Coping With the Loss of an Infant
Posted by: Brigitte Ganger in Grief Articles | December 15, 2021
The loss of an infant is a traumatic event that changes the expected course of life for their parents. While it may be unfathomable that a young child could lose their life so early, this tragedy affects thousands of families each year.
An Unimaginable Loss
It's impossible to compare grief reactions. However, the death of a child, spouse, or parent are generally considered to be the worst kinds of loss. Individual response, relationship dynamic, and other factors make it difficult to anticipate or understand grief without personal context, but a child's death is always unimaginable.
In addition to the loss of the parent-child relationship, a child's death represents the loss of potential, innocence, and future dreams. Missed milestones, like their first day of school, can haunt the parents of a deceased child. Many grieving parents find themselves tracking those milestones, years and even decades later, taking note of things like, "She would have graduated from high school this month."
The death of an infant robs parents and loved ones of experiences and goals they anticipated since the conception of the child, or even before. What's worse is that the death of a small child is more quickly forgotten by those outside of the immediate family, leaving those who still grieve feeling isolated and disregarded.
Feeling the hard feelings of grief is the remedy for loss. There's no getting around the guilt, anger, alienation, division, depression, and the numerous other strange emotions that come from grief. Grieving parents often face toxic positivity from well-intended loved ones who are trying to help.
"At least she's in a better place now," "You can have another child, and everything will be fine again," and other unhelpful sentiments of this nature plague grieving parents as they navigate their loss.
In the list of coping techniques below, take note that none of these will 'cure' grief, or even be palatable for every griever. These are intended as suggestions for embarking on the grief journey, not as a prescriptive set of techniques to fix it. Where one person may find comfort in knowing their child will never face the pain and pressure of adulthood, another may see this as trivializing the death. Assuming that one single coping method will work for all parents leads to toxic positivity, which ultimately can hinder people as they move toward healing.
Grieving Infant Death
While the death of a baby comes with many of the same grief emotions as adult deaths, there are some grief symptoms that can be heightened following the death of an infant.
Division And Alienation
Parents of deceased children frequently report marital strain and disenfranchised grief. Even the strongest of couples rarely grieve in the same way. This leads to division in the home when unity is needed more than ever.
In fact, division among those grieving the same loss is a common reaction. Families may become temporarily or permanently estranged. Friends grow apart. And couples often face turbulent months and years. While this sometimes results in divorce, the idea that most divorce after the death of a child is actually a myth.
Another common experience parents face after the death of a young child is alienation and disenfranchised grief. Without a longstanding relationship with the child to grieve, family and friends may 'move on' from the death quicker than those who were involved in daily care and interaction. Feeling misunderstood and forgotten, these parents face alienation and isolation at a time when they need understanding and support.
How To Cope:
MAKE PEACE WITH INDIVIDUAL GRIEVING STYLES.
Everyone grieves differently. If partners or family members are reacting in a way that is incongruent with each other, honor the differences. This may mean grieving separately, with boundaries, or by making compromises. There's no playbook for how grief works, but embracing differences and giving everyone the space to grieve their own way is the way to avoid division during times of bereavement.
STICK UP FOR YOURSELF, AND YOUR PROCESS.
Implying a grieving parent should 'be over it by now' or 'focus on the positive' is damaging and counterproductive. Alienation occurs when people are unable to connect with others on how they are doing. Defend the right to grieve and find others who will be supportive of this. Setting an expectation that it's okay to grieve will make it less taboo.
Good communication is an essential part of any healthy relationship, and it is even more important in a partnership. Parents grieving the loss of their child should endeavor to communicate well and often, so that they may remain on the same page throughout their grief journey. Even when two people's individual grieving styles are completely incompatible, open dialogue about these differences can be beneficial.
Guilt and Anger
Feelings of guilt and responsibility are not uncommon in grief, but the loss of a child often intensifies these difficult emotions. A parent's job is to protect and nurture their child. Regardless of the manner of death, it's hard not to internalize the loss as a personal failing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The five leading causes of infant death in 2017 were:
- Birth defects.
- Preterm birth and low birth weight.
- Maternal pregnancy complications.
- Sudden infant death syndrome.
- Injuries (e.g., suffocation)."
Most infant deaths are not related to parental negligence, yet the guilt persists. A culture of death negativity reinforces this guilt, by telling us that death is the equivalent of failure. As the person responsible for the child's wellbeing, their death can be extremely guilt-inducing.
Anger is another common grief reaction that can be more pronounced when a child or infant has passed away. For many, it's the sense of helplessness and resulting frustration that boils over into rage.
