Last week, my friend lost her baby girl at 20 weeks. Another rare complication. Another week of fear and hope and discussions with doctors and ultimately nothing that could be done to save her.
When she told me, I wanted to get on a plane to hold her hand and sit through what is so impossibly hard to endure, like breathing anything but oxygen. I still will the moment she says the word. So I sent what I could: words of support and solidarity and suggestions on how to relieve her milk coming in. I let her know she and her partner are not alone while respecting how unique these loss journeys are because our babies are. I relived a lot of our own week losing Lorenzo. I realized even I can do little to help them through what they have to walk through now without their first child.
We have known each other for nine years, which means we met in San Francisco when our responsibilities were mainly to do our jobs well and pay our rent and be there for one another through the dramas and delights of our mid-twenties. It means we have known each other longer than we’ve known our partners. We met at a time when getting pregnant would have been very unplanned. Instead, we danced through Golden Gate Park and cruised on the Bay and dressed up for Halloween and celebrated birthdays with flourish and lived the experiences that became the stories we reminisce about and spent entire weekends in the company of our friends. Our friends, on a certain level, were everything.
She told me she was pregnant in person. I got to hug her and, in that way, embrace her baby. I am grateful for that as I am devastated and irate over the unfairness of this. That such good people should have to lose. That innocence has been swept away. Not gone if I am to believe what I do about energy: that it does not disappear, that it recycles in some way and maybe even returns.
There is so much more I want to tell her, to tell anybody right after they lose:
1. This is the hardest part. The hardest part may last a long time. Some aspects of it last forever.
2. Your baby’s life (however long) and loss (endless now) are SIGNIFICANT EVENTS, to borrow a term from my grief guidepost, Tara May. They deserve as much care and compassion as any life, as any loss. But our culture isn’t well-equipped at providing that. As I’ve read before, our language defines someone who loses a parent or a spouse, but not someone who loses a child. There is no word for that, so defining our experience of it is up to us.
3. Get a dog or some creature to love and nurture. A dog, especially, needs to be walked outside, which will also help. If you don’t have other children, do this as soon as possible. Animals don’t need words to show their love and that’s a good lesson for all of us.
4. Listen to music you have loved for a long time. It will both sound familiar and mean something new.
5. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be “on” for others or prove you are “OK” when you are not. You are not responsible for making others feel comfortable in your grief.
6. Accept help if you can. A meal at your doorstep. When you are ready for more, someone to sit and listen.
7. And when you are ready to talk, find someone who knows something of your experience firsthand. You won’t have to explain so much about how you are feeling. There won’t be “everything happens for a reason” or “time heals” or “at least you can get pregnant.” As Brené Brown says in this incredible video on empathy, “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least.'” We humans are as limited as we are compassionate. While limitations don’t mean people don’t care, they can still hurt.
8. Read other stories. Essays, books, articles. Especially when you are feeling alone because they can remind you that you have company. A terrible kind of company, but one of the deepest sources of connections I have experienced on this earth. They can also help when you feel triggered by the world going on as is when yours has changed so profoundly. Oh yeah, triggers. They are different for all of us and hard to define. They aren’t straightforward reminders of your loss. I, for one, love when others talk with me about Lorenzo, tell me they thought about him for this reason or that, or ask how my grief is doing. Triggers are something else. The pregnant woman you meet who complains about her morning sickness. The family of three or four you see at the park while you’re walking your dog. The little boy with blond hair because you are pretty convinced his hair was blond, too. The first time someone you know delivers a baby girl. Go easy on yourself when they come. They don’t mean you aren’t happy for them and grateful their children are here safely. They just mean something sharp has gone off inside, a little churning of what could have been, a haunting wish that it had all gone differently.
9. Consider it a good day if you bathe and eat and get some fresh air. It can still be an awful day even if you do those things. It can still be a good day if you don’t.
10. When you are ready, create rituals. They lead to a sense of meaning. Your baby’s name on a stone thrown in the ocean, even if you are the only one who knew her name. A candle lit at a certain time. A poem written and revised for months. A memory book worked on during the holidays (the holidays, when they come, may be very hard). A symbol found…. a heart, a butterfly, a fallen leaf… whatever it is that represents your baby. They become little bread crumbs to follow, stones to step upon as you find your way across.
I’ll stop there for now. When you need more, I am here. I love you and your baby so very much.