When my second child was stillborn almost every last one of my friends inadvertently drifted from me. I have had years to think about this. I have had years to miss them.
The loss of my child is the saddest thing that has ever happened to me. But I mourn too the collateral damages in the form of the friendships I lost. Many parents of stillborn children report being shunned by friends.
I have new friends now but only one who knew me before. I don’t remember anymore who I used to be. And there is only one friend who remembers that about me.
Partly this was my fault. I could not reach back to those who tried to reach for me for a time. I did not mean to offend them but I was so encased in grief and trauma I could not see straight. I felt, literally, as though I was in a straight jacket. When you lose a child you lose your ability to trust the connective tissue of anything. And so we lost the thread. This was unnecessary, but so too was it true. The friendships unraveled and were gone.
This post has been percolating for years and I have resisted writing it because I don’t want to come across as angry or as bitter. I’m sometimes a little bit of the former but never the latter. I’ve learned that all of it, this life, is too brief and too precious.
My only point in writing this blog is to tell the friends of parents whose children are stillborn to hang on.
The waters are rough, but no one expects you to solve the problem or even to try. There is tremendous power in showing up even in little ways – but constantly. People drift when things feel awkward. No one decides to bail on purpose.
It’s more just a sense of powerlessness that drives the drift. Or perhaps it’s a baby on the hip of a woman who was pregnant at the same time and does not know how to convey a heartbreak to her grieving friend. And so, here I reframe. Power comes from a text here and there. It comes from a call. It comes from a postcard. Or an invitation to yoga.
The grief of loss baby loss is profound. The misunderstanding about stillbirth is equally so. Only the parents have a memory of a baby, a body. The loss is both terrible and tangible, but only to parents. To others, much is (mercifully) left to the imagination. As friends initially surround grieving parents, they tend to fall away as the parents themselves move through stages of grief with can include isolation, depression, denial – and the rest. It takes a while for someone to be able to participate in daily life and the journey back to this starting point can feel awkward.
The parents of children who are stillborn are not easy to be around. As well, they tend to lack communal or shared memory. This is a greater liability than is generally understood. In addition, traumatic memory shreds the ability to convey an experience of loss. And so a baby is born into both light and darkness, is gathered up, and then taken away.
When people asked me questions, I could not always answer them because, in that moment, I really couldn’t remember. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell. It was more like asking a car wreck survivor what the moments afterwards felt like – they can’t say either.
This potent combination of factors leaves grieving parents vulnerable. Often, there seem to be few ways for anyone to win. If friends don’t ask questions, they risk seeming as though they are minimizing the experience. A stillbirth mom has just given birth to a baby who was born dead. She is trying to figure out how to bear that blow.
So keep showing up in little ways that both you and she and you can bear. Be the last friend standing – and become her memory.
Photographs courtesy of I-Stock.