How to honor a loss anniversary, and other thoughts

A local loss mom friend and blogger over at Surviving the Loss of Baby Sidney is approaching the first anniversary of her son’s death and recently sent an email to family and friends with suggestions for how to mark the occasion, including the following:

First, I am asking people to do something kind for themselves or someone else on May 4th. This can range from smiling at someone in the street or allowing yourself to sleep in, to donating your time or money to an organization that you believe makes a positive difference. I need to know that at least a little bit of good came from Sidney being part of the world for the short time that he was here.

Second, if you would like to, please send us a stone from a place that is meaningful to you, with a slight description of where you found it, so that I can put it at his grave (Jews traditionally leave stones when they visit graves of loved ones. While the reason behind this seems somewhat unclear, my favorite explanation is to indicate that the loved one is remembered and thought of, with an object that lasts longer/is more permanent than flowers).

Finally, do not be afraid to let us know that you are thinking of us, and to say Sidney’s name. Hearing Sidney’s name does not upset me–what upsets me is that he is dead. Instead, knowing that others remember him makes me feel like I do not have to carry him around in my heart alone. Lighting a candle in his memory (or sending us candles, trees, buying us stars, making a dedication in his name etc–I hope I have included everyone/everything) or simply reaching out to tell us that you remember him, has meant so much and will continue to mean so much.

I love the idea of doing something good in his name on that day, and wanted to pass it along as a suggestion to my readers for honoring any lost children that you know. I wasn’t aware of the Jewish tradition of leaving stones, but my daughter loves rocks and always leaves one at Luke’s grave, so I will have her pick one out for Sidney, and we’ll plant some flowers next to Luke’s bench in our garden as well, so our boys can be together.

In other musings …

The other day I was wearing a hoodie (before April suddenly turned to July) and in the pocket I found a memorial necklace that someone must have given me at some point, only I have no memory of receiving it. I received a lot of jewelry after Luke’s death, and it’s hard to keep track of who gave what, but I still feel bad about blanking on this one.

After spending so much time obsessing about fetal movement during Wyatt’s pregnancy, I thought for sure I would be counting phantom kicks for weeks after he was born. Strangely enough, though, that already seems like a distant memory, and I can’t even remember what the movements felt like, or what it was like to be chained to my KickCounter app.

Wyatt has been sleeping for longer stretches, and last night he slept through the night, until just after 5 a.m. So that’s obviously great if he starts doing that consistently, but now I also need to decide whether to throw in a middle of the night pumping session, because, well—holy boobies, Batman.

I took Zoe to her 4-year checkup last week, and when the nurse practitioner asked Zoe to list who lives at home with her, she named myself, my husband, Wyatt, and Luke, which made my heart swell, but then when I said, “Well, Luke lives in heaven,” the nurse practitioner said, “Awww, is that a pet?” and I wanted to punch her, but Zoe kept talking, and the moment passed.

I suppose it’s marginally better than my encounter at Zoe’s third-year checkup, when, after I informed the doctor of Luke’s death, she said she wasn’t aware that losses could occur that late in pregnancy.

At Zoe’s birthday party, while I carried Wyatt in a sling, I struck up a conversation with the mom of one of Zoe’s classmates. She is a perfectly lovely and sweet person, but I don’t think she knows of my loss, and she mentioned that Zoe’s friend was born when her daughter was only 2, and it was difficult to have two children of that age, and it’s so much easier to have a baby around when they are 4, and more independent. And I wanted to tell her that Zoe should have been 2 when her first brother was born, because normally I don’t have a problem telling people about Luke, but I just couldn’t figure out a way to bring it into this otherwise innocuous small talk, and so I didn’t say anything, which made me feel sad and also guilty, like I wasn’t honoring Luke properly. It also reminded me of how much of a gulf will always remain with other moms who haven’t experienced a loss, and how conversations can still catch me off guard, and break my heart.

