This past week, it seems there was an emphasis on the criticism grieving parents may receive when discussing the loss of their children. I’ve been thinking very much about what is behind that criticism. Pregnancy and infant loss is a topic that strikes a nerve with many people for various reasons. As a result, anger is often felt, and harsh or hurtful things are said.
Without going into great detail, a friend and fellow baby loss mom was bombarded by a couple of different people who criticized her for finding ways to talk about and memorialize her son. She was told that her posts about him made them angry.
As a therapist, I am frequently discussing anger/emotional management. What it seems to boil down to is simply becoming aware of the emotions you experience (remembering that anger is like a category heading – there are always other emotions under it, such as feeling insulted, hurt, afraid, frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed, etc.) and learning how to respond to the emotion rather than allowing the emotion to control how you respond to the situation. If unchecked, we have the capacity to make some pretty destructive mistakes when we use anger as an excuse to respond how we “feel” like responding.
The truth of the matter is simple. We all have a right to experience whatever emotions we experience. We do not have the right to use that experience as an excuse to take it out on someone else in a way that violates their rights.
With that in mind, I think that the criticism comes from fear, lack of understanding, and unresolved grief. I say fear because many people respond to discussion about pregnancy and infant loss by downplaying it or acting like it’s not as important as the death of an adult. It’s a scary thought.
Whether you’ve experienced a loss of your own or not, you may agree that losing a child is not the normal process of things. Babies aren’t supposed to die before their parents. It doesn’t seem natural. New babies are supposed to be joyful, exciting experiences. To speak of a baby’s death is “depressing,” and we’re often afraid to allow ourselves to feel sad. We treat painful emotions as if they are wrong to feel. That’s not fair. When we attempt to stifle our painful emotions rather than experience and work through them, we create problematic symptoms, such as depression and anxiety. We also become more prone to feeling angry when someone brings up a topic that threatens to expose those stifled emotions… because we fear opening that floodgate.
I think a lack of understanding is another common factor in the criticism. If a person has no concept of the pain involved in pregnancy and infant loss, it’s obviously not going to be easy for them to be compassionate.
The third common factor I mentioned is unresolved grief. Because of the tendency for society to be critical of parents who openly grief their pregnancy and infant losses (by saying such things as, “well the sooner you forget about it, the better off you’ll be” or “you can always just have another baby,” etc.), many parents are not allowed the opportunity to really work through their grief and find healing… which goes back to the stifled emotions and related problems.
Grieving is a part of loss. The loss of a baby, whether during or after pregnancy, is no exception. I believe that any time someone has a strong emotional response to a situation, there is a strong personal belief or interpretation attached to it. When my friend shared with me the hurtful correspondence she received, I found myself wondering about motivation. One later said she felt guilty for being able to bring her own baby home without complications. The other (to my knowledge) never did own up to her own emotions. Maybe she was expecting a baby or hoped to be expecting a baby and the thought of infant mortality was scary. Maybe she’d had an abortion and to admit that the loss of the baby was a significant loss would mean that the loss of her baby was too. Maybe she’d had a natural loss and was stifling the painful emotions because she thought they were too difficult to process or those around her wouldn't approve…. Maybe... I don’t know what her motivation was, but I know something struck a nerve. We don’t have strong reactions like that unless there is some significant meaning attached to the situation for us.
When I think of how often pregnancy and infant loss isn’t recognized as a “real” loss, it hurts more than I can say. As I process my own grief, I need to know my daughter is acknowledged. She lived. When people say things like the death of someone older is worse because they lived longer is … well…. Ridiculously insulting. As a mother, I can say it’s never long enough. Even so, the seven hours and 13 minutes I was given with my Carys after her birth have forever changed my life.
I hope that some day society will more readily accept that pregnancy and infant loss is significant and freely acknowledge that parents have a right to grieve in their own way. It would be nice if we could all speak openly about how we feel, while being respectful. I'd probably be out of a job if that happened, but I'd gladly find a new career if that was the case. Meanwhile, though, I'll be looking for opportunities to defend our right to grieve.
To do your part, check out this link; it was passed along to me this week.