Today is my baby’s first birthday, but rather than celebrating with a pint sized cake and presents, we’ll be spending the day looking back at pictures of his funeral. Michael was born prematurely and at 5 ounces, was far too small to survive.
Now, a year later, talking about our baby makes people uncomfortable. I’ve talked to other moms who have lost children shortly after birth, and their experience has been similar. So why is infant loss taboo?
When I found out I was pregnant with Michael, I was surprised. We had planned to have more children but the timing was horrible. My husband was out of work and finishing his MBA. Our house was up for sale and we had plans to move shortly after graduation. I worried through the first few months, unsure how we would handle another baby, but as I began to feel Michael wiggle and squirm inside me I let go of my fears and allowed myself to look forward to this new addition to our family.
I made it through the first trimester, sicker than sick, but with no complications (which considering my previous pregnancies was a miracle on its own). The second trimester left me feeling much better, still tired but no longer sick and I began picking out names and enjoying my pregnancy.
Pregnancy is stressful, even under the best of circumstances. Family drama and daily stress began to take its toll on my body and my blood pressure began to rise. Since I have a history of placental abruption this was a big problem. I went on modified bedrest and tried to relax. When my contractions started, I tried to ignore them.
On the night of April 14, 2009 I lay on the couch timing my contractions. They were 3 minutes apart but not painful. I tried to will my body to relax but the contractions wouldn’t stop. Looking back, I should have called for help, but any busy mom will tell you it’s just too hard to ask for help sometimes. My husband was in an evening class and shouldn’t be interrupted. My mom was out of the country. My neighbors had families of their own. I couldn’t make myself call and by the time my husband got home they had mellowed out a bit and I had convinced myself that they were nothing more than Braxton hicks.
Early in the morning on April 15, 2009, I woke up in full blown labor, and worse yet, my placenta had begun to abrupt again. My husband frantically knocked on the doors of all our neighbor to find someone who could come stay with our children and we left for the hospital. I grabbed my camera right before we left, knowing that this was real labor and that there was no way our baby could survive.
A Baby Not a Miscarriage
We were able to hold Michael as his tiny lungs tried to breath for 10 minutes after his birth. His perfectly formed body struggled as we held him. The nurses wrapped him in the smallest blanket they could find and stood with us as we watched him die.
The funeral home came and picked Michael’s body up later that night and we began planning a funeral the next day. We have been blessed with amazing friends and family members who rallied around us to help us in the days immediately after Michael’s death, but I was shocked when a few family members openly expressed their opinion that I had suffered a miscarriage rather than had a baby. An already difficult time was made worse when those family members spread the word that we were “having a funeral for a miscarriage” and encouraged people not to come.
It seemed so strange to us, only hours after we had held our baby in our arms. He was a person. He is part of our family. I can’t imagine treating someone so heartlessly after their child has died. The experience left us hesitant to talk about our son. The experience of his birth and death was very spiritual and to have it openly mocked by one made us fear judgement from others. We soon found that when we stayed silent, everyone else did as well. Within a matter of weeks, our son was entirely forgotten by everyone but us.
Why is Infant Loss Taboo?
No one knows what to say after the death of a child. A good friend, who had lost her own baby only a few years before, told me the death of a baby is especially hard because no one really had a chance to get to know him. People care because they care for the parents, but they do not feel the loss of the child. While that is understandable, it can make the parents feel entirely alone in their grief.
The immediate response when someone finds out you have lost a child is, “I’m so sorry.” I’ve heard that hundreds of times over the past year. People want you to say, “It’s okay.”, as we often do after someone apologizes for something, but the thing is, it’s not okay. I don’t want sympathies. I want to celebrate my child. I want to talk about him and keep him alive in our daily life. But talking makes people uncomfortable. They are quick to move on to another topic. From what I hear, it’s the same for most parents who have lost a child.
I can’t tell people I have 3 kids. I’ve tried, but it always strikes me as wrong. I have 3 at home, but I’ve had 4. A question as simple as, “how many kids do you have?” often makes me freeze up. There have been times when I’ve been completely unable to respond at all. It makes people uncomfortable when I tell them I have 4 but one passed away. They feel like they have to apologize, but I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m stating a fact.
People are afraid of saying the wrong thing but the truth is, there are no wrong words if they are said with kindness. Grief doesn’t end with the funeral. You carry on, but your arms stay empty. Simply acknowledging that there is someone missing can often go a long way to comfort a parent who has lost a child. If you know someone who has lost a child, don’t shy away from talking about their child when it’s appropriate. You may be the friend they need, even if their loss isn’t a recent one.