When a Baby Dies: Picking Up the Pieces

How to find the strength to go on and find your way toward healing.

Posted Sep 30, 2013

When a baby dies, a parent’s grief runs deep.

This kind of grief saps the parent’s physical and emotional strength. Especially during the first year, many parents doubt they can survive this experience. Their devastation feels too all-encompassing, coloring everything around them. The trauma makes it difficult to imagine ever healing. Ever.

If you’re a bereaved parent, you can identify with that bottomless feeling of hopelessness. Especially during the first year, you may resent the fact that everyone around you carries on with life, while yours has come to a screeching halt.

How can you find the strength to go on?

At first, you don’t. You can’t. You mustn’t. As you crawl into your shell and curl up into a little ball (figuratively or perhaps literally) you may wonder if this is the “new normal.” It is for now. Because now is the time to stop, and to breathe. You need time process what has happened, to reflect on what this means for you, to assess your position, and to gather your resources. As you hunker down, you expend little energy on anything besides thinking about your baby. You ask the big, unanswerable questions, “Why?” “How could this have happened?” “Why me?”  All energy goes toward resisting what happened, longing for what might have been, and wondering how you can possibly live with what is.

Of course, you long for a return to “normal.” You’d give anything to recover your baby—and your innocence, your belief that you have control over your destiny, and your faith that bad things don’t happen to good people. But you also harbor the sense that you can’t return to naiveté. Not now. Not when you know your babies can die.

And then comes the sobering realization that your life will never be the same. Get back to normal? Impossible.

So where do you go from here? How will you ever manage to stretch out again, much less come out of your shell? How can you find your way?

By grieving.

Grieving is excruciatingly painful, to be sure, but it’s also your salvation. Grieving is the process by which you can come to terms with your baby’s death. You face your feelings and move through them as you acknowledge what you’ve lost, let go of what might have been, and adjust to what is. Instead of expending your energy fighting against reality, avoiding grief, or staying stuck in suffering, you put your energy toward embracing reality and your grief. You find ways to cope. You seek out people to lean on. You pursue what helps you heal.

And as a result of going with the flow of your grief, you find yourself slowly and naturally starting to unclench and peek outward. In other words, as you grieve, you are also healing. And eventually, believe it or not, you can find peace and acceptance. Ultimately, you can honor the memory of your baby by living your life to the fullest.

But first, over the coming months and years, you must forge a “new normal.”  And like many of the bereaved parents who’ve traveled this path before you, you become wiser. You don’t take good fortune for granted. You appreciate life and all that you have going for you. You rearrange your priorities. And you see your vulnerability to tragedy as part of the human condition. You learn to trust that whatever happens to you, it will all turn out okay in the end. Because in the end, you’ll discover that you can look back and say, “You know what? I got something from this.”

Of course, if you could do it all over again, you’d rather keep your baby and you’d gladly forego all your hard won knowledge, insight, confidence, and maturity. 

But given that you can’t change what happened, you can simply get to the point where you decide to accept it and make the best of it. You can look for the treasures to be found in the midst of adversity. You can find meaning and rediscover purpose. You can reinvest in your relationships, your talents, and your interests. And you realize that if you can survive the death of your baby, you can survive anything.

This knowledge—that you possess this level of strength and resilience—fuels your confidence. It inspires you to embrace this journey and your new normal. And the one thing you can know for sure is that your baby’s most powerful legacy is your life, well-lived.