Families facing loss during pregnancy or shortly after delivery often worry that their baby or babies will be forgotten as time passes.
Their support network rallies around them from diagnosis through the carrying to term journey and into the bereavement period following loss, but as the weeks go by, people begin to stop bringing meals, checking in, and eventually, talking about the baby or babies. This passage of time and decrease in support can be incredibly painful for the parents who are still deeply affected and actively grieving their baby or babies because it is a form of secondary loss.
Secondary loss refers to the losses that emerge out of or are a byproduct of the primary or initial loss. The day the family receives a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition, they are experiencing a primary loss. In that moment, life as they knew it, and life as they envisioned it, ceases to be. They are now facing a harrowing journey that results in the loss of their baby or babies. But, these parents lose much more than what you might be able to see because every step of the carrying to term process is another loss.
Every sonogram is a reminder that their time with their baby is short. Every single time someone stops the parents in the grocery store to inquire about their pregnancy, they are reminded of all that should have been. Maternity pictures become a way to preserve the time they felt their baby alive, well, and safe, instead of a way to look back when their child is grown. The idea of labor and delivery twists from a beginning to an ending.
Every second with their child is a time to cherish; yet it is also a painful reminder of just how few seconds they will get. Pregnancy, which should be a time of joy and preparation, becomes a time of unwanted planning, painful questions, and the fight between anticipating what is to come and being present in the moment. Each of those experiences is a loss.
When a parent loses their baby or babies, they are experiencing another primary loss. The emotional pain these parents feel when they meet their baby or babies only to say goodbye is an overwhelming, all-consuming, life-shattering devastation. As if this initial loss was not enough, it leaves a lifetime of secondary losses in its wake: going home to an empty house, holidays, subsequent pregnancies, first days of school, graduations, weddings, and future generations. These parents face an unrelenting experience of loss.
Though it may seem to you, after time has passed, these families have healed, it is important to remember that they never truly stop grieving. The acuteness of the primary loss may have faded, and the parents may talk about the experience less or cease asking for support altogether. But, make no mistake, as long as they live, they will wrestle with the reality of secondary losses. Which is why an understanding of the enormity of secondary loss is so important as someone coming alongside bereaved parents.
It is okay if this is a new concept to you. It is okay if this feels overwhelming or hard to wrap your mind around. No one expects you to fully understand that which you have not experienced for yourself. This idea of secondary loss is not yours to bear, change, or lessen. It is simply yours to know and be aware of. It is yours to remember when you wonder why your friends or family members are still grieving years later. It is yours to remember when you cannot understand why they do or say the things they do.
As loss parents, we know that life moves on, but that does not make it any less painful when it happens. In many ways, the loss of a baby or babies to a life-limiting condition is an invisible loss. In all likelihood, the number of people who meet the baby or babies is small. Depending on the timing and the circumstances, there may not be a baby shower. After the memorial and funeral, people go home, and support begins to fade. Weeks pass, parents return to work, and by the world’s standards, the parents are living again.
However, there is a difference between surviving and living. For the first year, bereaved parents are simply surviving. The mere act of breathing and putting one foot in front of the other feels like a marathon. Though they are alive, it can be a struggle to truly live in a world without their baby or babies.
So, what does that mean for you, the support network?
It means that on a morning, four months after the loss, you send a text message to the parents because they were on your mind. It means that you reach out when something reminds you of their baby or babies. It means that you remember these parents on every holiday. It means that you remember and use the full name or names when talking about their baby or babies. It means that you send a text, make a call, or mail a card on the anniversary of their birth and death.
It means that you remember and acknowledge that, even though they do not have a baby to hold, they are still parents. Parents who might want to share the story of their baby’s birth and life year after year. Parents who might want to speak about their baby without fear of being judged, seen as stuck in their grief, or different than any other parent who shares about their children with love and pride.
This might seem to you like a daunting and heavy responsibility. It is okay to feel that way, but I encourage you to ask yourself two questions.
“How powerful of an impact might my remembering have on the parents?”
“How much does it really cost me to remember?”
To answer the first question simply, your consistent remembering has tremendous impact. Think of how good it feels when someone remembers your birthday. Now, imagine how a parent might feel when someone remembers the birthday of the baby they lost. That kind of support is priceless. It says to the parents that the little life they love more than anything had impact. Impact that stretches beyond diagnosis, pregnancy, and the weeks and months following their death. Impact that lasts a lifetime.
Think about it in the context of parenting living children. Parents want their children to somehow leave their mark on this world. It does not have to be big or revolutionary. They do not have to cure cancer or be president. Their mark can be as simple as watching them engage with the world with kindness or courage. It is not that different for the parents grieving a baby or babies. They want to know that their baby or babies live on somehow. That they have a legacy that says they were here, they mattered, and they continue to affect people beyond just their parents.
Support network, take heart. This is a lofty ask, and please know that no one expects you to be perfect. Grief is messy. Supporting someone who is grieving is messy. No one expects you to commit important dates to memory. That is the beauty of a calendar alert on your phone. The purposeful action of setting that reminder communicates your desire to remember and honor the baby or babies. That is beautiful support.
If you make a point to remember, you might find yourself struggling with the idea that if you send a text or card out of the blue that you are going to make the parents sad or remind them of their baby at an inopportune time. Rest assured that if that happens, the fact that you reached out will far outweigh their initial emotional reaction to it. Simply put, always err on the side of remembering and reaching out over staying silent.
You cannot control their response to you remembering, so trust the parents to tell you if your mode, method, or frequency of reaching out is too much for them. For more guidance on communicating with bereaved parents, read our post dedicated to that topic found here. If you are still worried about upsetting the parents, ask them if how you have been reaching out is okay. Let them know that you want to know what is helpful or hurtful.
As the months and years go by, there is no greater support you could give than honoring the life or lives that were. Trust that the act of remembering has tremendous impact on the parents even though it might not feel like enough to you. When you remember and reach out, you are speaking life into their loss. You are honoring the parents’ desire that their baby or babies are not forgotten, and that is a priceless gift that these parents will always remember.