Recently I’ve attended a few services at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I suppose I’ve been searching for something different, as our current church didn’t provide any support when Luke died, and his death also further cemented my agnosticism, wherein it’s difficult to believe in a God who would allow children to die, but it’s also difficult not to believe that some kind of being was responsible for this amazing, incredible universe. Anyway, the UU church actually cares about things like climate change, and people’s suffering, and everyone is really friendly, and the pastor (is that what you call him?) this past weekend gave a sermon (is that what you call it?) addressing a racism controversy among the higher ups of the national organization. His openness was refreshing and something I’m not used to. So I like it there, but when it comes to spirtuality, basically I am still kind of wandering.

 

Hiatus

I haven’t written a word for this blog in months, largely because I’ve been so busy with school that I haven’t had a lot of time to stop and think. Over the summer I enrolled in two back-to-back intense undergraduate classes, first in chemistry and then in biology. The classes were three to four hours long, every day, and I would then come home and spend the rest of the afternoon doing the readings and homework.

I then started grad school in late August. I enrolled in two classes, by far the most intense I have ever taken. Every week I read hundreds of pages of the textbooks and scientific papers. I also read three books, gave four presentations, wrote an 8-page research paper in addition to five shorter essays, and took four exams. In addition, I spent the fall completing master naturalist training through the state of Maryland. For 12 weeks every Monday, I took 6.5 hours of training at a local nature center on topics ranging from tree identification, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians to interpretation, stream ecology, and humans’ effect on the environment. I’ll be an intern for the next year and then graduate to certified master naturalist, putting my training to use volunteering at the nature center and working on local environmental issues.

So there’s all that, but truth be told, there’s another reason I haven’t been writing on this blog. In July I found out I was pregnant again, and I’ve honestly been afraid to write about it, or even to tell many people, for fear of jinxing it. I’m a rational, scientific-minded person and I know it’s ridiculous to believe in jinxes. But just like those commercials from the 80s (or was it the 90s?), this is your brain on pregnancy loss. Scrambled and fried with heaping helpings of paranoia, fear, and anxiety.

I’m currently 27 weeks and 1 day, and it’s another baby boy. I’ll write more in a future post about how the pregnancy has been going (in a nutshell, fine, with the exception of my mental state). In the meantime I’ve been jotting down a few of the things that have happened over the last several months and wanted to share them here.

When we found out about our miscarriage in April, the OB who delivered the news was not unsympathetic, but she was also very matter of fact. And the office seemed to immediately kick into a precisely programmed, finely tuned sequence of paperwork and scheduling and instructions. It wasn’t that they didn’t care at all, but everything just seemed so … routine. And miscarriages are way more common than stillbirth, so that’s understandable to some degree, but miscarriages are still a big deal when they are happening to you. And it doesn’t excuse insensitive behavior. At the hospital, the anesthesiologist commented on our private room, as if we had scored some sort of sweet deal. Then he remarked on how nice the weather was and that he couldn’t wait to get home so he could go outside. This was right after the nurse had forced me to state that the reason I was in the hospital was for a D&C following a “missed abortion.”

In the weeks to follow, we received far fewer cards, phone calls, and messages of support from family and friends than we did following Luke’s death. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since joining this sad club of women who have lost babies, it’s that people seem to have far less empathy for those who’ve had miscarriages. Apparently it’s much easier to empathize with someone who’s had bad luck versus bad DNA.

With this pregnancy, I was at the dentist a few months ago and after I told them I was pregnant, the inevitable question came up of how many children I have. Since it’s a medical office I felt I had to give full disclosure, so I stated that my daughter is 3 and my son was stillborn at 37 weeks. This was the first time I had seen this dentist, and right away I didn’t much care for him anyway. He had perfect hair and seemed like just another 40-something, white male toolbag. This impression was confirmed by his response to my disclosure, in which he, without missing a beat, replied, “Aww, that’s too bad,” and then in the next breath, “I’m sure she’ll love the baby. My kids are 5 and 2 and they’re best friends.” Shut up, asshole. Take your perfectly spaced kids and go f yourself. My daughter can’t be best friends with my firstborn son. Because he’s dead.

