FROM THE MOMENT OF DIAGNOSIS, YOU HAVE BEEN BOMBARDED WITH INFORMATION, DECISIONS, AND NEW EMOTIONS. YOU HAVE HAD A TEAM OF MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS THERE TO HELP YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT IS HAPPENING, WEIGH YOUR OPTIONS, AND PROVIDE FOR YOUR MEDICAL NEEDS EVERY STEP OF THE WAY. THERE HAVE BEEN FACTS TO PROCESS AND RESEARCH TO BE CONDUCTED. THERE HAS BEEN A ROADMAP- A PLAN- FOR THE PREGNANCY, DELIVERY, AND IMMEDIATE MOMENTS FOLLOWING THE BIRTH. YOU HAVE BEEN PREPARING FOR THE INEVITABLE DAY THAT YOU WILL SAY HELLO AND GOODBYE TO YOUR PRECIOUS BABY.
Yet, what happens when that day comes and goes?
There is no guidebook for what it is like to leave the hospital with empty arms because every single parent will have their own unique experience of going home without a baby. I wish I could fully prepare you for this part of your journey, but there is no roadmap for life after loss. What I can do is shed some light by sharing my professional insight and personal experience. My goal is not for you to trace your experience on my map. Rather, my hope is that, as I share my insight and experience, you will feel more prepared and less alone as you navigate what I would not wish on anyone.
When the time comes for you to be discharged from the hospital, you might feel torn. Part of you may feel so ready to leave the hospital and go home to a safe and familiar environment, but part of you may feel like it is impossible to leave the place where you held your baby and made memories with him or her. This feeling is completely normal and understandable. When you entered the hospital, your baby was safe inside your or your significant other’s body. Now, you are being asked to leave with a heavy emptiness. This feeling is true whether you are leaving without a living baby or if you are leaving your baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. As a parent, it feels wrong to be separated from the life you have spent months nurturing and growing, and this is especially true in situations of limited time and loss.
You may find that the trip from your hospital room to your car is full of triggers. Never did you envision being wheeled out of a hospital room after giving birth without a baby. I still vividly remember how painful it was to be holding memory boxes instead of my babies as I passed families leaving with their perfect newborns. For those people, the labor and delivery floor was full of hope and new beginnings, but for me, it represented an ending.
The car ride home from the hospital was silent and somber. My husband never took his eyes off the road, and I silently studied the cars that passed by us. The weight of what we had been through and all that we lost overwhelmed us. As we pulled into the driveway, I remember thinking how wrong it was that we were unloading memory boxes, mementos, and bereavement paperwork rather than three perfect little newborns. The silence of our house was deafening, and I remember feeling like nothing would ever feel right again.
Within minutes of arriving home, I felt an overwhelming urge to mother my babies. We had set up a nursery before we understood the full weight of what we were facing with my pregnancy, so as soon as we got home, I took my babies memory boxes and placed them gently in their cribs. I had been so focused on soaking in every minute I had with my babies, and then I was just numb after they had passed away, that the full reality of what had happened did not hit me until that moment in their nursery. In the privacy of the room that we had lovingly prepared for them, I began to really grieve.
I let out what can only be described as the “mama wail,” and it was a sound so foreign to me that it truly took a minute before I realized that it was even coming from me. There was something so powerful and cathartic about being able to express the grief that my body could no longer contain. I needed that moment alone to be able to feel and mother in my own way.
Your experience may not look like mine, and that is perfectly valid and normal. I share that specific moment from my story with you because I spent a lot of time worrying about whether or not I was grieving correctly or normally. The reality is that there is no correct or normal way to grieve. There is only the way that is right for you. I encourage you to know and honor what you need in these moments. If going home to a silent, empty house is more than you can bear, ask your support network to be there when you get home. If you know that you need time alone for the first day or two, tell your support network to check in after that time has passed.
“There is no guidebook for what it is like to leave the hospital with empty arms because every single parent will have their own unique experience of going home without a baby. I wish I could fully prepare you for this part of your journey, but there is no roadmap for life after loss.”
In the first days, weeks, and months, you may find yourself exhibiting behaviors that seem odd or different to you. There is a very real feeling called “empty arms” that parents can experience following the loss of their baby. You may feel an aching in your arms because your mind and body know that you should be holding your baby. This feeling is normal, and the physical sensation of aching arms does pass with time. Until it subsides, I encourage you to cope with that feeling by doing what feels right for you. For me, I found that holding a teddy bear and rocking it for as long as I needed to each day helped lessen the ache in my arms. We chose to cremate our babies, and when we were able to pick up their urn from the funeral home, my husband and I found that holding it helped tremendously.
Some parents find that having a bear made that weighs the same weight that their baby did at birth helps. Others have said that holding a blanket or clothing that smells like their baby helped them feel connected and lessen the ache in their arms. Spending a few minutes looking through any photos you have of your baby can help you cope with the feeling of empty arms. It is important to know that not all parents will experience this phenomenon so do not be surprised if only one of you experiences it. Communicate openly with your significant other and support one another in your grieving similarities and differences.
As a result of your grief, you may feel as though you are in a fog or floating through the early days and weeks. This feeling, along with a sense of numbness, is especially common in the period of time between leaving the hospital and having the funeral or memorial service, if you choose to have one. That period of time can feel like limbo. You may feel unsettled and without any sense of peace. You may feel as though you are simply going through the motions. At the service itself, you may feel numb or like you are having an out-of-body experience as you navigate interacting with people who have come to support you. This is completely normal, and in no way does it mean that you are less of a parent or do not love your baby enough. It is simply a common response to the overwhelming nature of your grief and having to plan and attend a funeral or memorial for your baby.
