A Response to Parents After the Loss of a Baby

This guide is intended to support those who have experienced the loss of a baby. There are many ways in which the death may have occurred; it may be a miscarriage which occurred without warning, a baby who was born but was unable to survive, a fetal death from medical causes, a newborn who struggled but was never able to leave the hospital, or a baby that died from unexpected complications during the process of pregnancy, delivery, and neo-natal care.  Some babies may have died during the first year of life from a medical problem, or even from sudden and unexpected causes like accidents or SIDS. The list is endless, and often the questions and feelings, which accompany these losses, are endless as well. No matter what term is used, “miscarriage”, “stillbirth”, “infant death”, “perinatal loss”; the pain is still very real.

In this guide, you will find information about the grief process, which many new parents experience when a baby dies and when that expectation of parenting that child has ended. While every situation is different, this may help to understand some of the common emotions that accompany grief and the process which parents go through in learning to cope with this loss.

Recognizing the Reality
Months of planning and preparation accompany the births of a new baby. There’s a reason why the term, “Expecting” came into popular use! Expectations begin immediately…Will it be a boy or a girl? What will the baby’s name be? These expectations go on, and new parents have an endless stream of thoughts about what the future will bring. Therefore, when a baby dies, so do our expectations. Oftentimes, parents experience a feeling of shock, because these losses are so overwhelming to the mind. The reality of death seems too much to handle.

Shock is often a common reaction at an early stage of the grief process. Because the reality is so painful, it takes time for it to fully “sink in”. Newly grieving people report waking up believing that their baby is alive; hearing the baby cry; feeling “phantom” movement or signs of pregnancy. All of these responses can make someone feel that they are “going crazy”. But, they are signs that the mind and the body are trying to make sense out of an overwhelmingly difficult situation.

Shock, and the feelings of confusion that go along with it, will slowly go away over time as the reality of the death is recognized. Remember that even if you logically KNOW what has happened, it takes much longer for your emotions to accept the reality of the loss of your baby.
Reactions to Grief
After the initial shock and numbness begin to wear off, you may find that you are left with prolonged sadness. At these low points, it can be very helpful for you to talk to another parent who has had a similar experience or a health care professional who has helped others in similar situations. You might have “ups and downs” that can be brought on by a thoughtless or innocent remark from someone who doesn’t fully understand your situation, or by remembering that it is the same day of the week or date in the month that your baby died.

You may find it difficult to concentrate for any length of time. Your mind may wander, making it difficult to read, write or to make decisions. You may experience a “whirling around” sensation or pressure in the head. You may wonder if you will ever feel “normal” again. In fact, you will most likely begin to search for a “new normal” as your journey of healing unfolds. These feelings are a very normal part of the grief process.

Sleep may be difficult, or it may be all that you want to do. Either way you probably will feel exhausted. Grieving takes a lot of energy. If you have a family to care for or a job to get back to and lack of sleep is a persistent problem, you may want to discuss this with your Physician.

You may experience muscular problems or other physical symptoms centering around your heart and stomach. You may not have an appetite or you may eat all the time. You may feel “tied in knots” inside. Sometimes, mothers say that their arms “ache to hold their baby.” Some people experience hair loss.

You may feel an irresistible urge to get away, a fear or dread of being alone or unreasonable fears of danger. If you have other children, you may fear for their safety and may not want to let them out of sight, but at the same time may be afraid of or shun the responsibility of caring for the other children. Even though you are concerned about your other children, you may have feelings of extreme irritation and impatience with the children’s behavior.
“The worst part was, when the reality hit, I started to feel things again. I wanted to pretend it didn’t happen, but I couldn’t deny it forever. Your feelings are there because you get strong enough to admit it was real and you have to deal with that.”

Emotions are often called “feelings”. So, it makes sense that when the initial shock goes away, the first thing that happens is that you will start “feeling” again. However, these are not the same emotions that were there before the death. These are the emotions that no one likes to feel: anger, guilt, depression, and anxiety are several commonly experienced emotions.