When I was interviewing to get into the aforementioned master naturalist training, one of the questions was to describe a time where something didn’t go as expected and how I handled it. All I could think was, “Well, I was pregnant, and the pregnancy had supposedly been going fine, and I was three weeks away from my due date, and then my baby died. How did I handle it? I spent the next year-plus consumed by grief and anger and anxiety. So, I guess I handled it pretty shittily.” I can’t remember what answer I gave instead.

On a related note, I was eating lunch with some of the other students in the training program one day when this annoyingly self-absorbed 20-year-old decided to embark on an elaborate retelling of how he was once called to substitute in an intramural college soccer game and had to dash across campus to catch the bus. He attends Cornell and, in true Andy Bernard fashion, is always reminding us of that fact, and as he told the story I got the sense that this close call with the stupid soccer bus just might have been the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to him. There was more than one person at the table, so I was able to sneak away without being rude, stuffing down the urge to mutter, “Man, that’s soooo rough. There was this one time I had to check into the hospital to deliver a dead baby. That tooootally sucked.”

Luke’s first birthday in August fell on a Sunday. We visited him at the cemetery and added a few items to his box. We brought cupcakes, mostly for Zoe’s sake, and read a few books. Because I’ve lived and breathed his loss every day since he died, it honestly didn’t feel that much different than every other day. It just felt like a pathetic little commemoration, and I wish we could have done more to honor him.

More than a year after Luke’s loss, most of the people in our lives have moved on. Only a few hardcore carers still ask us how we are doing. Hardly anyone included his name on Christmas cards, which were full of cheery messages that failed to acknowledge how shitty and sad we might be feeling given the huge hole in our family where a 1-year-old boy should be.

After a year of needling our hospital to acquire a Cuddle Cot so families experiencing perinatal loss can spend more time with their babies, the hospital finally installed one. They ended up paying for it so we didn’t have to conduct any fundraisers, which was great on the one hand, but on the other hand, the other loss moms and I who’d been working on this weren’t really able to participate much in the endeavor in a way that would have allowed us to commemorate our children. The hospital didn’t even coordinate the cot into their annual perinatal loss ceremony for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month—at which they released balloons, which I hate, and despite my asking them not to, so I didn’t/couldn’t even attend. Maybe next year I’ll organize a ceremony of my own.

We recently attended a birthday party for one of Zoe’s classmates. It was at one of those indoor bouncehouses where the kids run around like maniacs for an hour or two, then retreat to the party room and eventually collapse into a sugar coma. In the waiting area before we went back to one of the rooms, an old codger walked up to Zoe and one of her little friends. I think he thought they were sisters or something. But for some reason he asked Zoe, “And where’s your brother?” Zoe didn’t know how to respond, and in my mind, I told him, “In the f’in ground. Now shut the f up and go away.” Why do so many old people lack filters and common sense?

Until next time …

Rise up

You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry-go-round
And you can’t find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains

And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
And I’ll rise up
High like the waves
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
For you [4x]

When the silence isn’t quiet
And it feels like it’s getting hard to breathe
And I know you feel like dying
But I promise we’ll take the world to its feet
And move mountains
Bring it to its feet
And move mountains
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
For you [4x]

All we need, all we need is hope
And for that we have each other
And for that we have each other
We will rise
We will rise
We’ll rise, oh oh
We’ll rise

I’ll rise up
Rise like the day
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I will rise a thousand times again
And we’ll rise up
High like the waves
We’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
We’ll rise up
And we’ll do it a thousand times again
For you oh oh oh oh oh [3x]

—Andra Day

Now we lay them down to sleep

Although we we enter Luke’s room every day to read Zoe bedtime stories, since the rocking chair is located there, in many ways it’s a museum, largely untouched since he died, frozen in almost exactly the same state it was in the days and weeks before our world changed forever.

