My life is divided into two parts – before my son’s death and after. Connor was my first child and he died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) at 3 months and 24 days. I barely remember the person I was. I do know that I was carefree and naive and at the same time arrogant. Arrogant to believe that unspeakable tragedy could only happen to other people. I credit Connor’s death with making me empathetic – for recognizing that everyone has a story and if we open ourselves up to people we connect through our vulnerabilities.
The time between his birth and death is also a blur – after all it was only four short months. I remember the normal first-time mom anxieties of worrying how to hold him to give him his first bath. But I also remember quickly falling into a wonderful routine. His death was like a bomb exploding – it happened so quickly without any warning. What began as a perfectly ordinary day changed in a second with the phone call from the daycare provider who uttered one of only two sentences I remember from that day; “There’s a problem with the baby. He’s not breathing.” After that it was the chaos after the explosion and all that was left was me standing in the rubble of my life.
As the CEO of First Candle I speak to hundreds of bereaved parents – some within days of their baby’s death and others many years later. The new ones always ask me the same question – “When do you start feeling better?” There’s never an easy answer to that. Again, it’s similar to the bomb analogy. The initial pain and trauma thankfully don’t last forever but there are times when it comes back such as seeing your friends’ babies who are the same age your child would have been. The first birthday after your child has died and the first anniversary of his death are especially painful and instantly take a parent back to that day when life changed forever.
Researchers now agree that the grief a parent experiences after the loss of a child is a type of PTSD. I was one of the lucky ones – I had the support of my community, family, friends and co-workers. Others aren’t as fortunate. There are parents who, after their baby has died, must deal with insensitive investigators and state workers and are forced to re-enact the time of death using a baby doll. Families who face the reality of having their living children removed from their home because they are suspected of abuse. Recovering from these experiences takes years and even decades.
For the first year after Connor’s death I wouldn’t let anyone take a picture of me. I just couldn’t bare to see how sad, old and tired I looked. Physical ailments are common among bereaved parents. Grief causes our immune system to crash and induces chemical reactions in the body what can last over a long period of time.
- Digestive problems such as loss of appetite or overeating
- Sleepiness and sleeplessness
- Heartache and chest pain
- Forgetfulness and memory loss
- Cognitive changes including general confusion and difficulty concentrating
- Emotional changes including sadness, crying, and prolonged weeping
- Respiratory problems including shortness of breath and asthma
- Panic attacks; i.e., sweating, rapid heartbeat, numbness, and tingling
- Confusion with an associated feeling of loss of control or a feeling of “losing one’s mind”
I became pregnant very quickly after Connor died which was the right decision for our family, but my second son has intellectual disabilities and to this day I wonder if it’s due to the stress of grief I was experiencing.
As a society we’re not good at dealing with grief and it can ruin relationships. The rate of divorce is high among parents who have lost a baby. Men and women often express grief in different ways and it’s difficult to understand if a spouse appears to not care or shut down. We often receive calls from men who are afraid to grieve in front of their partner because they feel they need to be “the strong one.” Months after my son died a friend was talking about how exhausting it is to have a toddler. I felt like screaming that I wish I had the chance to be that exhausted and had difficulty getting over what I perceived as an insensitive and thoughtless comment.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you’ve experienced a loss, what advice would you give to a newly-bereaved family? Share below.