There's no clear-cut way to cope with the irrational guilt and anger of grief. However, there are some ways to reframe the tragedy in a way that does not assign blame or shame.
How To Cope:
REMEMBER: LONG LIFE IS NEVER GUARANTEED.
Though it may feel like life was taken away too soon, this unfair twist of events can and does happen — and none of it is in any one person's control. Death happens whether we agree to it or not. When, how, and why a death occurs is out of our hands. Whether you believe that God, Nature, Fate, or some other force controls human life and death, it is ultimately a sad fact that tomorrow is never guaranteed.
Advanced medical technology and a social emphasis on beauty, youth, and vitality have contributed in some ways to the idea that we can stave off death. The illusion of immortality has never been stronger than in today's high-tech world. It's important to remember that it is indeed an illusion. Banish the idea that death can be subverted or controlled — even by the most loving of parents.
FOCUSING ON LIFE, NOT DEATH, CAN BE COMFORTING.
There's no sugarcoating the absolute devastation of losing a child. But focusing on their life, however short, can be an incredible comfort.
Living is painful. Even happy people experience heartbreak, disappointment, rage, and existential dread. The death of an infant brings an end to their future — including both the good and the bad. It's not enough to know the child is protected from the turmoil of adolescence, adulthood, and beyond.
When faced with the troubles of life, it's normal for a grieving person to think, "I'm so glad they aren't here to see this." For example, many grievers have expressed relief that their loved ones are not around to witness the COVID-19 pandemic. This kind of thinking won't wipe out all guilty or angry feelings, but it can help reroute the grief journey when difficult emotions arise.
Depression and Numbness
Grief is different for everyone, but depression and numbness are among some of the most common reactions people have following the loss of a loved one. Typically, these symptoms set in later on in the grief journey, following a period of shock and devastation.
When a child dies, loved ones may feel that life is hardly worth living. While other people seem to be forgetting about the tragedy and moving on with their regular lives, the loss still weighs heavily on the minds of the child's parents and family. While a period or bouts of depression is expected during bereavement, grief can become complicated without healthy coping measures.
How To Cope:
FEEL ALL FEELINGS.
In grief it's easy to get stuck in a cycle of depression, only to feel guilty when a happy emotion arises. It can feel like a betrayal of the deceased to feel anything other than sad. Explore all emotions: good, bad, and ugly. Allowing discomfort, cheerfulness, insanity, denial, and dread to play out naturally and without self-criticism makes for an easier transition away from depression and numbness.
SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP, IF NEEDED.
Grief counseling is a helpful tool for some, and a lifeline for others. Not everyone needs it, but almost everyone can benefit from speaking to a professional in the aftermath of a loss. A qualified counselor will have experience dealing with all types of losses and reactions. They can offer techniques for coping, as well as feedback on the severity of an individual's depression.
All deaths can spark an existential crisis for those left to mourn. This is particularly true when a child dies. Belief in a rational and just world can hardly exist following the unimaginable death of a baby. When everything ceases to make sense, it can be nearly impossible to continue living as before. Serious grief can shock the system, and leave a person feeling lost and insecure about all facets of their life.
How To Cope:
READ UP ON DEATH PHILOSOPHY.
Reading about death from a variety of different perspectives can help an individual form their own personal relationship with morality. This kind of research and personal introspection can help grieving people confront death in a more academic, and removed, way.
Learning about death through the lens of religion, spirituality, philosophy, psychology, and other perspectives gives the griever a greater sense of control. Being able to name and identify common grief experiences also gives context to an individual's idea of where they fit into the 'grand scheme of things'.
GET EMOTIONAL SUPPORT.
Family and friends that have experienced an infant death will be some of the best resources during a time of grief. Getting emotional support, advice, a listening ear, and a warm hug from a trusted individual can make all the difference for a griever who feels isolated and unsure about their own relationship with human mortality, and what matters in life.
Social media, grief support groups, and other community-led grief support resources can help grieving parents get the support they need. Finding others who share a similar pain is key to getting the right kind of support following the death of an infant.
Everyone grieves differently, but the death of a child is among the worst losses a person can face. Infant children grace the earth for a short period of time, making the grief journey more about broken dreams than sad memories. There are many different strategies for coping with bereavement, and these should be tailored to the individual's grieving style and needs. With the help of family, friends, and grief resources, the pain of infant death may never fully wane. With time and experience, grief becomes less intrusive and more manageable for those who have suffered a tragedy.