His name still hangs on the door, essentially the way I drew it and the accompanying graphics in the week or so before his death, though I’d left the space for his middle name blank; Zack and I wouldn’t decide on that until we were at the hospital. (I also obviously added the quotes about stillbirth later.) Meanwhile, to this day, the board containing our goals for the week broadcasts a to-do list for parents who thought they were about to have a living child: Finish hanging things in the nursery, pack the suitcase with the going-home outfit for the baby, get the breast pumps together.

We’d added decals to the walls and space images from an old calendar to his closet doors. An “It’s a boy!” balloon from a baby shower (now deflated) hung on the closet to welcome his arrival.

We assembled the crib, which later became a dumping ground for all the boxes and detritus I simply don’t have the energy or desire to do anything with. It also holds the blanket we wrapped him in at the hospital, colored with precious drops of his blood.

We dragged up the baby swing from the basement. My mom had sent all the clothes Luke would need for the first six months of his life. I’d washed, folded, and sorted them all, and set aside extras.

While I’ve been able to look at the rest of the things, the clothes for me were the most heartbreaking. Partly because they mostly came from my mom, and signified her love for her yet-to-be-born grandson, but also because dressing a newborn baby is one of the few ways you have to build a bond in those early days of nonstop feeding, crying, and diaper changes. The clothes represented a connection I would never have with Luke, especially since I didn’t even think to take any of them to the hospital. He was naked and bare beneath his blankets, and I never got the chance to even once dress him.

So in the past nine months, I haven’t been able to bring myself to even open the drawers. That changed recently when a fellow baby loss mom, Joan, started collecting pajamas to donate to bereaved parents and their children at her local hospital in Maine. I feel a special connection to Joan because her daughter, Maeve, was lost late in her pregnancy to villitis of unknown etiology, a very similar condition to Luke’s in which Joan’s immune system attacked the placenta, resulting in large, fatal clots.

So today, for the first time, I was able to look through all of the clothes and pick out a few to send to Joan. While I did shed tears, I also felt light come into my heart knowing the purpose for which the clothes will be used.

Here is the text of the notes I included (I also enclosed the lyrics to Pink’s “Beam Me Up”):

To my friends in grief,
     How I wish that you did not have to be opening this card, but I hope that this sleep set brings you a small measure of comfort, knowing the love and intention with which it was carefully packed. It would have been one of my son’s first pair of pajamas—a gift from his doting grandma—but he was born still on Aug. 21, 2015, just three weeks shy of his due date, following a seemingly normal pregnancy. It has been crushing for me these past nine months to look at his clothes and know that he will never wear them. But it brings light to my heart knowing that this sleep set will be used to protect and warm one of his fellow angels. It is my greatest dream and desire that, wherever they are now, they have found each other and are playing together with much love and happiness somewhere on the other side of the rainbow.
     You are likely still in shock from your loss, and a part of you will always be. This sorrow will change you forever. You will never be able to live in or view this world in the same way again. The despair, anger, and regret at times will seem Iike they could swallow you whole. But I am here to tell you that although you will never be done grieving and this wound will always remain, it is possible to find a way forward, and times of laughter and happiness will come again. And you will find a way to still be a parent to your child, by incorporating them into a special place in your family life. You will always, always hold your precious baby in your heart, and nothing can ever change that.
      I am wishing you moments of light and love, and I am here for you any time you need it.

 

I don’t know if I will ever be able to use the clothes to someday dress a living baby. In the meantime, I have plans for a few more of them. And I plan to leave the nursery the way it is, at least for now. Although it’s a painful monument to our now-destroyed innocence, it also one of the few things that connects me to Luke. And that I’ll hold onto for as long as I can.

P.S. If you would like to participate in Joan’s pajama project, email me at lukesmom0821@gmail.com and I’ll hook you up.

