The Unitentional Shaming of Child Loss Parents

PALS_LH_Shame“I’ve kept her alive this far,” I joked to work colleagues around the snacks in the break room, 38-weeks pregnant with swollen feet and belly. It was an innocent joke, or so I thought. Little did I know she would be dead before she was to be born just two weeks later.

In the weeks that followed her death guilt and shame consumed me. Memories of that conversation haunted me. Magical thinking ran through my mind. Had I  “jinxed” her life by so flippantly uttering those words? Thoughts of, “Could I have saved her? Did I do something wrong?” tumbled through my mind, day in and day out.

The answer is NO. No, I did not do something that caused her death. No, I could not have saved her. However, it seems that society often inadvertently tries to convince me otherwise.

When people find out my daughter died, questions naturally arise. It’s been four years of these curious and wildly inappropriate questions. I know how to answer them now. I am no longer totally offended by them. But, to the newly bereaved, these remarks hurt and, often times, unintentionally shame the parent who has lost a child.

The conversations usually goes something like this:

Me: “My baby died.”

Them: “There must have been something wrong with her.”  

Me: “Um. Nope. Total fluke. Very rare according to my doctors.”

Them: “Well, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Me: “Hmm?” with a sarcastic head tilt and a quizzical squinty-eye look that says, “Really?”

Them: “God needed another angel.”

Me: *Sigh* along with a little vomit in my mouth that I swallow.

If you can’t tell, these comments frustrate me because other people, specifically non-loss parents, are so afraid of catching the “child loss disease” that apparently I now carry, that they can’t offer out words of compassion and comfort. Instead, the bereaved parent is often met with invalidation and inadvertent shaming, just so that a parent of a living child can feel better about the safety of her child.

I see this need for non-loss parents to rationalize the death of other people’s children frequently in new mom groups. I even see it in myself when thinking about my living children. As a mom again for a third time, with my second subsequent child currently three month’s old, I’m naturally nervous about SIDS. All new parents are. When we hear a story about a baby who died in his first year of life, the rationalization of a poor bereaved parent’s child’s death begins with other new and nervous parents.

It goes something like this:

“Well, it wasn’t a certified day care, that’s why it happened.”

“The baby was on her belly when she died.”

“Well, you know, they were young parents.”

All of these comments are just lies parents tell themselves to ease their own worry, and doing so shames loss parents, not purposefully, but it still shames us all the same.

When I think these thoughts, because it’s natural to do, I stop myself before they come out of my mouth. I realize that these thoughts are there to do one thing and one thing only: they protect me from feeling uncomfortable with the fact that life is unpredictable, and I cannot control everything when it comes to keeping my kids safe and alive.

When we say these thoughts, which we shouldn’t, we assign blame and shame to already hurting parents. We inadvertently assume with these remarks that other parents didn’t do EVERYTHING in their power to keep their children safe. We do this, as parents of living children, so we can put distance between “us” and “them”. This only benefits the non-loss parent in calming their own fears while ignoring how they are harming the already hurting parents.

This morning I got the mail and noticed my monthly edition of Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine had arrived. As I casually flipped through the magazine at lunch, I noticed a article titled, “How to Keep Your Baby Alive: It’s Probably a lot Easier Than You Think.”

*Sigh*

Here. We. Go. Again!

I was unbelievably disappointed. Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine featured me and my pregnancy after loss journey as I contributed as one of their online Knocked Up Bloggers. And yet, in their September 2016 issue, they played on the fears of every new parent with an article title that–albeit unintentionally–shames parents who have had a child who died.  

I cannot say this enough: loss parents have enough of a burden to bare without the insensitivity of society reminding us in everyday, subtle ways that we didn’t do everything possible to protect our babies! Messages like the one in this magazine that reads, “keeping a baby alive is probably a lot easier than you think” tell a bereaved parent that they did something wrong.

I’m here to tell you the sad, sad, truth. Are you ready for it?

Babies and children can and do die.

That’s why it’s a legitimate, maybe not statistically rational but legit fear of new parents. The article title, “How to Keep Your Baby Alive: It’s Probably a lot Easier Than You Think,” itself perpetuates stigma around child death. This adds stress to any parent who already worries postpartum about their baby dying. This fear is multiplied for a mom who is experiencing postpartum anxiety or depression. Adding more unneeded worry to moms and dads, no matter if they have had a child die previously or not, is unconscionable.

As a mom, I have birthed a stillborn baby, had postpartum anxiety with my first subsequent child, and am now parenting my second subsequent child who is three months old. An article like this is a backhanded slap in the face. It plays on my biggest fear, invalidates my greatest losses, and all the while perpetuates the stigmatization of parents who have lost a child. It also plays on the fragile and vulnerable emotions of new parents like myself, whether or not they are parenting after loss.

