Grief is not typically something we are prepared for. It isn’t something we spend time planning or thinking through; we most likely have never given much thought to the stages of grief or the aftermath of tragic loss. Until it knocks us off our feet. And here we are. Feeling ill-equipped for this new normal and unsure about what steps to take next, and having absolutely no idea to what to expect.
Our hearts churn out questions and thoughts faster than we can process and all that seemed understood and expected prior to our loss now feels confusing and unknown. And while everyone will grieve differently (see point #1) there is much comfort in having an idea of what to expect when grieving the loss of a baby. Let’s start by gaining a basic understanding of what grief is and how it works.
WHAT IS GRIEF
“Grief is all the feelings you have when someone close to you dies. You may find it hard to believe that your baby died. You may want to shout or scream or cry. You may want to blame someone. Or you may want to hide under the covers and never come out. At times, your feelings may seem more than you can handle. You may feel sad, depressed, angry or guilty. You may get sick easily with colds and stomach aches and have trouble concentrating. All of these are part of grief.” from March of Dimes
It is incredibly helpful to read a definition of grief that is so encompassing. It means that no matter what I am feeling, it is normal. And that means I don’t have to be afraid of grieving a certain way. It is beyond helpful to understand that my inability to concentrate or focus or put together a coherent sentence is grief. It means I’m not crazy or suffering from a medical condition in my brain. And it is incredibly helpful hear that at times all of it “may seem more than you can handle.” That means it’s ok for me to not be ok.
WHAT TO EXPECT
01. Everyone Grieves Differently
There is no right or wrong to grieve. Everyone processes through the emotions of loss in a different way and at a different pace. Do not add to your grief by expecting yourself to grieve in a specific way simply because someone else is doing it differently or you think you should be farther along than you are or even that you are moving too quickly. In whatever way you are moving through grief, that is the right way for you.
This is also helpful in regards to relationships because we can often expect our spouse, partner or even friends to grieve the way we are grieving or to fully understand what we are feeling.
Everyone will grieve differently and that means their experience with grief will be different than yours. And that is ok.
02. It Might Be Hard To Breath
Grief can literally take your breath away. I never knew my heart could physically hurt until I stood in a cemetery staring at a tiny casket. Grief can affect you physically, making your stomach nauseous, your head throb, your body ache. Be gracious to yourself and know that this is normal and try to slow down. Slow your breathing, slow your racing heart. Try to take a nap or a bath or go for a walk. The simple movement of right left right left when walking will trigger your brain to slow down. The scientific name is Bilateral Stimulation and can be a very helpful tool when it’s hard to catch a breath.
03. Feelings of Isolation
Your life suddenly looks different while everyone around you gets to keep their normal. It is normal and expected for you to suddenly feel like you are on an island, all alone in your grief. It is normal to feel as though no one understands or wants to understand. In reality, you are not alone. From simple statistics we know the unfortunate truth that many, many women have walked a very similar path to the one you are now walking. You are not alone. Fight against isolation by finding women who understand what you are walking through (you can join The Joyful Mourning community here!) You can also fight the feelings of isolation by helping your closest friends and family members understand what you are going through by simply talking to them. Even if they say or do the wrong thing, they do love you and are grieving too (just in their own way.)
04. Grief Stages
In 1969 the model of grief known as the Five Stages of Grief or the Kübler-Ross Model was first discussed. The five stages of grief as presented in this model are chronological: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While it is helpful to know and understand these 5 stages of grief, it is equally important to remember that “Although these stages are presented in a neat and concise format, there is nothing neat or concise when it comes to one’s personal journey with grief. Even Elisabeth Kubler-Ross herself, a psychiatrist who first discussed the theory, said that the stages of grief were not meant to be packaged so neatly.” from HealGrief.org
Remember grief is messy. And unpredictable. And we move through grief at different speeds and in different ways. Understanding the different stages of grief in order to identify them in the moment and not be confused by them is helpful, but they were never meant to be a predictable progression through grief, merely a guide to understanding grief a bit better.
05. One Day At a Time
Grief can be all consuming, it can make normal everyday activities and responsibilities feel impossible. That’s normal. Take each day as it comes. And if that’s too hard (because sometimes a day feels impossibly long) take it hour by hour, minute by minute. Just look at what’s right in front of you in that moment and do that thing. Or don’t. When the day is really hard feel the freedom to disappoint people and say no to things, feel the freedom to go back to bed or go for a walk or call a friend and talk about how bad it hurts today. Resist the urge to look to tomorrow or the next day, that often feels too weighty and impossible, only adding to the grief. Take it one moment or day at a time.
