How to rediscover your joy after baby loss
A look behind the scenes of writing Your Soul Is Wintering, a book about rediscovering joy after baby loss, by Christchurch mama Annie Anderson.
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES THE TRAUMA AND HEALING INVOLVED WITH BABY LOSS. PLEASE TAKE CARE.
What started as a routine check-up, ended with the words no expectant parents want to hear, ever. We were blindsided. In a moment our world as we knew it flipped.
Time stood still as the room slowly began to spin and my heart started to race. I was plunged into a raging flooded river and, in an instant, swept far from all that was familiar and known.
These words delivered an unwanted ‘knowing’ that not all babies come home in the way that we hope and suddenly we have gained entry to a club where there are many members, but no one willingly seeks membership.
We are the parents of two wee ones you will not see at the school gate, who will not bound to the front door of our home to greet you, nor will you hear their voices carrying over the neighbouring fences as they play. Nevertheless, they are here. Their tiny footprints embedded deeply within our healing hearts.
For some of you reading this it will be unimaginable, unthinkable. For many others hearing these words or any phrase of this nature will be all too familiar. This was our reality, and we soon discovered that we were not alone, that baby loss is far from unique to us.
In the week that followed these words we experienced numerous testing, a week wait on an induction, a 10hr labour, holding our tiny precious baby girl, the signing of post-mortem and cremation papers, and laying her to rest in a small purple box.
We welcomed a baby girl earthside only to say goodbye, and we farewelled a little one before her that didn’t make their 12-week scan. Our precious girl Lily and our tiny Micah.
Reflecting on this I find myself in awe of the phenomenal strength of the human spirit. In the face of adversity an inner strength we never would have believed possible is called to the fore.
We are so much stronger than we know. We can hear our baby’s heart has stopped and still manage to put one foot in front of the other to make our way to the emergency scan.
We can endure sharing what has happened many times over to several different health professionals as we are poked and prodded merely hours after our world has been turned upside down.
We can go shopping for something for our baby to be wrapped in and show kindness and even compassion when the shop assistants talk excitedly and comment on our beautiful baby bump.
We can hold onto hope as we ask the nurse for one last scan before being induced just in case our baby’s heart has started beating again.
We can cradle our baby while knowing that we will not hold them in this way again.
We can endure the immense pain of an induced labour all the while knowing the life we are working so hard to bring into this world has already left. This takes phenomenal strength.
We often greatly underestimate what we are capable of and just how strong we are until we are in a position where the alternative is more unbearable than the situation we find ourselves within.
In the weeks, months, and years since cradling Lily and Micah solely in our hearts I experienced and witnessed so much suffering. Initially it was overwhelming how many people reached out who had also experienced baby loss, yet for something so many go through it was barely talked about and acknowledged.
Grief in general can be confronting as death serves as a very real reminder of the fragility of life, and perhaps even more so when it is deemed to occur outside of what we perceive to be the natural order (for example the death of a child before a parent, or the passing of
a baby before they are born).
I can understand why people would prefer not to think, let alone talk about difficult things like babies dying in utero or soon after, but unfortunately not acknowledging or talking about it doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. It only serves to further isolate those experiencing it.
As I desperately searched for evidence that one day I would feel genuine joy again, I became increasingly frustrated with some of the cultural narratives surrounding loss. One of the common underlying messages seemed to be that the best that we can hope for is to just survive the days. Sure, initially survival must be the focus. When the unthinkable occurs just getting through the next moment, minute, hour, and day is our focus for a time.
Thankfully I discovered that we do not have to buy into this mentality of everything happening to us – that we no longer have a part to play in our own grief and therefore our life journey. This is not how it has to be and is certainly not the best we can hope for.
Coming to the realisation that although we find ourselves on a path not of our choosing, we still have choices within our reach, that there are still things within our control, and we can be an active participant in our own lives again was extremely impactful – a grief game changer.
Once I rediscovered this and began to experience genuine joy again, I couldn’t help but feel that our journey could potentially serve others. I wanted to write about what I had desperately searched for – hope. To find readers in their own hard seasons and take them by the hand. To remind them they have what it takes, and that they are not alone.
