Every month, Birthing From Within sends a letter to our membership and the public, containing our reflections on happenings in birth, in the world at large, and in our organization. See a collection of our monthly letters on the blog here; sign up to receive our newsletters directly in your inbox.
Most people would agree that the worst tragedy that could befall any human being is the loss of a child. Whether that child has yet to be born, or is a few hours or months or many years old, it defies the expectation of parenthood: your child will grow up healthy and strong, and outlive you. When that expectation is crushed, it is not only the child that is gone, but also the dreams for that child, leaving unbearable grief and despair in their place.
October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in the United States. This month is designated to honor and remember those who have lost a child during pregnancy or infancy, raise awareness of the approximately one million (1 in 4) pregnancies that end in early pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or death of the newborn child, and offer support and information to families and those that care for them. When President Ronald Reagan dedicated this month in 1988, he said:
“When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them. This month recognizes the loss so many parents experience across the United States and around the world. It is also meant to inform and provide resources for parents who have lost children due to miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, stillbirths, birth defects, SIDS, and other causes…”
One of their biggest fears of many birth professionals is not knowing what to do if a client’s baby dies. It may be years before this occurs. Or, as happened to a doula who I had just trained, it could arise at their first birth. Regardless of when or how one finds oneself in this situation, one’s role as midwife, physician, nurse, childbirth educator, or doula remains unchanged: meet the parent where they are, determine what they need in that moment, treat them with compassion, and offer unbiased support. Professionals do not share what they would do (or even, in most situations, what they did if they had their own personal experiences of loss). They witness, cry together, offer resources, and support their client’s unique process of grieving.
As a part of Birthing From Within training, we give professionals the skills to lead an extraordinary process called the Courageous and Compassionate Excavation of Fears, which guides participants through an exploration of fears and actions that can lead them to resilience and compassion in times of vulnerability.
A tool such as this can provide parents and professionals alike with courage to face any challenge. I was guided through that process as a beginning mentor and doula. My greatest fear was not knowing what I would say or do if a client’s baby died during or shortly after birth. On one side of my paper, I drew a scene inside the birth room, with parents holding their dead baby and tears raining down everywhere. On the other side, I drew myself outside of the room, with a big ‘X’ over my mouth and no arms, symbolizing my inability to find words or do anything that would be helpful. Seeing this on paper gave me the opportunity, in advance, to explore actions that I might take and kindness I could show myself – even when not knowing exactly what to do – so that I would not feel incapacitated or worthless.
A few years later, my greatest fear occurred. By staying present in that moment, connecting with my clients, and feeling into their (and my) grief, I was able to find the words and actions which that moment called for, as that process had led me to years before. Everything during that experience was heightened – the love, the pain, the joy, the tenderness, the grief. How precious it all was.
Over the years, I learned that death and grief are as magnificently poignant and varied as birth and life, and all of them require loving support.
Birthing From Within acknowledges that not all pregnancies or births end as expected, which is why we provide training and preparation that focuses on resilience and compassion rather than specific outcomes, and why we stress the importance of recognizing the heroic journey that every parent undergoes.
We honor birth and death, and view both as transformational human experiences to be embraced rather than eluded. We honor parents at all stages of their journeys, and our hearts especially go out to those whose babies are no longer in their arms. For those who have survived a child’s death, we offer you our deepest condolences and blessings that your hearts will mend and your child will always be remembered. For those professionals who support these families, we offer you compassionate space for the love and pain that you have witnessed, and our thanks for doing this most important work.
In love and remembrance,
Director, Doula From Within
If you would like more information on pregnancy and infant loss, here are some resources that can offer solace, support, information, and guidance for those experiencing the tragedy of losing a child:
Baby Loss Family Advisors: Provides trained advisors or doulas for families facing an infant loss.
Compassionate Friends: Local chapters for families that have had a child die (at any age, from any cause) or for people trying to support them.
Sisters in Loss: Podcast, blog, and community for Black women who have experience infant loss.
Faces of Loss, Faces of Hope: On-line stories, facebook group, informal support gatherings.