06. Sleep May Be Fleeting
For many, sleep after loss is illusive. For me, I was suddenly terrified of the night and the darkness and when I would finally find sleep I would be haunted by horrific nightmares only to wake up to panic attacks. If this sounds like your sleep experience, this is normal. I know how hard it is and how scary it feels, but sleep and real rest is vital to your healing. If sleep is illusive for you, be intentional about identifying triggers that make it difficult to go to sleep and try to eliminate those. Talk to your spouse, partner or a friend and ask them to help you make sure you are not avoiding sleep but actually going to sleep in a real bed (not on the sofa while watching netflix). Other helpful tips for more peaceful sleep: avoid caffeine, alcohol (especially within an hour or so of the time you want to go to bed), and screen time right before bed. Any type of relaxing ritual before bed would be helpful, such as a warm bath, a cup of herbal tea (decaffeinated), journaling or prayer.
And remember this verse, repeating it as often as necessary — ask God to give you sweet sleep: “When you lie down, you will not be afraid, when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” Proverbs 3:24
And if you are in the other camp where you are finding it difficult to get out of bed, give yourself one small goal each day. Take a shower, go for a walk, or call a friend. (See this Self-Care Checklist here for more ideas.) And then once you do that one tiny goal, go back to bed if you want. And tomorrow try again.
07. You Will Laugh Again
It is hard to not look ahead and be paralyzed by the thought that sadness will forever define your days. But there will be joy again. You will laugh again. In fact you will probably laugh sooner than you think you should which will likely trigger guilt and shame and lies that you no longer care for your baby. These encouraging words from Nicole Feller (on this post) are especially helpful when dealing with guilt and shame over finding moments of joy amidst grief: If something makes you laugh, allow yourself that little moment of reprieve and embrace it.
But know this, it is normal to fear never having joy again and it is normal to have feelings of sadness when you find yourself having joy again. Again, grief is messy and unpredictable and often grief looks a lot like smiling through the tears.
You won’t always know what makes a day so hard. Some painful triggers are obvious like hearing your baby’s name or seeing a friend’s belly growing or anniversaries but often these painful triggers are ambiguous hitting us when we our guards are down and our hearts unprotected. Those ambiguous triggers seem to come out of no where and as you fight back hot tears and gulp down knots in your throat you also suddenly feel a bit crazy — like you have lost your mind completely. When there are no triggers there is nothing to blame for the sudden burst of emotion and fresh heart break so you may assume there’s something wrong with you; I want to assure you, it’s normal. You’re not crazy. You’re a mama that is broken and healing. Let the moment come and grieve your baby.
I have pushed many a shopping cart with hot tears streaming down my face from just passing a diaper aisle or seeing a mama with a baby the age mine should have been. Don’t be embarrassed of the tears or afraid of them either. If you’re arm was broken you wouldn’t be embarrassed of the cast. You’re healing and all the tears are just a reminder.
09. Healing Doesn’t Mean Forgetting
There is an instant fear that settles in a mama’s heart when her baby dies – a fear that her baby will be forgotten. And as we grieve there can be a fear that healing will mean forgetting, that moving on will mean completely forgotten. From one mama to another, you will never, ever forget your baby. I promise. No matter how much time has passed. No matter how whole your heart will feel. No matter if you have more children. You will never forget your baby.
10. Communicate, Even When It’s Hard
Even when you can’t put two coherent sentences together. Even when you can’t find the words. Even when you can’t adequately describe how you feel. Even when it feels incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Talk about it. Talk about it with your spouse or partner. Talk about it with your family. Talk about it with your friends. Because we all grieve differently and because there is no step-by-step process for walking through grief, communicating about how you are feeling and how you are doing eliminates the opportunity for miscommunication and misunderstanding and added hurt to an already broken heart. It may feel like no one understands and no one can adequately identify with what you are going through, and you may be right, but help them understand. They love you, even if they don’t know how to show it right now. So help them.
And don’t forget to ask the question in return, ask them how they are doing and watch unity happen around brokenness. One of the most healing things to my heart was hearing from my friends and family how their hearts were aching too. But I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t asked. They would have never wanted to add to my sorrow by letting me know they were hurting too. (And if someone doesn’t say it out loud we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are the only ones broken, even if we’re married or in a loving relationship.) Communicating how you are feeling gives you the opportunity to grieve in community and grieving in community is far less lonely and absolutely more comforting.
This post is based solely on my experience and limited research. This post was not written by a doctor and should not take the place of professional counseling. Every grieving mother is full of emotions that range from deep sadness to raging anger. Every grieving mother can also experience worry, overwhelm, exhaustion and stress. However, if you are experiencing intense sadness that seems to continue on and on lessening, or symptoms that are continually becoming worse, affecting your ability to function on a daily basis, then it’s likely time to reach out for help.