Bereaved parents need less passive aggressive, shame-based self-soothing of society’s own fears and more self-reflection and compassion as the cultural norm for supporting and understanding parents who have experienced the death of a child.

So, in the future, if you run into a young, naive mom like I was pre-child death who says, “Well, I’ve kept her alive this far,” say, “Yes. Yes, you have. And that is hard, hard work and NOTHING to joke about.”    

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By | 2016-10-13T17:07:44+00:00 August 24th, 2016|Emotional Health, Parenting After Loss, Reader Favorites|16 Comments

About the Author:

Lindsey Henke
Lindsey Henke is the founder and Executive Director of Pregnancy After Loss Support, writer, clinical social worker, wife, and most importantly a mother to two beautiful daughters and one sweet-cheeked baby boy. Tragically, her oldest daughter, Nora was stillborn after a healthy full-term pregnancy in December of 2012. Since then, she has turned to writing on her blog, Still Breathing. Lindsey was featured as Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine’s Knocked Up Blogger during her pregnancy with her second daughter, Zoe, who was born healthy and alive in March of 2014. Her writing about life after loss has been featured on Still Standing Magazine, Listen to Your Mother, Scary Mommy, Healthline, Postpartum Progress, and The New York Times. Lindsey can be reached by email.

16 Comments

  1. Brittanie Cannady August 25, 2016 at 10:20 am - Reply

    After struggling with hyperemesis for 38 weeks with my first, I said to a friend “I almost don’t care about getting a baby, I just don’t want to throw up anymore.” Two days later we confirmed via ultrasound that her heart had stopped beating. Those words haunt me. She would have turned 10 in may, and has four rainbow siblings, bit those words still haunt me. I hate comments like that article.

  2. Ann Darrah Postpartum Doula August 25, 2016 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    This needed to be said, Lindsey! I know it must have been difficult to spell it out for the rest of the world, but that is the only way to bring light and wisdom to this heartbreaking topic. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Jamie August 25, 2016 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    Brought tears to my eyes. I’ve encountered so much of this myself. I’ve lost one baby to SIDS and had a miscarriage. It really hurts when people try and justify their deaths or to try and make me feel better by startng a sentence with the words “at least…”.

  4. Colleen Willisch August 26, 2016 at 1:23 am - Reply

    I’m so sorry to all loss parents. Prayers for you.

  5. Natalie August 26, 2016 at 2:57 am - Reply

    I haven’t suffered a loss like you but a friend did and I am so glad you wrote this article. I am sure that I am guilty of making 1 of the statements at some point, and it definitely wasn’t meant maliciously, but it really helps to know what effect these throw away comments can have. You’re such a strong lady xx

  6. Andrea August 26, 2016 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    This is not exactly the same, but I feel like I jinxed my son who died this May- I said to 2 of my girlfriends after we each had had our second round of kids, “How lucky are we to have had 6 beautiful, healthy children!” I got pregnant 4 years later and my baby was diagnosed with down syndrome and then was stillborn at 35 weeks. This haunts me too.

  7. Laura August 30, 2016 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    I’m very sorry for your loss. My daughter was stillborn in December 2014. Almost two years of insensitive comments later, I’m finally at a place where I can question the comments, not to make the speaker feel badly, but to open their eyes to how inadvertently hurtful their remarks are. My heart goes out to you.

  8. Carrie August 30, 2016 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    I had a similar experience. My boy used to kick me all day every day. Jokingly I used to say ‘he’d better sleep when he gets here!’. He died at 36 weeks. The guilt I feel for saying those words is terrible. Sorry for your loss x

  9. Alexandra Camm-Wheeler August 31, 2016 at 7:21 am - Reply

    Thank you! Our son died at 8 weeks old, 6 years ago, to SIDS. We lost a lot of friends. People didn’t want to be around us. It was if they thought they would catch “it”. As parents that have experienced child loss, we need to spread the word. We should not be shamed or forced to live in darkness in fear of hurting or scaring others. We have feelings as well. We are going through the most difficult thing any parent can go through and we deserve support!