Unfortunately, there is no universal magic method for grieving. We are all unique and so too are our grief journeys.
I hope that by sharing our journey people feel ‘seen’ and develop the courage, inspiration and belief to compose and navigate their own journey.
It can still feel excruciatingly vulnerable to have our story out in the world. My greatest motivation to hold fast throughout this process, no matter how rough it got was the thought that I might reach someone in their stormy ocean and offer them hope, a flotation device of sorts, somehow making their unbearable a little more bearable was a great motivator – my why.
People frequently ask if writing Your Soul is Wintering was healing for me. Swimming back out into the stormy open ocean of adversity that forged the words on the pages provided an opportunity to notice some of the beauty that existed within this season. The endearing innocence of my four-year-old as he placed his little hands on my pregnant belly while quietly processing why a plaster wasn’t going to be able to mend his little sister, the eerie yet heavenly silence that enveloped the room at the time of our precious Lily’s birth, the kindness of others and the many other moments of beauty within this hard season.
It also provided an opportunity to delve deeper into the grief experience while walking with it, rather than fighting to overthrow it. Something that empowered me greatly was understanding that grief only exists and has a place in our lives because love did first. Reframing grief in this way has taken it from the ‘monster in wait’ that I need to outrun, avoid, and resent, to love’s companion, a sign or the evidence that I have loved and do love.
Since the book's release, I’ve received so many messages from readers who've experienced loss, reaching out to express their gratitude. Receiving these has been both heartbreaking and heartening. It was bittersweet to write, so I was under no illusion that putting it out into the world was going to be a Sunday stroll. The thought of others suffering the loss of loved ones and the many other adversities life throws our way was heartbreaking – that there was a need for this book in the first instance still brings tears to my eyes. But the thought that it is helping others? It doesn’t come much sweeter.
Ultimately, I want readers to know that it is possible to go on to live exceptional lives not in spite of all they have lost, but because of it. Your Soul is Wintering acknowledges the hard seasons of life and honours the hope that can be found in them. It reminds us that it is possible to rediscover our joy while walking with grief. That we can do hard and difficult things.
I have come to understand that the best way for me to honour the lives of our precious babies that did not stay is to live mine to the fullest.
SUPPORTING AT A TIME OF LOSS
The fact that you have been curious, compassionate, and intrigued enough to begin to read this tells me you are someone who I would love to have in my corner during a tough season. I hope it serves as an effective reference for you in supporting a loved one through grief, or – if you are grieving yourself – that it affords you the courage, strength and encouragement to better express your needs to others.
To have others witness your grief is a gift and so too is it a great privilege to witness another’s grief. If we love, at some stage during our lives we are all going to experience loss and therefore be called to walk with grief. Consequently, it is in our best interest not only for ourselves, but also for those we love to take steps towards getting more comfortable with witnessing one another’s grief.
From the outset I want to alleviate the pressure we often feel to ‘make it all better.’ There's nothing you can do that is going to erase their pain, therefore you need to allow yourself some grace when supporting a loved one through a tough season. However, there are some things you can do that can make their journey with grief a little more bearable.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to grieving or supporting during a time of loss so these are not step by step instructions but rather a range of tools for your support kit. As you read, I encourage you to back yourself and your intuition to show up well for those you love and wrap around them during their time of need.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE LOSS
If you do one thing let it be this. I do not believe there is a single thing that you can do that is more helpful to someone grieving than acknowledging that they have suffered a loss. This sounds so simple, yet it can be extremely difficult to do. We do not want to do or say the wrong thing which sometimes results in us not doing or saying anything through fear of making it worse. Are you afraid you are going to remind them of their loved one? Let me reassure you that your loved one, friend or colleague has not forgotten that they have lost someone dear to them.
When people lose a baby, they have so little to hold onto – both figuratively and literally. Speaking to them about their baby can be a precious way of keeping their loved one’s memory alive. Giving them an open door to speak and a thoughtful offer of lending a listening ear may be one of the greatest gifts you can give.
How do we do this? Everyone is a little different so my advice would be to ‘check in’ and lead the conversation by simply asking how they are doing. What feels authentic to you and your relationship with the person who is hurting? Would you usually give them a hug? A gentle shoulder touch? Take their lead and allow them to guide the conversation.