The initial temptation may be to do something that STOPS you from feeling, Sometimes people who have experienced an intense loss try to stop feeling and become involved in unhealthy behavior like drinking too much, taking drugs, or over-using prescription or non-prescription medication. But, feelings are a part of every person.  So, the healthy way through this part of grief is to actually FEEL the emotion of the loss, and learn ways to take care of yourself and support yourself during times of intense emotion.

“For the longest time, every time a saw someone holding a new baby, I got angry. I wanted to shout at God, “Why ME?? Why do they get to have a baby and I don’t!”

You may feel angry about your own situation, or toward others around you. This anger can be from actual events that you experienced, such as events at the hospital or with other people. At other times, anger is more general, like at the injustice of the loss of a baby or the ways in which life seems unfair. People may become angry with themselves, other friends and family, people associated with the death, even at God. Understanding that anger is an intense, but normal, emotion can help to keep anger from controlling you. Often, it can help to find an outlet for some of the anger, such as writing a letter (whether or not you send it!), finding a quiet place or moment to shout out anger, or even punching a pillow.

Talking about your feelings of anger with someone you trust can help keep anger from “building up” inside.  Anger needs to find a “release valve” through these activities before it becomes overpowering and leads to negative actions. Be open to your partner or other members of your family and try not to take hurtful comments to heart. This is a time of great pain. As you work through your emotions you will begin to see that there is no one to blame, just a great sadness that the whole family is struggling to live with.

“No matter what anyone told me, I still kept thinking it must have been my fault. I’m the Dad, I’m supposed to protect my children from everything.”

Even if you know logically that there was nothing you could have done to prevent the death, often there is an over-powering sense of guilt. Because parents feel such a great degree of responsibility for their children, the loss of a baby almost always carries with it some feelings of guilt. It is difficult to cope with events over which we have no control — such as death itself. Sometimes you may feel that there is one certain thing you could have done to change or prevent the death from occurring, but you just don’t know what that thing is. The realization you may come to is that there is no “magic wand”, and there is no way to change the past. Although it is natural to want to place the blame somewhere, often there really is no one to blame. The hard task is then to try to come to terms with the reality of the loss.

I can remember not wanting to leave the house or have my husband leave the house to go to work. I didn’t have the energy or desire to do routine errands that needed to be done–I didn’t go to the grocery store for more than 2 weeks after our baby’s death”

Often, the deep sadness that accompanies the death of a child is referred to as “depression”. You may have felt withdrawn from other people, detached from enjoyment of life, and may have had a change in your sleep and appetitie since the lost. People who feel “depressed” after a death often find it difficult to want to get up in the morning, return to work, or feel the same way about friends and family. These normal feelings of depression are commonly experienced during grief, but there is a difference between these feelings and Major Depression, which is a separate mental health problem. Feelings of intense sadness make sense and seem almost normal to a grieving person—it’s often more distressing to friends, families, and people who are concerned and worry when they see you feeling sad and withdrawn.

Even when you feel down and withdrawn, you should still be able to eat enough to keep you body healthy, to get enough sleep so that you are not exhausted, and to be able to take care of the important things in life such as going to work and caring for your family.  You may feel that your “heart isn’t in it” the way it used to be, and it is normal to feel as though you are just “going through the motions” a lot of the time. If you feel a depression that never lifts or overwhelms you for days on end, this may be a sign that you need to consider doing something more for yourself to work through this depression. This may include talking to a professional, such as a counselor. It is important to know that, as alone as you may feel during depression, you are still capable of reaching out for the help needed to cope with this intense emotion.

“I was so afraid to let my other children out of my sight. Every time the phone rang, I thought it was to tell me something terrible had happened.”