  10. Melissa Mead September 3, 2016 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    The usual meme’s don’t really bother me. People don’t say or write things to intentionally be mean and they don’t think in the way that a bereaved parent does. But this is one particular saying that really does upset me. The one thing I couldn’t do was keep my William alive and I hate it when people use the phrase so flippantly. This article is very well written. X

  11. Stephanie September 5, 2016 at 11:08 pm - Reply

    Hi. My name is Stephanie Ford my son Elijah Luke Ford had Trisomy 18 he lived for 34 days. My husband and I found out very early in the pregnancy that our son had Trisomy 18 if it was not for our faith and Jesus we would have never have made it through the hardest time in our life and marriage. We had to fight for our sons right to be born to live and to be treated. After our son passed in our grieving time we had people that judged us stop talking to us. We even had people that told us that they were praying for our baby to die because they thought he was suffering but he wasn’t suffering he never suffered. Let me Witness in our Darkest Hour Jesus never left us Jesus never judged us every emotion and every feeling that we went through Jesus understood and he loved us and he comfort me and my husband and gave us peace Beyond understanding. Through our pain and our suffering we were the closest to Jesus that we ever were we could literally feel and know that his presence was there and he was the fastest pain reliever I have ever taken. Elijah Luke Ford his story and more information is on Trisomy 18 Foundation website. My sisters and I are putting together a 5k in memory of Elijah Luke Ford supporting Trisomy 18.

  12. Kristen September 15, 2016 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    I’m currently pregnant after an early loss. It’s hard. I’m so scared to go to my first ultrasound, yet in can’t wait for it to be here.

    I had a thought the other day after a particularly bad fight with my husband, stressed relationship issues in general, and after finding out bills are going up that maybe it’s not so great to be pregnant right now.

    If there is no heartbeat I will hate myself for that thought.

    And I’ve been victim to the “there was obviously something wrong” with it comments. Nope. Nothing wrong with it. I understand it was to try to get me to not grieve over something that “wasn’t going to happen anyway,” but it didn’t help. Thru didn’t know it would have. It was a problem with me. It’s fixed now, but it could have been fixed if doctors listened sooner…

    Ugh!! It’s so sad and terrifying.

  13. Robin September 19, 2016 at 10:58 pm - Reply

    I’m very sorry for all of your losses. I’m not a parent, and I can’t imagine the heartbreak you all have felt. What is WRONG with people that they make shaming comments? I’ve had a relative and a friend who have miscarried, and all I said was how sorry I was, asked if they wanted to talk, and listened when they did.

  14. Liz December 9, 2016 at 10:50 pm - Reply

    I am very sorry to anyone who has lost a loved one. I lost my immediate family tragically without any warning. The three people I loved most are all dead. I’m very angry, but work so hard not to let it show. Moments ago my neighbor reminded me AGAIN that her 30th wedding anniversary is coming up. She KNOWS my husband is dead, but it’s been three years, so people move on, and probably assume I have too. But, I haven’t. So, today I gently said “that is really wonderful, last month would’ve been my five year wedding anniversary.” When it seems like EVERYONE else in the world is celebrating anniversaries/birthdays/holidays, I think about what it’s like to to only have memories left. I also told my neighbor, “sometimes it’s like a knife in the heart when people tell me about their husband or wife, especially when I have heard people talking about their significant others all day”. I was volunteering today, and one of the guys told me that his wife complains if he’s late getting home. I hear people “bitching” about little stuff all the time…hard for me to understand WHY people say it to ME…that guy knows my husband is dead. But, I HAVE to realize it’s NOT intentional…I can’t expect people to monitor their speech when I’m around. People have said MANY of the above things to me, “God needed them” or “it was their time”. But, in my anger and grief I realized that people were TRYING to comfort me…they didn’t know what to say. How can I be mad at someone who has never walked in my shoes and truly doesn’t understand? I do or say what I feel at the time. Sometimes, I tell people “no, I don’t think so. I just think there is no explanation” and sometimes I tell people “thanks for trying to help, but what happened to me wasn’t fair, in fact it’s BS”, but I don’t tell them angirly or with an attitude. My own mother has actually complained to me, saying “when I used to go out alone, if I was gone for too long, your father would ACTUALLY call the hospital! Can you believe that?” I just looked at her and said “how very lucky you are. I wish someone loved me like that.” People don’t understand traumatic loss unless they have survived it. They simply don’t “get it”. So, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, which isn’t a whole lot, cut people some slack. I don’t think people do it to be unkind, they just don’t understand. So, I ignore it when I can…and, when I can’t, I try to say something to make them stop and think. People reading this are grief survivors, so we understand, but most people just don’t. All we can do is tell people how the comments make us feel and try to explain to them why the comments are hurtful. But, I can’t blame someone for trying to say something they think is comforting. I can’t get mad at someone bc they are happy about an occasion that is special to them. Yes, I wish I could complain about my spouse getting upset or worried if I came home late…but I can’t because he’s dead. They are ignorant, don’t understand that. Being such a young widow has showed me what pain really is. I will never marry again, will never allow myself to get close to someone who isn’t already in my life. After three funerals, one right after another after another…you lose the ability to let anyone very close. My comment here will probably be ignored, maybe not though after I write the end of this post…if anyone responds, they will do so to tell me off, but I’m going to say it anyway. I am sorry to those of you who have lost a family member, I really am, but be grateful for the children you do have, and the spouse you do have. Love them with everything you have. Remember that there are people like me who buried their spouse, and never had a chance to have children. My husband is gone, my brother is gone and my best friend is gone. My immediate family is dead. My parents are elderly and in poor health. My friends are getting married and having babies. I will never have those things. So, I watch from the sidelines and use volunteer work as my salvation. I work myself to the point of exhaustion because that kind of numbs the pain. This past couple weeks, I have spent my time collecting toys, driving all over asking for donations, and buying gifts for older kids for the toy drive I am working at this Sunday. Nobody donates stuff for the older kids, and I don’t really have anyone in my life that needs gifts. So, I have spent the money that I would have spent on my own family on kids that don’t have much. There is no way to change what happened to me, so may as well try to make someone else happy. And, before you attack me saying things like “you just want people to think you are a wonderful person”, or comments like that, you don’t know who I am, I’m not trying to impress strangers…and the things I buy for the older kids, I told the other volunteers that an anonymous veteran donated the money. When you have lost ALMOST everything, believe me, you do NOT want attention or people patting you on the back. You just want to quietly do the best you can to survive, and try to help others because it’s the ONLY things that gives you any kind of feeling resembling happiness. Please go hug your significant other and kids…and thank God, because there are people who don’t have that luxury. If you want to tell me off, that’s fine, after what I have survived, there is NOTHING that words could do to hurt me, or even make me mad. Just be grsteful, because I would change places with you in a heartbeat.