It is equally as common to experience a sense of heightened emotions. You may feel as though your emotions are spilling out in every direction, and you are unable to contain them. You may find yourself uncontrollable crying, navigating intense anger, or even laughing at times when you would not normally laugh. Grief comes with a range of emotions, and grief can make you feel less in control of those emotions. For more information about the range of emotions you might experience and how to navigate them, please read our post found here.
Grief can also make it difficult for you to make decisions. Temporarily, grief can cause you to be easily distracted, accident-prone, disinterested in your hobbies, and inattentive to the people around you. Grief can affect your sleep, causing insomnia, excessive need for sleep, or sleep disturbances. You may notice an increase appetite or even a loss of your appetite. Grief is a powerful force, especially the grief that a parent faces when they lose a child. These behaviors and aspects of grief are temporary, but if you find yourself unable to move through them, you might be struggling with something more than grief. For more specific information about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, grief, and mourning, please read our post found here.
In the first days, weeks, and months, you may find that you cry easily and unexpectedly. I was completely caught off guard by how easily, and often surprisingly, my grief was triggered. Smells like the detergent I used to wash their clothes would have me sobbing. I became more sensitive to plots and storylines in television shows and movies because even the smallest reference to pregnancy or infant loss or even a family celebrating their newest addition felt triggering. For many months, I could not even go to the grocery store alone because seeing families with kids or women with pregnant bellies had me crying in the aisles. Even though rationally I knew differently, it felt as though everyone around me was normal and without struggles. I felt like an alien everywhere I went.
I also had an intense need to tell people what had happened which certainly did not help the whole feeling like an alien thing. I would tell wait staff at restaurants, tellers at my bank, and even checkers at the grocery store about my babies. I needed people to know that my Bridget, Vivian, and Liam existed. I needed to speak their names. I share this with you because I felt like the only person in the world who experienced this particular side effect of grief, and it felt weird to have no control over it.
My husband did not share this urge, so I spent a lot of time wondering if I had lost my mind. If you find yourself gravitating towards this same behavior, take heart. You are not the first or the last person to experience this. For the significant other who does not share this same urge, take heart. It does not last forever. Eventually, you get better at discerning how and with whom you wish to share your story. At first, it is more an impulse, but over time, it becomes a choice, thought out and purposeful. You will still have the desire to share about your baby, just as you would if they had lived or as you do with your other children.
“The reality is that there is no correct or normal way to grieve. There is only the way that is right for you. I encourage you to know and honor what you need in these moments.”
Parenting living children in the middle of grief can be helpful, but it can also be painful, overwhelming, and sometimes disconcerting. For some parents, their living children are a healing presence in the early days, weeks, and months. It can feel good to parent, and you may likely feel your parental instinct to care for them as they grieve the loss of their brother or sister. For other parents, it can be a struggle to balance parenting, their children’s grief, and their own grief.
There is a tension that we live in as parents to living and lost children. There is a deep gratitude and love for your living children, but there is always a presence missing. You can long for your baby without loving your other children less, and it is okay to need help with your children as you grieve. Allow your support network to come alongside you in this way. Let them take your children for a special day or have them help you get your children to and from school. I know you could probably handle it all alone, but you do not have to.
Your map of going home without a baby and navigating all that comes after will look different than mine or any other grieving parent’s. Your baby is wholly unique just like your love for that baby. I cannot know exactly what this will be like for you, but our maps intersect frequently and in powerful ways. You are not alone. You are not the first person or the last person to feel changed or overwhelmed by grief. You are not the only person to wrestle with the thoughts you are having or the feelings that feel disconcerting.
I say that not to diminish the uniqueness of your story. In no way do I want you to feel as though your story does not matter simply because other people have been through something similar. Rather, I say it with the utmost respect for your experience. I say it out of a desire for you to never feel alone or isolated by your grief. You may feel like an alien in your own life, but there are other aliens out there, like me, who are ready to embrace you, know your baby, and help you carry your grief. It is from that place that I have shared with you my professional insight and my personal experience.
Even though there truly is no one size fits all guidebook for going home without a baby, I do want to leave you with some advice.
Have support in place and use it. You will need help, and people want to do something. Let them help with meals, errands, childcare, or whatever else you need. I have written a whole post that can help you know what you need and how to ask for it. You can find that post here.
Reach out. Reach out when you cannot be alone for one more minute. Reach out when you need space. Reach out when you need to talk about your baby. Reach out when you feel disconnected, overwhelmed, or lost.
Let go of expectations. You are in survival mode for a while. Life looks less like living than you might imagine and more like surviving each day, sometimes minute by minute, hour by hour. Let go of expectations of how you and your significant other should be. Ignore the expectations that the world will try to put on your grief. It will not always be this way, I promise.
Do not make major decisions. The early days, weeks, and months are not the time to move to a new country, quit your job, or get rid of everything you own. Focus on processing and integrating your grief. Often times the urge to make life-changing decisions is your mind’s way of trying to avoid the painful reality of grieving. Give it time.
Let your emotions come. Do not judge them. Do not avoid them. Do not try to change or ignore them. You are allowed to feel sad or angry. You are allowed to laugh, and you will laugh when something is really funny, I promise. Emotions and grief are simply an expression of a big, undeniable, life-changing love.
Communicate. This is key. Communicate with your significant other. Communicate with your network of support. Communicate with your other children. Communicate with yourself. Communicate with a therapist, support group, or other parents who have lost a child. There is nothing wrong with seeking specialized support. You do not have to bear this alone.