SAY THEIR NAME
Say the name of the loved one they have lost. I cannot emphasize enough how important and precious this is. As with any baby, much time, thought and significance would have been put into naming their angel – the very least we can do is speak their name into the light.
Speak it aloud, write it in messages, include it in your cards. A name is a treasure, and for those that have so little to hold onto, it can mean the world.
If this makes you nervous, just think about all the places where the bereaved will not have the opportunity to see the name of their precious angel or hear it spoken aloud – preschool bag tags, school certificates, assemblies, graduations, insurance papers, the doctors waiting room.
Hearing the name of your loved one is like someone handing you a warm blanket on a freezing cold night. By speaking their name, you are keeping their memory alive, validating that they existed and their life mattered. You hold space for the bereaved to feel. Greater than that though, you are acknowledging the love they have for those they have lost – warming their winter.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE SO YOU CAN SHOW UP
One of my Mum’s favourite sayings is ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ The thinking behind it is that if you can endure the worst-case scenario, then you can take action. In this case, someone you know has lost a baby, the worst has already happened for them. I know you are feeling uncomfortable, but this is not about you. Get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable for the sake of the person that you care so much about. They need you to show up for them.
How do we best do this? What is your intuition telling you? Here are some ideas, but the appropriateness of each will depend on the bereaved, and your relationship with them.
Go and be with them. Visit. Not sure what to say? Listen and allow them to guide you.
Send a thoughtful card or message to let them know you are thinking of them. You could search for a message on the internet, perhaps a quote or a scripture you think might potentially bring them some comfort or hope at this time.
Drop off a care package. This could contain food, personal care items, some of their favourite treats – or a combination of all three! Meals and having to think about what to cook is often a step too far for the bereaved as such tasks are so menial in the scope of what they are dealing with.
Acknowledge them when you first see them, make a point of (at the very least) making eye contact with them. Are you a work colleague? Leave them a little something on their desk. Place a hand on their shoulder. Make eye contact with them and smile at them from across the room. Do anything other than avoiding them. You do not want them feeling even more isolated in their grief than they already do.
Organise a small get-together with some of their closest friends. This gives them an opportunity to share with you all in a safe space. It let's them know that you are all there for them. They may want to use this time to talk of their loved one – or not. Either way you have opened the door for them to share.
Gift them something meaningful, special, comforting or self-care oriented. This could be a small keepsake, a special card with a meaningful quote, a day spa voucher, or a gift card for their favourite coffee shop. What you get will depend on the individual and how well you know them.
Dates – diary them. Especially remember their angelversary with a text, a message, a call, a visit or flowers. There are many ways of acknowledging that you are thinking of them, letting them know that you remember, that they matter, that their loved one matters. For baby loss this is a powerful way of signifying that it was a ‘little life, not a little loss.’
When you are celebrating special family milestones or occasions, where appropriate, acknowledge those who are not there. Remembering is one of the most precious gifts you can give and yet it requires so little.
KEEP SHOWING UP FOR THEM
People who have experienced loss of a loved one often speak of the ‘drop off.’ This is where, after being surrounded by loved ones in the initial days after the loss, the support slowly decreases over the following weeks as people begin to get back to their lives. This is often par for the course on our grief journey, however continuing to be there is a great gift.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to maintain the same types and frequency of support, but perhaps finding other ways to let them know they are still on your mind. Keep up with those check-ins.
Western culture has created some unhelpful expectations around grief, especially in relation to timelines. Be patient and release any expectations you may have around how long they might grieve for. They are always going to walk with grief, but the way they experience it will change. There is a care and commitment in showing up well for others in their tough seasons. This, in and of itself is evidence of how much you care about the person/people in your life and they are going to see and feel this from you. There is no greater gift you can give than to help them feel seen, accepted, loved, and that they belong.
Annie Anderson lives in Christchurch with her husband Rob, three gorgeous earthside children Jai, Arabella and Rose, and two angels that watch on from above. She is a secondary school teacher, as well as author of Your Soul is Wintering published by Bateman Books NZ, RRP $34.99.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 58 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW