When a Baby Dies: Why It's Hard for Parents to Endure
Exploring the shock, trauma, grief, adjustment, and healing.
Posted October 15, 2020
This post appears in honor of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, which falls on the 15th of October, which is also Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death Awareness Month.
When a baby dies, especially during pregnancy, birth, or shortly after, many people think the parents can (and should) bounce back. After all, this baby’s life was so brief, how could it have made an impression? If you are a bereaved parent, even you may be surprised by the depth and duration of your grief.
Why is a baby’s death so hard to endure? Like many parents, you may wonder whether you’re making a big deal out of nothing. You may try to resist your painful thoughts and feelings. You may worry that there is something wrong with you.
But in fact, there are many reasons why a baby’s death is so painful to endure. For example, you may feel quite alone. Perhaps you are unaware of any friends who’ve been through this experience or maybe you’re receiving little support from your family or medical caregivers. You may also feel very disoriented—like, where do you go from here? And how can you even go on? You may feel crazy too—for being so preoccupied with your baby; for longing so deeply; for worrying that you must’ve done something terribly wrong; for feeling so furious; for losing hope; for questioning your faith; for fearing the future. Feeling any one of these—isolated, unmoored, overwhelmed, unsure, or afraid—is extremely stressful. Simultaneously feeling all this can push you to your limit.
Furthermore, when your baby dies, it’s a huge shock—to your mind, your body, and your spirit.
- It’s a shock to your mind because your baby’s death is so unbelievable. You can’t wrap your mind around it. It’s such a cruel violation of everything you expected, shattering your dreams for this child; for yourself as a mother or father. It feels like an enormous, all-consuming turn of events. You can’t make sense of it, and no one can tell you “why.”
- It’s a shock to your body because your baby’s death triggers the release of stress hormones, which are now coursing through your veins thanks to your core brain detecting this dire threat. This automatic physiological response happens big time when you first hear the news, sending you into disbelief and numbness. This stress response can be triggered over and over, for days and months to come, driving strain and tension into your body.
- It’s a shock to your spirit because your baby’s death pulls the rug out from under your belief in a benevolent God, Fate, or Universe. It underscores how very little control you actually have, and that indeed, bad things can happen to good people. It is so unfair — and frightening to realize — that “doing all the right things” doesn’t necessarily protect you from tragedy.
Because a baby’s death is so shocking, it is considered a traumatic bereavement. And recovering from this shock and trauma requires an arduous process of grieving and adjusting. You are grieving many layers of profound loss. And you are adjusting to a massive shift in your perspective, your sense of self, your relationship with your baby, and your envisioned future. This recovery process can be achingly slow, spanning weeks, months, and even years. Especially early on, grief and adjustment can be intensive, occupying many of your waking hours, and disturbing much of your sleep.
But as slow and painful as this process can be, leaning into your grief and adjustment is key to your recovery. Avoiding grief or criticizing your adjustment only keeps your mind stuck in denial, your body stuck in tension, and your spirit stuck in the past. In contrast, accepting and connecting with your grief means noticing how it ebbs and flows, and feeling okay about the ups and downs. By accepting and connecting with your adjustment, you can remain curious rather than judgmental, and reassure yourself that wherever you are, that’s right where you’re supposed to be. When you accept and connect, you are practicing self-compassion rather than self-criticism and self-doubt. By accepting and connecting with yourself and your grief and adjustment, you can take an active role in surviving the death of your baby.
Accepting and connecting allows your grief to soften over time. Accepting and connecting allows your adjustment to progress in positive directions. In fact, as you accept and connect with your grief and adjustment, you also heal — one day at a time.
What does healing look like? Ever so gradually, your mind grasps the reality of your baby’s death, settles on some answers, and envisions making the best of this unexpected path. Over time, your body continually releases the strain and tension of stress hormones by grieving — whether you do so by emotion/feeling or action/doing — and the intensity of your stress response gradually decreases as you adjust to the new path you forge. And eventually, your spirit lets go of what might have been, makes peace with what is, and learns to live with knowing you don’t have complete control over what happens.
Perhaps most importantly, you don’t return to “normal” but rather create a new normal that integrates your reordered priorities, a clarified sense of self, and a heightened appreciation for loving relationships. And you see the profound impact of your baby’s life and death on your mind, body, and spirit, knowing you've grown—not because your baby died, but because you survived this tragedy. And you proudly embrace your newfound priorities, resilience, and wisdom—in memory and in honor of your baby.