We hope that no one ever has cause to use this cheat sheet. But the unfortunate reality is that tens of thousands of babies die every year, and no one ever talks about what to do if it happens to you. We were completely blindsided when our daughter was stillborn at 39.5 weeks, after an otherwise healthy and trouble-free pregnancy – it simply had never crossed our minds that we might lose our baby so late in our pregnancy. We had no idea what we would be facing, or how best to cope with the tragedy laid at our feet.
Our hope is that we can help other parents who might one day struggle through the same thing before it happens to them, so that if you ever find yourself or someone you love in this situation, you’ll be as prepared as anyone can be for such a tragedy.
Believe it or not, there is a protocol for losing a baby; heartbreakingly, many many people have gone through this before. Thousands upon thousands of devastated families have learned through trial and error which actions in the wake of this kind of tragedy will help you heal, and which will haunt you forever.
The problem is that for most people (my husband and myself included), you can’t trust your instincts when your baby dies. What you’ll want to do is withdraw, hide behind your shock and your terror, do whatever you can to escape from the nightmare facing you. But what you’ll need to do is be present – be there for your baby, feel your grief, live this experience, and remember it – as hard as it may be.
We didn’t know this when it happened to us, but we were lucky enough to be surrounded by people who did. Our compassionate caregivers pushed us in the right direction when our instincts would have steered us horribly wrong. They supported us and gave us the courage to face what we were most terrified of – the things we later recognized we absolutely needed to do, but which in the moment seemed impossible.
Not everyone is so lucky. After hearing firsthand accounts from many other parents who survived similar situations, we realized how blessed we were to have gotten the support we did, and how much we would have regretted it if we’d turned down opportunities that we could never replace. And so we created this cheat sheet, to help you advocate for yourselves in case this ever happens to you.
We know many of the things on this list might sound crazy, or scary, or morbid – but trust us (and the thousands of other hurting families who’ve been there): once the shock wears off and you’re trying to make sense of what happened, trying to find some measure of peace in an impossibly broken situation, you’re going to find comfort in knowing you did everything you could do for your child, and in having a tangible record of everything that took place. Too many families have learned the hard way what not to do – and we desperately do not want you to become one of those.
Again, we pray you never have cause to use this cheat sheet. No family deserves that pain. But we know from experience that this happens, even when you’ve done everything right, even when there are no warning signs. So in case it happens to you, here’s what we would recommend:
(Note: this list was mainly compiled based off our own personal experience with a late-term stillbirth and anecdotal accounts from other families who experienced a similar tragedy, but many of the ideas presented are also applicable for early miscarriage or post-partum infant death. Of course, there is no one “right” way to grieve, but these are the things that the majority of parents later cited as being things they’re infinitely grateful they did or strongly regret having not done, and in many cases, these parents did not realize in the moment that they would feel that way once the dust settled.
Also note: we *all” have guilt and regrets about the decisions we made during the heartbreaking chaos and mental fog of our losses. But we all did the best we could with the knowledge we had at the time. Go easy on yourself – just as you would never judge a friend for choices made under impossible circumstances, extend yourself the same grace. Nothing you do will make this “right” and your baby knows how much s/he is loved regardless of what you do or don’t do, so there’s no pressure. And you have more time than you think – as much as you can, take your time, be deliberate about your choices, and do whatever feels best in the moment. Then forgive yourself for being human and not having a crystal ball.)
- What to bring:
- A good camera (seriously! You’ll regret it later if you don’t have one!)
- At least one nice outfit for baby
- Who to invite:
- Anyone particularly close to the baby (e.g., grandparents) who might want a chance to to hold the baby while s/he’s warm (the baby will look and feel just like s/he’s sleeping at first)
- A professional stillborn photographer from Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
- What to do:
- Have the birth you were planning to have (i.e., if you were going to birth vaginally, don’t ask for a C-section unless it’s medically necessary. You will be glad later to have honored your child with the birth you wanted to give her/him, and it won’t be nearly as traumatizing or terrifying as you imagine – most mothers describe their birth experience as unexpectedly beautiful, even knowing that their baby wouldn’t be alive when s/he arrived)
- Hold your baby and spend at least a few minutes in awe inspecting every inch of his/her wonderful little body
- Kiss your baby
- Tell your baby how much you love her/him
- Call your baby by his/her name (and ask everyone else to do so, too)
- Take lots and lots of photos – of you and your partner holding the baby, the baby on his/her own dressed and undressed, all the little details like his/her hands/toes/ears/etc. (You’ll want to be able to see your child in detail later, and may want a posed photo of him/her alone to use on a birth announcement.)