Taking off my grief glasses

We went to see Star Wars the day after it opened. Although of course it was a momentous day for geekdom, for me the evening packed a hefty dose of sadness and wistfulness, as too many things do these days. Zack’s boss had bought out the theater way back in March, when we were blissfully, naively just a few months pregnant. At the time I was a little unsure whether I should go, since Luke would have been just 3 months old. But Zack talked me into it, and so all spring and all summer I’d been thinking that it would be the first time we would leave Luke with a babysitter. Well, of course it didn’t happen that way. And so it was hard for me to fully enjoy what should have been a night of pure entertainment.

There was a trigger in the movie as well (spoilers): When Han says to Leia, “We lost our son forever.” Yeah. Us too.

Another movie we matched recently, Mad Max, contained an even more devastating trigger. It’s graphic and I won’t describe it here, but suffice it to say that it involves an infant.

We first saw the movie in the theater back in May in Chicago, on our babymoon. I was about five months pregnant and I’m pretty sure that when the scene came on, I must have squeezed Zack’s hand. I remember thinking, Thank goodness that will never happen to me. As we watched the movie this time around, remembering my naivete back then made the trigger scene doubly devastating.

These days, the triggers seem to be more and more prolific, and now I’m wondering if they will crest and eventually diminish. I’m hoping so, because it’s hard to navigate this planet without being walloped by a big, unpleasant reminder of tragedy at every turn.

I’ve also been trying to train myself to not experience these moments as triggers, but to reassociate them with whatever they were linked to before Luke’s death. An episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, included a very brief reenactment of birth and a baby’s first cry. Of course I immediately thought how my baby never had that cry—but then I tried to remind myself that Zoe cried, and I cried, and Zack cried, and that live birth is completely normal and something that happens all the time, and the vast majority of people associate the scene with wonder and joy. I don’t think I really succeeded in reframing the moment, but I’m trying, at least.

My need to reframe also came into play a few weeks ago when I was in the office at Zoe’s day care picking up some paperwork, and a heavily pregnant teacher walked in. The assistant director said something like, “I wish you weren’t having this baby, like, right now.” It felt like a punch in the gut because I would have given anything to have my baby. (It also seemed insensitive that she said it in front of me; “I wish you weren’t having this baby” doesn’t seem like something you should say when a stillbirth mom is nearby.) But then I tried to remind myself that she wasn’t being serious (I think she said it because they’re down staff and had the holidays coming up) and people make jokes about pregnancy all the time, because most pregnancies turn out normal and result in live births. All the time, after all, is what makes normal normal.

Just yesterday, I saw that a Facebook friend had posted something about her dog’s death. I’m not one of those stillbirth moms who begrudge people who compare a baby’s death to a pet’s death; as an animal advocate and someone who still thinks every day of the dog she lost to cancer three years ago, I totally get it. For some people, pets are like children and their loss is devastating. That’s fine, and of course it was fine for this Facebook friend to post about her dog. But then I saw the number of likes and comments she received, and it was way more than what I received when I first posted about Luke’s death. Like maybe double. And that was a trigger for me to think about how many more people are remembering and honoring this dog than my son. But then I had to stop and remind myself that it’s just the nature of Facebook and how things play out in that fishbowl/popularity contest; it’s not a true reflection of human nature (which is why I try to stay away from it as much as possible).

Then there’s the pandas. One day after I delivered my dead baby, Mei Xiang, the giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., gave birth to twins. The Internet lost its mind, of course, and I wanted to vomit when I saw the front page of the Washington Post that day. One of the babies died shortly after birth. It seemed like people were sad about that for all of like two seconds and then it was just fawning and photos of pandas for days on end.

The whole thing pissed me off for a few reasons. 1) Mei Xiang got to have her baby. 2) The world cares more about her live baby than my dead baby. 3) No one remembers the dead panda baby.

Honestly, it still pisses me off to think about it. So I try to remember that the sole, simple reason people are acting so batshit crazy is that pandas are freakin’ adorable, and that’s all that it comes down to. It’s nothing personal; the world doesn’t even know about my dead baby. And Mei Xiang lost a baby, too, and her species is under siege in the wild, and I should make some room for compassion in my heart.

