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Understanding Those Who Have Lost a Baby, and How to Reach out to Them (Including What to Say and What Not to Say)

Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist whose curiosity and courage has brought her to a new life in Japan.

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It’s been 6 months since my baby died in my arms; it was only two days after he was born. This is a continuation to my article “What it Was Like to Experience the Loss of My Baby in Japan”. In that piece, I poured out all my feelings and thoughts about my tragic experience in hopes to help those who are in a similar situation feel that they don’t have to go through it alone. I also included some advice for people who may know someone who has lost a baby (as well as some points about how well the hospital in Japan dealt with the situation). With these two goals still in mind, here is an update of my journey six months down the road—my new revelations and revisions of old thoughts.

Now and Forever a Bereaved Parent

Even though I was technically only a mother for two days, I have realized that I will always feel like a bereaved parent. At first, I didn't think that I would because I wasn't with my child for months or years. However I now know that this doesn’t mean I’m not a bereaved mother. No matter how short my baby’s life was, I will always feel that a part of me is missing. Whether it’s doing house chores, shopping or even laughing among friends, there is always a sadness in the background. It sounds very depressing but this is what the bereaved parent has to learn to live with. This is why we can’t continue life in the exactly the same manner as before; we become a forever changed person inside.

We Don't Know Other People's Stories

I used to, and have to admit, still do feel jealous when I see mothers and fathers carrying around their babies. I avoid looking at Instagram or Facebook sometimes because it’s just too hard to see people posting photos and updates about how wonderful and cute their own kids are. Just recently, when I did decided to take a peek at Facebook, I saw that someone I once knew posted a tribute to their baby whom they had lost years ago. I had previously hated seeing this person's posts because they were always about their pre-school aged son or about their healthy newborn. However when I saw that he had experienced losing a baby, it made me wonder how many people around me have had hardships and painful memories around pregnancies, but just never talk about them. I have to keep telling myself that these things do happen, and even though I feel so alone, you can’t tell what other people have been through.

Every Holiday and Milestone Is Difficult

These days, I notice more than ever before when people around me are holding babies or pushing them in strollers. I also think about how happy kids and parents look when they’re with each other. Even when I see angry parents scolding their children, I think how nice it must be to have kids to yell at. Although every day is hard, I find the milestones and holidays even harder. For example, when the day of my baby’s scehduled birth came along, I spent the day crying and missing my son. The anticipation of that day was just as difficult; thinking about how I should have been preparing to give birth and to bring home my son, just brought tears to my eyes. The days that came after, I couldn’t help but notice that I didn’t have a baby in my arms, I wasn’t breast feeding and getting up during the night to feed. It was quiet, and the silence hurt a lot.

Then there were the national holidays where I would notice there are more kids running around and more people taking their babies out to spend quality family time together. In Japan it feels like there are a lot of holidays, there is even one in May called Children’s Day. These days can really get to me and make me long to hold my baby.

Mother’s Day was a hard one too. For more than a month before Mother’s Day, I was starting to hope that someone would wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. I knew that there was a slim chance of this happening though, since I do not look like a mother with living children. Nor did I expect people to know that I wished to be acknowledged on that day. In the end, I was only wished a Happy Mother’s Day by one person in an online support group who knew the feeling of losing one’s baby, and by an old friend indirectly who had no idea about my situation and posted a Facebook message to all kinds of mothers out there. I would have been very touched if someone close to me sent a greeting my way.

Christmas was also tough, as I explained in the preceding article. There are still many of these days to come, including my son’s first birthday, my own birthday, and even the day I found out I was pregnant a year ago. I know I’ll be wishing that I was spending them with my baby.

The Meaning of Looking for Meaning

In my previous article on this subject I mentioned that I didn’t believe in looking for a reason for my son’s death or for looking for meaning in his life. I didn’t believe that anything I found could ever justify him not being here with me. I didn’t want to feel the pressure of making something good come out of the situation. Instead I have realized that I was thinking about the phrase ‘looking for meaning’ all wrong. What this means to me now is finding ways to incorporate my son’s life (both while in my tummy and his short life after) into my life. It means never forgetting, and always feeling his presence. Although it saddens me to think about him, it is also somewhat comforting when any thought of him pops into my mind because that’s what any parent constantly thinks about (their children).

