces nothing but a flatline. Doctors throwing around foreign words like “fetal demise,” “autopsy” and “induction,” and the horrifying realization that I’d be spending the next two days in the hospital delivering a child under far different circumstances than I’d hoped and prayed for.
Harder still to think about are the fifteen minutes I spent holding my baby girl – trying to memorize every feature of her body before saying goodbye forever. Then, the profound feeling of wrongness of leaving the hospital without my daughter – a girl my husband and I named Lena Grace. The phantom kicks that I felt for weeks afterward and the biological urge to mother, even though the child these feelings should have cared for was no longer there.
These are memories that no woman should ever have to have, but it would be wrong of me to say that absolutely every aspect of the process has been negative. Like any major challenge, navigating the grief process particular to bereaved parents has made me a stronger person in many ways.
I’m Less Likely to Let Little Things Bother Me
Call me crazy, but it’s hard to get too worked up about forgetting an item at the grocery store or a cashier’s rude response after you’ve lost a child. When looked at in comparison, these little blips on the radar barely even phase me. I’m calmer and more centered in my life, because this experience has forced me to accept the fact that sometimes truly awful things happen to good people for no reason at all. Once you know that, it’s hard to give anything but the most serious circumstances much of your mental energy.
I’ve Learned to Take Care of Myself
Of course, I’m not calm and centered 100% of the time. As anyone who’s involved in the funeral industry knows, grief is a process that ebbs and flows. There are days when I can embrace the positive changes that have occurred as a result of Lena’s time in my life, and days when I’m still angry at the universe for taking something so precious away from me.
Fortunately, I have more of the former kind of days than the latter – but that’s due in large part to the fact that I’ve learned how to take better care of myself.
If you would have asked me before all of this happened, I would have told you that things like yoga, meditation and journaling were hippie-dippie nonsense. Now they’re all a regular part of my self-care routine, as they allow me to process my feelings in a healthy way and to explore different parts of my experience. I see a therapist regularly and make it a point to eat well, to exercise and to keep my stress level under control.
As a result, I’ve come away from this experience with the opinion that hardly anyone in the world invests enough time and energy into self-care – and funeral directors are certainly no exception. If I could tell you just one thing, it’d be this…
If you’re feeling burned out, too tired or overly stressed, get help. Ask others to help out with your workload, find a few minutes each day and do whatever you can to relax. I know you’re busy, and I know taking a little time for yourself might seem impossible. But there’s only one of you, and all the other people in your life need you to be as healthy and happy as possible. Learning how to take care of yourself isn’t easy, but trust me, it’s much better to do so before you’re forced into good self-care habits by tragic circumstances!
I’m Living for More Than Just Me
When my husband and I first found out that we were having a girl, my mind immediately filled with visions of our precious daughter twirling around in ballet class, learning to build a proper campfire at summer camp and curling up late with a good book – all fond memories from my own childhood. In a way, her death wasn’t just the death of a person – it was the death of all the hopes and dreams I had for this little girl.
Lena will never have the chance to grow into the good, loving and kind person I hoped she would be, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be those things for her. I am a stronger person because I have to be; because that’s the only way I can honor her and make sure her memory lives on in a positive way in this world.
This week, we’ll be running a series of posts designed to give you an inside look into the mind of the bereaved parent – somebody you’ll unfortunately encounter from time to time in your line of work. It is my sincere hope that this insight will help you to better serve the families who trust their most precious family members to your care with care, compassion and dignity. Thank you so much for reading and for commemorating Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month with us.