It is a tragic fact of neonatal nursing that many of the babies I care for are born too sick or too early to survive. Fortunately, the death of a baby is rare, but that does not make it easier to bear when a baby dies.
If you are the parent of a baby who has died, whether your baby died from complications of prematurity or from another cause, my heart goes out to you. Grieving the death of a baby is an immensely sad, painful process. Although these coping strategies will not take your grief away, I hope that they will make it easier to bear.
Grieving the Death of a Baby
If your baby was premature, your grief probably started long before your baby died. You may have longed to to show off a big belly at your baby shower, to hold your newborn baby close, to comfort her with a long nursing session. The death of a premature baby multiplies your grief exponentially. It is natural to feel like your grief is overwhelming, or that you will never feel normal again.
It is important to note that everyone grieves differently, and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There are five stages of grief that many parents will go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But these are far from the only feelings that parents undergo after the death of a baby. You may also feel:
- Physically sick or achy
- Like life has lost meaning
- Like you will never move on
- Relief that your baby's struggle is over
- Any number of other feelings
After the death of a baby, it is normal to feel like your grief is so overwhelming that you cannot survive it. However, if you find yourself making suicide plans, please seek immediate help. If you find yourself making plans to kill yourself, there are a number of suicide hotlines or other people you can call who will help you through the times of crisis in your grief.
Coping With Your Grief
Although nothing will make your beloved baby come back to you, there are coping strategies that may make the death of your baby easier to bear. Just as grief feels different to different people, coping with grief may be very different from one parent to another. Even between parents of the same baby, what helps ease one parent's grief may not be at all helpful to another. Use the coping mechanisms that help you to heal, but know that it's OK to leave the rest behind.
- Stay Near Your Baby: Spending time near the place where you laid your baby to rest can help you to feel close to him or her and to remember your baby. Spending time with your baby's body after death can help ease the physical separation and allow you to say goodbye.
- Stay Close to Your Support System: Friends and family members provide a wonderful source of strength and support for many bereaved parents. Talking with friends and family can validate your feelings as you make difficult decisions regarding end of life care and funeral arrangements for your baby. For other parents, in person or online bereavement support groups are more helpful.
- Keep Your Baby's Memory Alive: Many parents whose baby has died report that the physical mementos of their baby are very important to them. Hold tight to photographs, locks of hair, casts of footprints, and any other physical reminders of your baby. Creating a memorial of your child, such as a newly planted tree, can help you to keep his or her memory alive, as can honoring your baby on anniversaries by lighting a candle or releasing balloons.
- Look to Your Faith: Families with a strong faith report that their belief in God helped them to cope with the death of their baby. Many parents who rely on their faith or who return to religious beliefs they may have begun to turn away from report that their faith helped them to find meaning in their baby's short life.
- Consider Altruism: Giving back to the community can help many parents to cope with their baby's death. If you have been pumping breast milk, consider donating your milk to a milk bank to help other critically ill premature babies. Volunteering at the hospital where your child died can help you feel connected to the hospital and to your baby, and participating in support groups can allow you to help other families who are also coping with loss.
Healing: Moving On Without Forgetting
When your baby dies, you may feel like life will never feel normal again or like your grief will never end. Eventually, though, you will slowly start to feel like your grief isn't so painful and like you are starting to find joy in your life again. Although your baby will always be a part of you and you may always feel grief over your baby's death, you are beginning to heal.
Brosig, CL, Pierucci, RL, Kupst, MJ & Leuthner, SR. "Infant End-Of-Life Care: The Parents' Perspective" Journal of Perinatology (2007) 27: 510-516.
Capitulo, K. "Evidence for Healing Interventions With Perinatal Bereavement" The American Journal for Maternal Child Nursing Nov/Dec 2005. 30: 389-396.
Davis, D. and Stein, M. Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey Fulcrum; Golden, Colorado, 2004.