Things That Are Helping Me on My Journey to Healing

Exercise: I know I said previously that eating lots was helping me feel better physically and mentally. However, although it was good for the initial healing stage, I should have been more careful because before I knew it, I had gained so much weight that I was beginning to feel sluggish. I still do go out for walks every day to breathe in the fresh air, but I have now started exercising as well. I mount a mini elliptical machine while watching TV in my own home. In addition to that, I do some light resistance training. It was slightly bothering me that my body had changed and looked like I had been pregnant and yet I had no baby to take care of. My wardrobe was also narrowed down to the only 2 pairs of stretchy pants I could fit into. I felt the need to get into better shape. Not only does it produce uplifting endorphins, exercise makes the body feel good.

Being Nice to Myself: I am not rich, and we don’t have room for luxury on just my husband’s salary, but the desire to work is still not creeping up on me. The pressure of finding work, and of work itself, is something I feel I still can not handle. Most people probably feel differently and would rather work steadily to keep their minds busy, and others have no choice because they need the income. Even so, my advice is to be nice to yourself. Any type of pressure, despite being non-related to the baby or pregnancy is just an open-doorway to breaking the feeling of being at peace. The physical unsettling feeling that pressure gives, just reminds me of how I felt when I was anxious and couldn’t breathe in the months after my baby died.

Being nice to myself also means not getting disappointed if things don’t go the way I planned or thought. One thing I’ve learned from all this is that anything can happen and you just have to let the pieces of life fall into place sometimes. I can’t control everything and shouldn’t try to control everything. I have been for the most part, able to let go of all the regrets and guilt I had. There’s no use in fretting over things that can’t be changed. Simpler said than done, but now I have learned to take a deep breath and remind myself ‘just be nice to yourself’.

Still Using an Online Support Group: I mentioned before that I had joined a Facebook support group for mothers that lost babies in the NICU. I still check-in once in a while, it’s a good reminder that I am not alone and that people still can find ways to think positively and live their lives. It’s also a good outlet to post my thoughts and to ask if anyone else feels the same way. There are over 500 people in the group, so someone will always reply that they know exactly what I mean and how I feel. It also gives me the chance to say an uplifting or sympathizing word to those who are still so new to the group.

Still Contributing: We keep up the memorial shelf for my son and his ashes. We’ve added more photos, toys and sweets as the months passed. It always feels nice to add something, like we are able to care for and think of our child even though he is not directly here with us.

Engraving a Necklace: I already wrote about the engraved necklace that I received from a dear friend, but I went on and got a dogtag necklace engraved with our son’s name and birthdate for my husband. He wears it every day. It's one way to keep our son close to us at all times.

What to Say and What Not to Say to a Mother Who Lost Her Baby

“Happy Mother’s Day”: This is definitely something you should say. Mother’s day is a day for mothers to be recognized. Although I may not be able to speak on behalf of all bereaved mothers of babies, most of us want to be recognized as a mother. In fact, I’d say it may be taken to heart even more than by a mother who is obviously a mother. I know that it doesn’t look like I am a mom, but I am. If people don’t acknowledge this, it feels like they haven’t recognized that I had a son or that my son was a living being that meant the whole world to me.

“Don’t worry, I’ve had a miscarriage too”: I know you mean well, and I know that a miscarriage is also a tragic thing, but I don’t want my son to be labelled as a miscarriage. I gave him a name, registered him as family (in Japan newborns must be registered in the family record), I held him, pumped milk for him, prayed for his life, and cried for him as he took his last breath.

“You can still make another one”: I know this is true, but it’s just not that simple. I miss the son that I carried and gave birth to. There will never be another one of him. Again, he has a name and I’ll never get him back. I still have to wait a whole year before I even start trying again (due to having a cesarean section), do you know how slow and long this year is going by?

Please don’t assume we’ve gotten back to our normal lives. This is something that will NEVER happen. Most of us change in a way you can’t see. I am a completely different person inside. Some people feel stronger years later, but after the half-year mark, I still feel very vulnerable, as if I will never be able to find that strength. The sadness can’t be likened to anything else; unless you have experienced it yourself, you’d never know how deep the sadness runs.

I hope that by reading this, it has made you feel not alone in this world and I hope that you were able to find something useful here to help you on your healing journey. I am still new to this journey but I think it’s important to talk about our feelings and share them with other mamas and papas out there who have lost a baby. If you are not a bereaved parent but know someone who is, I hope that I was able to convey the thoughts and feelings of someone going through this hard journey. Perhaps by reading this it has given you some insight and will strengthen your relationship with the person close to you who is grieving. In any case, I believe that it is important for everybody to be aware of, and sensitive to the people out there who are struggling with the sadness of having their baby taken away far too soon.