The loss of a baby is one of the deepest fears that any person can face. When you have been forced to deal with this fear, it is only natural that the world can seem to be a very scary place. You and other family members can become very fearful that something else is going to happen. You may become over protective with your other children. Your other children may cling to you or they may be afraid of being separated from you. This fear can feel like “nervousness”, a sense of worry that something bad will happen, or anxious feelings that arise unexpectedly. At times, fears and anxieties may make it difficult to try new experiences. Sometimes holidays, anniversary dates of the loss, or large social gatherings may be events that produce anxiety. At times, it may be helpful to break a pattern of anxious worrying in order to avoid the “snowball” effect which anxiety can produce. At the end of an experience, even a difficult day, you may find it was not nearly as bad as you were worried it would be. Keeping anxiety in check by focusing on what things can and cannot be controlled is also helpful. Be patient with yourself, as it will take time to be able to trust again.

Different Ways of Grieving
Everyone grieves differently. The way we were “taught” to grieve by our families, our cultural expectations about grief, customs, religious beliefs and traditions, and even our gender all affect the way you will experience and express your grief. Since everyone has different feelings surrounding the anticipated birth of a child, everyone will have different feelings surrounding the loss of the baby as well.

Mothers and Fathers often express their grief in different ways. Mothers generally need to “talk out” their grief while fathers tend to “suffer in silence”. Fathers may find it more difficult to ask for help and support from others and may seek diversion through their work; they may even take on extra work to escape being preoccupied with the loss of the baby.

Grief may make you very irritable. Small differences between you and your partner may now be very hard to take. You each have to grieve in your own way. At times you may be able to reach out to comfort each other. At other times you may need comfort and find no one there to hold on to.

It is important that mothers and fathers share their feelings. For example, one may feel an intense need for the comfort of sex, while the other partner cannot imagine ever enjoying sex again. You need to talk, which often helps in understanding each other. You are both normal, and just expressing your sadness in different ways. There is no “right” way to grieve; everyone is different.

The loss of your baby may be the first grief situation you have ever experienced. Grief is such an extreme condition that you might find yourselves searching for ways to relate to each other as well as to your friends and relatives. In order to prevent misunderstandings, most families find it helpful to maintain an atmosphere where feelings can be discussed.

For single parents, the death of a baby is a unique challenge and can be a very lonely experience. Parents for whom this was the first child to be born may also feel a sense of isolation and struggle with this loss of being a parent. These are important feelings to talk through with friends and family, and specific resources to help meet this challenge can also be arranged through SIDS Resources.

Couples may read or hear stories about an increased divorce rate among parents who have lost a child. More recent studies show that the divorce rate is actually lower for parents who have lost a child than those in the general population. The quality of the relationship prior to the death is a significant factor in the healing process. Certainly, a child’s death is a challenge to a relationship, and seeking support groups, counseling, or a link with others who have been through a similar experience can be very helpful. Please contact SIDS Resources for more information on available services in your area.

Surviving Siblings
Children will definitely be affected by the loss of a baby. They may have questions about whether they will die, or fear that something bad may happen to people they love and care about.

It is important to remember that the term “dead” or “died” is preferable to terms like “lost” or “taken” which can be confusing and scary for children. Do not tell children that a baby “went to sleep forever” or they may be fearful of sleep. Provide honest and direct answers to their questions, even if it is to tell them that you are uncertain of some things yourself. It is OK for adults to express grief around children, and in fact, it can be quite healthy as a way to teach children that feelings are OK and open, honest communication is best.

Additional resources for talking with children about death and helping children cope with grief are available by contacting SIDS Resources.

 What is Normal?
“After a while, I started to realize things were never going to be the way they were before. Just because you are grieving doesn’t mean you stop living. So, you have to figure out what this “new normal” is going to be.”

People who grieve the loss of a baby come to realize that their lives have been changed in a permanent way. The initial shock and pain of loss will get less intense over time as you learn to cope in a way that is positive and meaningful for you. But, there may always be a part of you that grieves this loss of opportunity as the years pass and you come across times that would have been “landmarks” in your baby’s life. It’s OK to feel this way, and you may find that you develop a “New Normal” that allows you to go on living while you continue to grieve the impact of the loss.

People who have lost a baby have found that it can be helpful to talk with someone who has gone through a similar experience. Talking is a way to work through the pain of a loss and acknowledge the reality of the baby’s life and the reality of the grief that you are feeling.

For a list of resources available to you, call us at 1-800-421-3511.

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