October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Did you know that 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in loss?
It’s a staggering statistic. And our cultural silence around miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss often masks the relative common-ness of these experiences. After experiencing a loss, many parents are surprised to be contacted by loved ones and friends who share their own hushed stories that have been tucked away from the daylight for years.
Often the feeling of not being alone in the experience of loss is one of the most powerful resources of strength and resilience in the midst of that grief.
And so in October, we talk about loss.
We talk about the ways loss turns the rightful order of things on its head. The chaotic, disorienting nature of it. The way it ushers grief into our lives, unbidden.
We talk about the ways loss affects every part of life. The ways that relationships can change. The ways that work can change. The ways that parenting living children can change. Normal everyday things that suddenly feel different.
We talk about the ways loss affects parents, grandparents, loved ones, friends. The ripple effect.
We talk about how loss defines you. Or doesn’t define you. How it forces you to think about “Who am I now that my baby has died?”
We talk about how being in the world doesn’t feel the same. How babies and pregnant bellies are suddenly around every corner.
We talk about “coming out” as the parent of a baby who is not living. How often those decisions have to be made. “Where? When? Is it safe? Can I cry here? What will they think? What if they don’t want to keep talking to me?”
We talk about how so many of us are uncomfortable having conversations about babies who have died too soon. How hard we find it to be in the presence of someone who has been through that. How that translates into stories folded up and put away. How terrible we are at grief as a culture.
We talk about the “why” of it all. We don’t have answers. But we talk about it anyway.
And most of all, we show up. We are here. For those in our community who have lost children too soon, we are here. We don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but we’re here.
We are bereavement doulas. We don’t talk about this part of our work often, but today, on Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, we wanted to share a few things about what we do in our work with families grieving the loss of a baby.
In our capacity as bereavement doulas, we work with families in many different types of situations. Some families have some warning that their baby won’t survive birth or will die soon after birth. Other families experience miscarriage or stillbirth unexpectedly.
For those who are anticipating the loss of their baby, we can help them understand what may be coming next and prepare accordingly. This includes attending the labors of those who will be giving birth to stillborn babies, and babies who may not live long after birth. Sometimes, this role looks a lot like our role as “normal” birth doulas. At other times, our role is very technical: helping families know what questions they can ask their care providers, what arrangements can be made ahead of time, what their rights are, and what resources are available to them.
For families who lose a baby unexpectedly, our work depends a lot on what they need at the time. We can come to the place of birth right after a loss to spend time with the family. Sometimes there are important conversations happening around decisions that need to be made. Sometimes we just sit with families in grief, crying with them, encouraging them to soak up the time they have with their little one, taking pictures… whatever feels helpful in the moment. A lot of times, we are just being doulas - holding the space in compassion for whatever needs to happen.
We can help parents soak in the most they can from those brief hours with their baby. For families who only have a few hours to spend with their little ones, we can offer suggestions for ways they can make the most of that time. Sometimes a little foresight in those fleeting moments can make space for some memories to be created that will be treasured for years to come.
Sometimes postpartum support is really what’s needed. We can offer in-home companionship to help parents adjust to what life is without their baby in their arms. Lactation help can be vital postpartum if parents are suppressing milk production or planning to pump and donate milk. For many families, there aren’t a lot of people around who have been through this before and can really validate what might be coming up for them.
We can normalize grief. Grief looks different for everyone. As bereavement doulas, we have training in what grief can look like and often we can help grieving parents (and concerned family members) understand the difference between normal grieving or something that isn’t normal. We aren’t clinical therapists, but we can recognize the basics (and of course always pass along therapist recommendations when needed).
We are there for the family and friends of the parents, too. Sometimes loved ones of parents whose baby has died need someone to talk to. We can be a bridge between the medical side of things and the more practical, emotional experiences they may be going through.
Resources, resources, resources. We have a whole website dedicated to pregnancy loss resources for Orange County families. We have many resources available for grieving families, including therapist recommendations, bodyworkers well-versed in loss, mortuaries who offer sensitive, compassionate, and sometimes even free care for families enduring the loss of a baby, and more. We also have resources on hand for the friends and family of parents who have lost a baby.
Support for other doulas. When loss becomes part of a family’s story and they’re working with a local doula who doesn’t have experience in this area, often the doula will reach out for support. We’re always happy to share our experience, offer advice if requested, and just listen in these situations, witnessing the doula’s journey in their own grief just as they do the same for their clients. Professionals who work with families enduring the death of a baby often feel at a loss themselves, and it’s always a privilege to walk alongside other doulas doing this work.