I lost my first child at 42 weeks due to his umbilical cord wrapping around his neck shortly before birth. I went in for a routine appointment where the doctors found no heartbeat and they induced me. I was in labor for three days. Three days of laboring with a child I knew no longer had life. A delivery that made my husband weep like a child. And my beautiful baby, named after a great grandfather he’s never meet.
I was 20 years old, this unique stage where you feel grown but you’re still a baby in so many ways, and I was just told my baby had died.
I was idealistic, carefree, and untouched by death and tragedy and then suddenly, I wasn’t. After delivering, I was allowed to keep my baby for four hours to hold him and take pictures and grieve. Today, they have Cold Cots for circumstances like this and these precious souls are allowed to remain with their moms for much longer. One of those inventions that you’re sorry had to be invented, but you’re so glad it was.
I remember crying when they wheeled my baby away, and I vividly recall how empty and broken I felt to be wheeled out of the labor and delivery ward with no baby. Like I hadn’t completed the mission. I remember what it was like to sit at my own child’s funeral and watch my baby put into the ground. It’s a very surreal feeling, especially when you’re only 20 years old and you’re supposed to be invincible.
The first few months after your baby dies, it either causes great marital strife or inexplicably bonds you and your partner. Fortunately, our marriage was the latter and my husband picked me up off the literal and proverbial ground more times than I can count. Countless nights I wound up sitting on the nursery floor with Julien’s picture and my husband lifted me up and brought me to bed. I slept with his picture, my son. And I covered it up when I slept, and God bless my husband, he made sure if it came uncovered to cover it up too so I didn’t come unglued.
And then you go on with life. Because everyone else does. Except it’s harder now.
Holidays are hard. Baby showers and birthdays are hard. Even uneventful days are hard. I remember my husband begging me to let him help me so I didn’t need to be hospitalized. Begging me to see a doctor or try out antidepressants. But I refused because I needed to feel my pain. I deserved to feel my pain.
I am a solo griever. I didn’t and still don’t like to share my grief or my story with anyone. I would often drive to the cemetery alone at night so I could grieve properly. Most people from my everyday life rarely, if ever, hear about my loss. I never wanted to be defined by that loss. I never wanted people to look at me and feel sorry for me because I was the girl whose baby had died. And to this day, it frustrates my husband because I only feel safe talking about our baby when it’s dark and we’re alone and nobody can see me get upset.
I have trouble when I perceive that others feel sorry for me because my child died. I can’t explain to you why but that feeling still resonates in me, even today. My husband thinks that it’s because I carry my guilt like an extra limb, unready to let go.
My son died more than 15 years ago and I still struggle with that guilt.
Guilt because you’re supposed to be able to protect your baby when they’re living inside of you. Guilt because I am the girl who lost her baby because she made bad choices. Guilt because I should’ve been counting my kicks. Guilt because I couldn’t keep my precious son alive. But I have come a long way. God healed my broken heart by giving me Jonah, this amazing rainbow child who brought purpose for my pain and healing to my heart. God’s grace was indeed sufficient.
Losing Julien helped shape who I am, but it does not define who I am. Sixteen years later, my grief is measured by the progression of where I keep his picture. For the first few years, I kept an 8×10 of Julien on my nightstand. I then replaced that with a 4×6 I kept on my dresser, a little farther away from my heart. And now, his picture stays in my keepsake box for me to take out when I’m alone and I need to remember his face. Progress.
In your lifetime, you will probably know someone who loses a child. And you will struggle with what to say to them. And here is the secret: There is no art to losing a child.
There is no right way to grieve. There is no time limit on sadness or guilt or what-ifs. There’s just a sad mom and dad, muddling through, finding purpose, drawing close to one another and God.
I can’t tell you what to say but I can tell you what not to say.
Don’t just say nothing. They remember their baby even if you don’t bring it up. You remembering their baby helps them to feel like their baby existed and is worth remembering. A simple “I’m sorry” works if that’s all you can muster.
Don’t talk about the afterlife unless you know what their faith is. Not everybody believes the same and may not find your words comforting.
Don’t tell them that they can have another baby or that there must’ve been a reason. Not everyone finds their purpose right away or ever.
Don’t treat their child as though it should be a shameful secret that’s never spoken of. Child loss is not a shameful thing. Whether your child was stillborn or died as an infant or as a child or even as a young adult, their lives hold meaning and are worth remembering.
Our family portrait was marred by tragedy and is missing Julien, but our picture is still beautiful and it’s still being painted.