The loss of a child is the ultimate heartbreak. After my son, Zach, died in my arms at birth from a cardiac tumor in 2010, an intense longing and sadness hung over me – but there was also still love. After years of living this “new normal,” as it’s called, which describes life after the loss of a child; there are a few things I have learned that have made coping much easier.
Recognize that our culture does grief all wrong.
At some point in our history there must have been a person, or school of thought, that suggested grief only lasts so long and that mourners must behave a certain way. Unfortunately, over time, that prescription for grief became ingrained in our cultural consciousness. That is why it feels natural to say things like, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and, “At least the person lived a full life.” Obviously that second statement is where people get tripped up when it comes to comforting a person whose baby has died through miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, or early infant loss.
After Zach died, I felt shame when my grief was not tidied-up and put away after the memorial service. I wondered what was wrong with me when the pain was still strong and present weeks and months later. I tried to look composed on the outside, believing that was what was expected of me.
What I learned was that grief is unpredictable. It will take as long as it wishes and will look different from one person to the next. One of the most important things to do is to be authentic with the emotional rollercoaster and buck-off all expectations – those put on you from others, and those you put on yourself. It is better to express your feelings than bottle them up, but do choose wisely with whom you share. Be honest with that person, a trusted friend for example, about how best to support you, because—unless they have experienced this loss personally—our culture has not equipped them with an innate knowledge of helpful things to say and do.
Accept that control is not the goal.
It seems like my entire adult life I’ve called the shots. I’ve decided where I wanted to live, my program of study in university, my occupation, and the choice to marry. The next logical decision to make was when to have children and how many. However, we do not possess control over every area of our lives. When Zach died, I felt helpless and powerless; there was nothing I could do to save my baby.
It took me a long time to release control. I had clung to the illusion of having it for years, but this lifestyle did nothing to support my desire to heal. It was only when I chose to surrender, instead, that I experienced more freedom and joy than I could have ever imagined. It was a beautiful realization because it meant that I no longer needed to feel guilt over my son’s death. There was nothing I did or did not do during my pregnancy, and no fatal flaw in my genes, which put me at blame for what happened. This was a huge step toward forgiving myself.
Welcome the mystery of life.
When we fight to maintain control, there is no room for spontaneity, freedom, or surprise. Life is mysterious, whether we like it or not. There are many things that happen which we cannot explain or even understand. A tough reality for bereaved parents are the lingering, unanswered questions. “Why did this happen to me?’”,”What could I have done differently?” These questions haunted me for years. It was only when I began to make art and to write about my loss that I found deep and lasting breakthroughs.
As an artist and a writer by profession, you’d think I would have turned to those outlets first in my grief. What happened was quite the opposite; I was afraid to paint or put pen to paper, terrified of the anguish that would seep out of my subconscious and onto the blank space before me. Thus, that season of life became known as my “Year of Distraction.”
When I got pregnant with my next child, I realized that I needed to face my grief head-on. That was when I started painting and writing again, and even made wood sculpture. In doing those activities, I tapped into the right-creative-side of my brain, the side more prone to abstract thinking, spontaneity, and play. I fully admit: it’s scary to surrender to mystery. It takes us out of our comfort zones and makes us vulnerable. At the same time, it was in that headspace where I found a healthy release for my heartache and a healing way to remember my child.
Love never dies.
If you have lost a baby, it can be challenging to fit your life experience into the framework of parents who have not experienced the same loss. What is comforting, however, is the love you hold in your heart for your baby. When the pain of loss is eased by time and intentional grief-work, what remains is the timeless, precious love of a parent for a child. I remember how the ache of losing Zach gradually transformed into a heartbeat of remembrance for him. While I’d trade any of these life lessons in order to hold my son in my arms, all I can do is let go, embrace the mystery, and celebrate my baby and our eternal bond of love.
Alexis Marie Chute is an award-winning author, artist, filmmaker, curator, and inspirational speaker. Her memoir, Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing, and Pregnancy After Loss, received many literary awards, and the 2nd edition was released in May 2019 with bonus material including a chapter from her husband Aaron’s perspective.