How do you tell people your baby died?
by Kathy Whelan
About three weeks after my son died, I decided to go to my step aerobics class. The class included women who had seen me three times a week while I was pregnant, up until I gave birth. I didn’t socialize with them other than at the health club. I went there knowing that people would assume that I was still caring for a four-month old child. How could I bear to tell them that he died? To watch their mouths drop in disbelief. To feel them struggle for words. I decided not to tell anyone, and as the class progressed, silent tears pooled, and I became over-whelmed with sadness. I left the class, sat in the car with the empty car seat, and sobbed with abandon. I struggled with this problem often over the next few years. I feared situations where I might run into people who didn’t know that my baby died: friends at a college reunion; a business associate at my former place of employment; people I knew from my summers on Lake Champlain. I avoided those situations at all costs.
What made me so fearful of confronting situations where I had to tell people my baby died? Because I had to say it out loud. Because I had to look at their shocked faces. Because I feared being branded as “a parent whose baby died.” Most people can’t understand how a parent can survive the death of a child. They don’t like to think about it, but they have to say something. I was afraid of what they would say, but I was also afraid of how I would feel telling them. I felt wounded. Different. I used to be so happy-go-lucky. Carefree. Mikey’s death had totally changed me into someone I did not recognize. I felt like a walking sideshow, even if most of my mourning was inside. I looked normal, but my insides were torn apart.
If you have any expectations of what someone might say when they find out about your tragedy, you might be disappointed. It takes their breath away. Many manage “I’m sorry.” Often people will find a way to exit an uncomfortable situation, and not always gracefully. Even those who know your child may avoid you. It’s not that they don’t feel sad; they just don’t want tobring it up. They want to help you, but they just don’t know how. They fear they will cause you pain. They don’t understand that you need people to acknowledge your child and your pain. It’s just too hard for them to do.
Once in a while you meet a rare person who wants to know more. Who can swallow their shock at the news and ask to hear your story. They let you say your child’s name again. Those people allowed me to openly grieve about my son and became very important to my healing. I knew I was safe in expressing my grief to them. Once was a close friend from college. Another I met at a play date for my second child. And a third I met when she had a miscarriage, and I asked her the details.
How do I decide to tell someone that my baby died? At first I told anyone who would listen. After negotiating many very uncomfortable social situations, now I wait to see if the person in front of me is someone who can handle it. Is it someone that I am going to have an on-going relationship with? Is it someone who is grieving and might be helped by knowing that people survive this most horrific of tragedies? Do I have enough time and privacy to spend fifteen minutes talking to this person?
Once I decide to tell someone, how do I find the words? Usually I wait until we are having a personal conversation. Maybe we are talking about our children. Or I mention my volunteering for SIDS. I tend to put my hand on the person’s arm to steady myself and get their attention. And then I blurt it out, the same way I have. “I had a son that died.” In that uncomfortable silence when the person I’ve told is digesting that fact, I tell them his name, his age, and how he died. I talk about the support, how I’ve lived all these years, missing him, but living still.
Whether your baby died last month, or thirteen years ago, it’s always hard to tell people that you had a child that died. Like any human interaction, it’s a bit risky. You can’t tell how they are going to react, and whether or not you will be able to handle their reaction. If you do decide to take that risk, you may find someone who can help to share your burden of grief by letting you talk about your loss. Or at least, you can give the other person permission to help you by expressing their sympathy.