  15. CAA December 19, 2016 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    Hi Liz

    Poor you. Sounds like you have had a hideous time. My 9 year old daughter died traumatically last year and I too am astounded at the number of totally insensitive comments made. People really do move on and they don’t realise my life has stopped.

    I’m glad that the volunteering work that you do helps you to cope with your new life. It is hard to accept that you can’t have your old life back no matter how much you want it or how unfair it is. Accepting the new paler version of life is difficult to do – I can’t. I look at my daughters friends and think what miserable specimens they are compared to her – even though they are kind and nice kids. I can understand that you won’t ever marry again but you will be making a massive difference to the lives of many older children. They aren’t so cute and easy to buy presents for and so do get forgotten. I think you are amazing. Well done. I think you should consider becoming a foster carer. You sound strong enough to cope with the reality of childen’s shattered lives.

    Letting people in to see your pain can really help to ease the pain. Talking about your husband (his life more than his death) may help you to smile at the nice memories. You don’t have to pretend you are OK and be strong. Why do you feel the need to do this? – my husband does this so a rhetorical question really! If you allow people to think you are OK then that is what they will think. Please try to share you continuing grief and this will give you the opportunity to talk about your husband, to use his name, to laugh about the funny things he did, to remember the things that made you grumpy with him, to talk about all the lost dreams but at the same time it will allow others to see the reality of your world.

    Don’t give up on your whole life. It will never be the same but I hope in time you will find small moments of happiness to cling on to.

    Big hugs
    C xx

  16. Rose G. January 7, 2017 at 1:55 am - Reply

    Ten years ago, my twin daughters died when they were 12 weeks old. First one, then a few days later, the other. I was 23 years old, in a physically and mentally abusive relationship of 4 years, and far away from my immediate family.

    I try not to take the things people say personally. People don’t think before they speak most of the time. People don’t understand if they haven’t been through it. And even if they know these very sad things have happened to you, it’s not on the forefront of their brain when they interact with you. I don’t think they mean to be insensitive.

    I’m not surprised when people tell me they’ve lost friends. Everything just gets so awkward. How do you have that conversation with someone when you’ve never gone through anything so heartbreaking? Someone once compared the death of their beloved dog to the loss of my children. I try to appreciate that they’re trying to understand. I was able to help a close friend who’s daughter was stillborn at 38 weeks. I barely said a word to her. I was there for her. I held her. We cried. There’s not much to say that will do any good. I know that to be true. I encouraged her to breathe, to eat, and gave her the time and support she needed to be at peace.

    To this day, I don’t talk to many people about them. Some of my closer friends know. I got married for the first time a few years ago and I told my spouse everything that happened. The abuse. The loss. How I don’t feel I ever really had the chance to grieve because everyone around me at that time wanted me to pull myself together and move on. My grief inconvenienced them. I feel, even 10 years later, that it is still raw and gaping in my heart.

    We are now, after much discussion, about to try to start our own family and I should be happy and excited – but I am numb and apprehensive. I want children so very much. I’m so scared that it will happen again. I don’t think I’ll make it out sane if it does.

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