I was 37 weeks pregnant when my father died from melanoma. It was not a surprise, but I was in no way ready or prepared for the wave of grief that would knock me over. As I tried to navigate the crushing blow of losing my dad, I was also overwhelmingly worried that the pain I felt would negatively impact the life that was just beginning within me. I had no idea what the rules of grief are for mothers, and how they differ from the rules of grief for everyone else.

“Think of that little baby.”
“It’s the circle of life happening right in front of you.”
“You need to be strong for the little one now.”

These were the things being said to me over and over by people who were trying to help. These statements were sent to my ears in an attempt to provide me with comfort, to give me strength, to get me through, but I was finding that they were doing just the opposite. I was living through a nightmare, and what I wanted to do was sit and sob, I wanted to feel the loss thoroughly so that I could navigate through it, and I felt like people wanted me to feel it less so that my child would be spared the consequences of my sadness.

That is a lot of guilt to put on a grieving woman who is approaching motherhood rapidly. This desire that my well-meaning loved ones had for me to be strong, when I felt so weak, only left me feeling like a failure when I fell apart. I knew they meant well. There are no right words in situations that are filled with loss. But still, I couldn’t help but resent the expectation I saw in their eyes for me to keep it together, for the baby’s sake.

And then someone saved me. I went to my OB/GYN appointment, a week late because of the services. I felt the need to explain my absence from the week before, and all that I could get out was that my dad had died, before I became a puddle in front of her. And she said, “That’s OK, you go ahead and cry. Don’t ever feel like you can’t cry because of that baby. Babies are strong, and mothers are allowed to have feelings. You do not have to hold back emotions because of the baby. The baby will be fine.” And just like that I felt like a weight had been lifted. Permission to feel, to be weak, to be vulnerable, granted to me by the person I needed to hear it from the most, a doctor, a professional, a fellow mom with feelings.

Once my dad passed I prayed that my son would not be born early. I could not handle the thought that they would miss meeting each other by anything less than the three weeks. He was born on his due date, perfect timing in so many ways. His arrival was joy filled, and sorrowful all at once. I was celebrating and grieving at the same time, sometimes in the same ways. The blessing of his birth allowed me to smile again, but it was also hard work to nurture him and my heavy heart at the same time.

So the question remains, how do you grieve when you are a mother? How do you process feelings when they are simultaneously weighed down with guilt? Moms grieve the way dads grieve and the way children grieve. Moms feel their feelings the way everyone else does, and moms are allowed to cry and hurt and scream. The beauty of a mom’s grief is that her children will learn from it. They will see the lessons in the tears and they will learn empathy and love through her hurt. A mom’s grief is nothing to be ashamed of, and it shouldn’t be hidden or stifled from her children. It should be embraced, worked through, and shared with her loved ones. Grief is hard, but it is not harmful, it is a reflection of love, and it is perfectly natural.

I was, and am still, a grieving mother. I tried to stifle my sadness to benefit my child, but a doctor taught me that my children would be strong because of my grief, not despite it. A doctor held my hand while I sobbed tears onto a big pregnant belly. She told me it was OK to do that, and I will never be able to thank her enough for that gift.

Danielle Santapaola

Hi, I’m Danielle Santapaola. I’m a mom of two crazies, community theatre actress and a former elementary school teacher. Born, raised and raising on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I’m a big fan of honesty, coffee, and laughter. In fact, those three are sometimes the only things getting me through the day.