I distinctly remember the first time I heard about someone I knew who was experiencing a stillbirth. I was vaguely aware of the concept, I suppose, but had never really considered the details. I remember thinking about the idea of going through all of the physical and emotional strain of labor, knowing that you would never hear your baby’s cry, and thinking to myself, “geez, that sounds like the absolute worst thing that could happen to a person.” I could not imagine the range of emotions they must have been feeling, I just knew that it was very, very sad.
Six months ago today, it happened to me.
I was exactly 26 weeks (6 months) pregnant, and woke up in the middle of the night with what I thought was a very upset stomach. I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum during my pregnancy, so throwing up in the middle of the night was just part of my routine. I had already been to the ER once for fluids earlier in the pregnancy, and told myself that that’s all I needed, and the extra cramping was probably just a UTI. Around 5am, we went to the hospital and were admitted to Labor & Delivery.
When the nurses were struggling to find a heartbeat, I wasn’t worried. The baby was healthy; I was sick. I had read about other women going to the ER and it taking a while to find a heartbeat. I could tell my husband was worried, but I patted him on the back and said, “it’s okay. He’s just hiding. This happens sometimes.”
Even when I heard the doctor say, “The pregnancy is not progressing; there is no heartbeat,” I didn’t believe it. Dave became emotional right away, and I remember just staring at the doctor, waiting for him to tell me what they were going to do to save my baby. Then I heard something about needing a second doctor to confirm the death, what they could do to make me comfortable, and that I would be moving to a different room and would be given medication to induce labor.
I have no memory of the walk to the L&D room. I have no memory of calling my mom or my sister. I very distinctly remember calling my best friend. I can still hear her say “Oh F***. So what are you going to do?” and replying, “...give birth to a dead baby I guess?”
Our son, Nathaniel Louis Hunt, was born around 5:45 p.m. on Easter Sunday. According to the doctors, he had passed on Friday evening. Even after he was born and I held his tiny body, I was still hoping for a miracle. I was still waiting for him to open his eyes, to cry, to squirm.
This was the first time I truly understood the ‘denial’ phase of grief. Sometimes, I still don’t believe it. Sometimes, I think that this whole year has been one long, drawn-out nightmare. That one day, I’ll wake up, and it will be Saturday, April 11, 2020, and that the last 6 months will have never happened.
Only in the last couple of weeks have I felt the first smidge of acceptance, and it feels...weird. There is guilt there, too. Anger. Resentment. Fear. All of it. Popular movie montages often make it seem like the stages of grief are linear and predictable. I’ve experienced them separately, all at once, and in every possible combination you can think of. Therapy helps, but it doesn’t make it go away.
As a Christian, I’ve tried to take comfort in the fact that he died on Good Friday and was born on Easter, but, the truth is, there really isn’t much that can comfort a grieving parent. When I started writing this post, I planned to make a clever, comprehensive list of the best and worst things you can do to support parents who are experiencing a loss, but this is what came out. Maybe the first step in trying to help a friend heal is simply trying to understand their story, so here is part of mine.
That being said, I am a teacher at heart, and do want to leave you with some actionable tips.
If you are someone who did any of the recommended items, we love you. If you are someone who did any of the non-recommended items, we love you, too. I have never been mad at a friend for trying to help, and we genuinely appreciate every single person who reached out in any way. We know you had the purest of intentions and were just trying to do or say something. I've been that person before, myself. I still cringe at the time I told a friend who had recently miscarried, "You'll have other babies, I just know it! I had a friend who had several miscarriages and now has three beautiful children!" She wanted that baby, and they can never be replaced. I'm lucky she didn't punch me in the face.
Anyway, hopefully you won't ever need this list, but here it is.
DO's and DONT's for helping grieving parents
Here are a few things I would not recommend...
- Saying anything along the lines of “everything happens for a reason,” “it’s all part of God’s plan,” etc. That doesn’t help. Actually, it’s kind of like twisting the knife. It may be true, but it’s not comforting...at least it wasn’t for me. If you feel the need to say something, try, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this, and I am here for whatever you need.”
- Taking it personally if the grieving party doesn’t take your phone call or want to hang out. The only people I wanted to see for a very, very long time were my parents, my sister, and my best friend. We truly appreciated EVERY SINGLE phone call, text, or invitation to hang, even if we didn’t have the energy to respond. I've been this person, too. It's hard when we know our friends are suffering and feel powerless to help, but grief is strange and requires a lot of space, and sometimes a little selfishness.
- Sending the grieving parents every article, Facebook post, or tweet you read about pregnancy loss. We are happy you take the time to read them, but use them as a learning exercise for yourself. We already know what it feels like, and have probably spent a lot of time going down the internet rabbit hole already. Instead, try sending a message telling the parent you were thinking about them and their little one. We are always thinking about him, too.
And a few things that have been really helpful...
- Restaurant gift cards/Homecooked meals/Frozen lasagna. Naturally, I had very little desire to cook, and even less desire to be seen at the grocery store, or be seen at all, so these were the friggin best. When we got home from the hospital, we found a fridge full of ready-to-eat meals and a counter-full of snacks that a friend had delivered without even mentioning it, and I can't tell you how much that meant to us.
- Snail mail/cards/flowers/gift boxes/plants. Never underestimate the power of a thoughtful hand-written note. We have all of the cards we received in a box with Nathaniel’s receiving blanket, and we will treasure them forever.
- Friends and family checking in regularly, even months later. I want to thank Kelsey, Katherine, and Brian in particular. We would not have gotten through those first few months without you. I also have a few truly exceptional coworkers who really took care of me - you know who are, and I appreciate and admire you all so much.