Sometimes, it’s good to have your grief glasses on, though; it can awaken your empathy and spark a deeper perspective. At Mass on Christmas Day, we sat near the front, close to the musicians. As the cantor approached the mic at the start of Mass, she raised her hands, announced, “Today is Christmas”—and started to cry. It was just a brief moment; she quickly composed herself and continued the announcement. But in that instant, I recognized her as a sister in grief. I don’t know who she lost—a spouse, child, parent, sibling—or how recently, but I know the loss was deeply felt. I also saw a few women wearing mourning veils, and several people sitting alone, and thought about who they would be missing at the table later that day. With my perspective of Christmas already irrevocably altered—and songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” bringing incalculable pain—their quiet suffering changed it again, like a kaleidoscope of sorrow.

***

I posted recently about a vision of Luke I experienced during an acupuncture session. Shortly after, I had a second vision in which Luke, Zack, Zoe, and I were sledding and playing in the snow in cloudy purple moonlight. Though I don’t know if the visions were “real” or not, I can say that they brought a lot of comfort.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was sitting with Zoe on a park bench at a local playground. She’d just woken up from a nap and was grumpy and just wanted to be held, so I wrapped her up a blanket and rocked her and sang to her. When I closed my eyes, I felt like he was there too. I can’t really describe it, but I felt his presence. It was the first “waking” moment I felt like I had both of my children with me. I hope there are more to come.

Vision

Some people are probably going to find this post a bit … out there. If you don’t believe in visions, heaven, the afterlife, etc., you might want to skip it.

I have heard of or read about many grieving people saying their loved ones visit them in dreams and it brings them great comfort. I haven’t experienced that—in fact for weeks, I don’t think I had any dreams at all—and so I’ve been kind of pissed off and bitter about it.

Separately, I’ve been going to acupuncture for a few months. It’s something I always wanted to try, and my grief counselor suggested it. At first I went twice a week and now I go every other week. I talk to the acupuncturist about what’s going on and what emotional state I would like to move toward, she selects points to put the needles in, and then I lie on the table for a really long time.

The first session walloped me. The needles allow energy to flow and, just like the acupuncturist warned might happen at first, that initial treatment seemed to dislodge a hell of a lot of negative emotions. I felt overwhelmingly sad and hopeless for several days. But the energy kept flowing, and eventually it lifted.

The best way I can describe the sessions is that they “dislodge” emotions that are stuck, and when I’m lying on the table I can often physically feel them move up and out. I usually feel lighter when I walk out the door or later the same day. It’s a bit insane and I don’t pretend to understand it, but it seems to be helping, so I keep doing it.

This session was a bit different from normal. Beforehand, we talked about some uncertainty I’ve been dealing with in my professional life, how some of the depression seems to have returned even though there’s been no clear trigger, and how I try to ignore those feelings and find things to distract me so they don’t overtake my life. She said that wasn’t healthy and suggested that instead of ignoring the feelings, I find some way to acknowledge them, through a saying or some other sort of ritual, and then move on. We talked for a bit and then she put the needles in and left.

Almost as soon as she closed the door, sadness overwhelmed me and I started crying. And then I started having a vision.

I could see a little boy of about 5 years old standing in a field surrounded by fog. He seemed far away at first. But eventually, in my vision, I was able to go up to this little boy. I couldn’t really see his face, but I hugged and kissed him. Then he said, “I love you, Mommy.” My heart burst, the tears flowed, and I whispered, “I love you, too.”

This part of the vision kind of faded in and out for a bit; it always returned to the little boy standing by himself, enshrouded in fog. But then, after a while, I was beside a stream in a gorge. He was at my side, but I couldn’t see him. Then I started seeing other streams, and some lakes. Some I recognized and some I didn’t. I can’t explain it, but I felt like he was showing these places to me.

