In 2011, my husband and I experienced the loss of our identical twin daughters. One was stillborn, and the other lived in the NICU for almost seven weeks before succumbing to an infection.
The pain that I felt was unlike anything I had experienced before. It was not the same grief as losing a grandparent or an uncle. It was completely devastating, and I felt like a stranger in a strange land. There was nothing that could have prepared me for it.
Sadly, many parents know this pain, as the experience of pregnancy loss and infant death is something that is much more common than people realize. They may suffer in silence, feeling unable to convey to those around them just how much pain they are in.
Here are four things that I wish I had known early on in my grief, so that I would have been better prepared for what lay ahead.
1. The intensity and the duration of grief following the loss of a child is greater than anyone realizes.
The pain is crushing, lasts for years, and affects every area of your life. Trauma and secondary losses can complicate our grieving and make it even more difficult. As other people move on from offerings of sympathy and help, sometimes the initial shock and numbness are just wearing off and the pain is only just beginning to settle in. It makes itself at home and overstays its welcome. It catches you off guard and knocks you down like waves on the shore. Others will wonder how you haven’t “moved on” and accuse you of “dwelling.” You’re not. They just don’t realize how long it takes.
2. Your emotions may be all over the map.
Many people are familiar with the Kübler-Ross stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The problem was that it sounded too linear, and I couldn’t identify which one I was in. Where were things like exhaustion, anxiety, confusion, isolation, and irritability? Holding space for many emotions at one time is one of the most difficult parts, and sometimes positive emotions bring pangs of guilt along with them so that your mind is constantly churning, never at peace.
3. Grief is an enormous amount of work, and it takes a mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual toll.
There is a physical ache that accompanies such intense grief. It’s hard to describe, but it’s there. It consumes you, exhausts you. You may feel like you don’t even recognize yourself anymore. You don’t look the same, you don’t think the same. You may feel far away from God, like He has hidden His face from you, and you are completely alone. Even if you felt close to Him before, you may not even know what to say to Him now.
4. Finding other people who understand is incredibly helpful.
You may feel frightened by the things you experience in grief. I remember shortly after burying our second daughter, I kissed my other children as they slept peacefully in their beds and thought to myself, “That’s what you’ll look like when you’re dead.” I was terrified by this and wondered what was wrong with me. Nothing was wrong with me; I had just buried two of my children and my mind was desperately trying to make sense of it. When I told other bereaved parents and they said they had those thoughts, too, I felt so relieved. I had a tribe. It was the worst possible group you would ever want to join, but I was so thankful there were others there who had been through this. I had people I could talk to about my pain, and they didn’t try to paint a silver lining around it or ask why it was still there. They just understood.
If you are a newly bereaved parent, I hope this list is helpful to you and reassures you that what you’re experiencing is a normal part of the grieving process.
And if you know someone who has lost a child, I hope it helps you to put yourself in their shoes and understand, if only a tiny bit, what they are going through.
Try to accompany them along their Via Dolorosa – their Sorrowful Way – that is grieving the loss of a child. The cross of child loss is a heavy one to bear, but in your charity, try to be like Simon, like Veronica, offering them practical help, prayers, and your presence. It will mean so much.
If you are a grieving parent, you can visit my website for information about the healing retreats (which include ongoing support in the form of an online community and biweekly video calls) and helpful resources that point to Our Lady of Sorrows as our example in this uniquely painful suffering. You are not alone.