- Don’t be afraid to ask for (or insist on!) more time with your baby. You probably need more time than you think – consider bathing your baby, posing him/her for more photos, reading him/her a book, or just having him/her stay in your room with you for a while so you can talk.
- If desired, baptize your baby (even a layperson’s baptism may bring you comfort later on) or ask for a priest/pastor from your church to come do a reading/blessing for your baby
Leaving the Hospital
- Don’t leave without:
- Something that touched your baby’s skin (hat, blanket, one of the outfits s/he wore for photos, etc.)
- Baby’s footprints and handprints
- The nursery card with baby’s weight, length, time of birth, etc.
- A lock of baby’s hair
- The names of the nurses/doctors who witnessed your baby’s birth and cared for you and your baby afterward, and contact information in case you have any questions later
- Clear instructions and a contact person on how to retrieve any photos taken by the hospital (e.g., on the wheel-under photo machine or on their own cameras, etc.)
- Clear instructions about how and when to get the results of your baby’s autopsy and who to contact with questions or for a status update
- Clear instructions on who will be handling your baby’s remains (funeral home, crematorium, etc.) and how, and contact person to make arrangements for a memorial service
Memorializing Your Baby
- Find ways to remember your baby and incorporate him/her into your life:
- Hold a memorial service for your baby just like you would any other member of your family (e.g., a Christian might choose to do a traditional wake/funeral mass/burial). You’d be surprised how much comfort this will bring you and your loved ones, and how eager others will be to see/touch/meet your baby. It will also feel good to plan a nice event honoring your child. If someone delivered a eulogy, be sure to save a copy of it
- Consider choosing a charitable organization that people can send donations to in your baby’s memory in lieu of flowers/gifts (for example, Star Legacy Foundation for Stillbirth Research & Prevention)
- Record your birth story while it’s still fresh. (You’ll go over it a million times in your head and will eventually begin to second-guess yourself, so get all the details down before you forget any of them – the human memory is notoriously unreliable!)
- Build or purchase a nice keepsake box to put all your mementos from the hospital in, along with ultrasound printouts, photos, cards, flowers, etc.
- Purchase and wear a piece of jewelry with your baby’s birthstone/name to remind you of him/her every day, or inscribe your wedding bands
- Fill out your baby book
- Print your baby’s photos and pictures from your pregnancy and create a scrapbook or timeline poster detailing all the time you spent together during your baby’s life in the womb and after his/her birth. (Note: there are organizations that will retouch your baby’s photos for free – see Heartprints, AngelPics, or contact your nearest Star Legacy chapter for a list of local volunteer photographers)
- Get birth announcements printed and send them to your loved ones, or post a digital version online along with your birth story
- Plant a tree/bush in your baby’s honor. If possible, choose one that will flower/bloom around your baby’s birthday
- Hire a portrait artist to paint/draw a portrait of your baby
- Write your baby a letter and tell him/her about all the dreams you had for the future and how much s/he will be missed
- Order a Molly Bear teddy bear weighted the same as your baby
- Don’t rush to put away (or give away!) all your baby’s things or have other people do this for you before you go home. Take your time and put/give them away only if and when you decide you want to
- Create rituals/traditions to remember your baby on certain dates or at holidays. Some ideas: celebrate his/her birthday, hang a stocking or ornament for your baby at Christmas, light a candle for your baby at dinner, on special occasions, or on October 15th Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day, etc.
- Ask your friends and loved ones to refer to your baby by name and tell them it’s okay to bring him/her up in conversation
- Read stories from other parents who lost babies to remind yourself you’re not alone (Glow In the Woods, Faces of Loss, and Still Standing Magazine are good places to start)
- Use a scanner/camera to create electronic copies/photos of all your keepsakes and store them on multiple computers (or better yet, in the cloud) to make sure they can never be lost, even if something happens to the originals
- Whatever else works for you! There’s no right or wrong way to remember your baby
- See the Local Resources Guide here (under Helpful Information at the bottom) for an extensive list of other support resources, recommended reading, and memorial items (note: some sections of that document are tailored to the NY Metro area but most of the resources/vendors are online and available internationally)