Then we were hovering above the earth. I could clearly see the world turning below me, the cloud cover and the blue oceans. I had an impending sense of doom and devastation—and the strong feeling that he was telling me my future, my purpose, lies in helping to prevent the human race from destroying itself and all other species on the planet. He was urgent, and sad, and he wanted me to help.

We talked about God and heaven. I got a vague sense of who else is with him. He said, “You don’t have to be sad, Mom. I’m OK.”

Then he said, “God speaks to those he believes can make a difference. It’s up to them whether they choose to listen.” I thought about Syria, the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, and the turmoil in the Middle East. He said, “That’s a battle for others to fight; that’s not your cause.”

Eventually, the vision faded. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think I was controlling it; I felt like I was just receiving the thoughts and images. At one point early on in the vision, I did try to control it; I tried to visualize walking through a field of tall autumn grass with Luke, Zack, and Zoe. But those images kept being replaced by the little boy standing in the fog.

I’m overwhelmed by this and don’t yet know what to make of it; my first priority was to get it down on paper so that I would remember. I do know that the vision brings me a great deal of peace and a new way to connect with Luke, whether real or imagined. I’m not sure it makes a difference which.

Triggers

When someone becomes a bereaved person, at some point in the grieving process they start to encounter what are known as triggers: statements, moments, or events that recall the traumatic event, remind the person of what they lost, and unleash the pain all over again.

Think of the widow who has lost her lifelong husband to cancer or heart disease. Upon hearing of relatives’ or friends’ 50th wedding anniversary, happiness for the couple in question might be overshadowed by her own sense of loss—the knowledge that, if her husband had lived, she too would have reached such a milestone.

A friend who lost her dad in her early 20s speaks of triggers at other people’s weddings: the bride being walked down the aisle, the daddy-daughter dance. She has to leave the room to compose herself.

For baby loss moms, it’s almost impossible to avoid triggers. Social media, the local park, TV, and the supermarket are full of them. Baby showers and birth announcements can trigger a tidal wave of emotions, and the bereaved parent may wish to withdraw herself from the celebration. Many baby loss moms struggle with witnessing milestones and life events of other children born around the same time their child died: speaking their first word, taking their first step, attending their first day of kindergarten. The moms see a ghost in all those posts and photos.

These situations can be uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t make bereaved parents into pariahs. Instead, I offer these suggestions.

  1. Ask the bereaved parents what ground rules for communication they would prefer. If you are expecting a baby or have a newborn, understand that the bereaved parent may wish to avoid discussing the situation with you. Pregnant moms in particular should be careful to avoid complaining about pregnancy or treating it casually. These feelings may dissipate over time or they may last a lifetime.
  2. If you are a parent, be extremely sensitive when discussing living children. Even casual remarks about something as innocent as baby clothing could trigger a sudden wave of wistfulness or remorse in the grieving mother or father.
  3. Reach out to bereaved parents when other family members or mutual friends are celebrating a life event. The parents know and understand that life goes on despite their loss, and usually they want to be happy for the person in question, but it can be difficult to feel anything but sad and alone, particularly when they see the person being inundated with congratulations when all they received were condolences. A simple note to say, “I heard about xx and just wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you today” can go a long way. I wish my husband’s co-workers had done this in the early days whenever one of his colleagues discussed his newborn, born alive at around the same time Luke was born still. If you are the person experiencing the life event, I can assure you that the thoughtful note will mean that much more to the bereaved person and may actually help in the healing process.

As an example of the latter, a coworker of mine sent an incredibly thoughtful note on Halloween saying she was thinking of me in knowing how kid-centered the holiday is. It lifted my spirits and help ease a sense of loneliness that has been settling in.

These suggestions require empathy: being able to project yourself into the thoughts and emotions of the bereaved person. I understand that this will bring some people uncomfortably close to thoughts of death and mortality that they would prefer to avoid. However, for those who have asked what they can do to help and who truly mean it, know that for the bereaved it’s not the casseroles and the flowers and the gift cards that carry lasting meaning, but rather the simple acts of kindness and reaching out that take only a few moments to execute but reverberate forever.