The holidays are upon us and this presents challenges for families coping with baby loss. For the bereaved, the overt and unremitting emphasis on family and celebration may be both stifling and exhausting. Many holiday traditions represent light and birth, and for a family coping with pregnancy or infant loss, the ironies and companion absences can be too stark to bear easily. On the flip side, it is understandably difficult for caring friends and family to know how to best approach the painful and taboo subject of perinatal loss in the context of the joy-on-overdrive-holidays.
My second son was stillborn in December 2005. At that time, I had a 2-year- old son. I remember one evening I sat staring, devastated, into a crackling fire and ruminated about my baby's cremation. Next to me, my 2-year old squealed, delighted in the discovery of his face reflected back in a glass ornament as notes from Judy Garland's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" hung in the air. It was snowing. The distances I was required to travel between true joy and abject despair at each moment during that time were so vast, that if it is the case that I am still sane, I am left to wonder how that it so.
At Christmas dinner several days later, I stood near a fire pushing food around my plate as my extended family gathered to celebrate peace and joy. No one there attempted to talk to me about my loss. This was not, I know, for lack of love. In fact, it was because of love -- they did not want to remind me of my loss. They wanted so much for me to be happy, but negotiating this impossibility was complicated and awkward.
It is this sort of well-intended silence that feeds a self-imposed gag order around loss. This can make the baby-bereaved feel especially alone and adrift in a season of light that emphasizes children, miracles and family. In addition, many family gatherings have representatives from generations wherein discussion of death and baby loss is simply not permitted.
There are many responses to baby and child loss. Take care to remember that there is no "right" or one-size-fits-all response. However, reaching out to people is very often far more appreciated than is immediately apparent. Even if a couple prefers to be private in their remembrance, they will appreciate your consideration in asking. Once a dialogue is opened, you can trust yourself to follow the lead and wishes of the parents in question, and even allow responses to change as time goes on. For those who surround the bereaved, it may be difficult to know just how to acknowledge loss as experienced by loved one(s). Here are a few suggestions:
1. DO offer to create an annual family ritual. Light a candle in memory, and in support of the bereaved parents. If you already light candles in ritual, ask to include the baby and the bereaved parents.
2. DO be aware of dynamics in family/friend relationships. For example, if there is a baby at a holiday gathering, consider gently letting the bereaved know that you are thinking of her her/him. If your sister-in-law had a loss and you have a baby, consider ways to let her know that you wish that things were different and that you want to help her.
3. DO consider making a memorial donation in the name of the baby to a charity important to the family, or one that supports children in need. If the baby was named, DO use the name of the baby. The use of a name may be deeply validating to a family coping with loss.
4. DO ask about fathers' experience of loss. This loss is even less recognized than the experience of the mother. Let the father know that you recognize that the loss is his as well, and ask how you can support him.
5. DO engage in discussion about loss. Many bereaved parents derive strength and love from an acknowledgement of their pain. In many instances, the memory of loss may stay with parents for a lifetime. It is both ironic and understandable that it is precisely this validation of pain that draws the bereaved closer, cinching the fabric of complex and encompassing familial love as it lifts a veil of silence.