No one likes to think about pregnancy loss. When the pregnancy test comes back with two lines, your mind automatically flies into the future, imagining all that will come: when your belly will show, the baby shower, delivering your baby, birthdays, holidays, and the first day of school.
So when a baby dies, whether in the first weeks of the pregnancy or right at birth, that death is a profound loss for the parents, siblings, and other family and friends. Miscarriage (pregnancy loss up through 20 weeks gestation) and stillbirth (pregnancy loss from 20 weeks up through labor) affect millions of families every year.
Previous generations frequently neglected to mourn the death of those babies who died before birth. As recently as 20 years ago, some doctors wouldn’t permit a mother to see her stillborn baby for fear that it would make her go crazy, according to Deborah L. Davis, PhD, author of Empty Cradle, Broken Heart.
Thankfully, the medical community’s stance on the death of an unborn child has changed to include what we now know about the psychology of grief and loss. Many obstetricians now encourage parents who have suffered a pregnancy loss to attend a support group, take photographs of the infant when he or she is born, and memorialize their babies.
As a perinatal bereavement consultant at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, Geraldine Wismer offers emotional support for families facing the loss of a baby. “It is different [when a baby dies] because you don’t have the memories of a lifetime to share with family and friends,” says Wismer. Losing a baby “is a very unique grief. Parents’ greatest fear is that their baby will be forgotten.”
In Empty Cradle, Broken Heart, Davis writes, “Most parents find it helpful to have the baby memorialized in a tangible way. There are many ways to publicly acknowledge your baby’s existence.”
When my daughter, Beatrice Dianne, was stillborn at 36 weeks gestation, I knew that I wanted to honor the eight and a half months she had lived. My husband and I read about ways others have memorialized their babies’ deaths and found that there are many tender and meaningful ways to celebrate a baby’s short life.
Keep your memories together.
If your baby died early on in the pregnancy, you may not have seen him or her. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have things to gather for a memorial box. Perhaps you saved the pregnancy test results, the card you gave your partner to announce the pregnancy, or a small gift someone already gave you for the baby. You can also collect photographs of you and your partner throughout those first weeks after you found out you were expecting.
If you don’t have any of those things, you can still collect things that remind you of the precious time you shared with your baby: a poem about babies or motherhood, a calendar page from when you learned you were pregnant, or a collection of lullabies you were singing to your unborn baby.
For babies who die in late miscarriages or are stillborn, grieving parents often have collected lots of objects that can be gathered for a memory box. In my memorial box for Beatrice, I have photographs of her, the little dress she wore, a lock of her hair, handprints, our hospital bracelets, a certificate of birth, and a letter from my husband and I, written to our daughter.
Some parents decide to have their babies cremated and to keep the ashes with them. Don’t let others tell you that this is macabre. If it’s what feels right to you, accept your desire to keep the ashes instead of scattering or interring them.
Those who enjoy scrapbooking may do that in place of, or in conjunction with, a memory box. Natasha Hamilton, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, found it healing to create a scrapbook for Stephen Nicholas, her son who was stillborn at 43 weeks gestation in July 2002.
Keep a journal.
It’s important to write about how you’re feeling in the days, weeks, and months after losing your baby. Many people—even those who have never kept a journal before—who are coping with the death of a loved one find journaling to be a useful practice, both for tracing the curve of grief, as well as capturing memories and feelings about the person who died.
Davis dedicates an entire appendix in her book to journal writing, including how to get started on what she calls a “treasured keepsake.”
Buy something that reminds you of your baby’s life.
A piece of jewelry, a painting, a book of poetry, a tattoo…it doesn’t have to be something you talk about with others, just something for you.
If you have other living children, perhaps you could buy a mother’s necklace with add-on birthstone pendants. My husband bought a silver charm bracelet for me, and I have a charm for my living daughter and for Beatrice. If we have more children, I’ll add charms for each of them, as well.
Some of Wismer’s clients wear angel pendants, and a few have named a star for their babies through a star registry.
Plant a tree, flower, or memorial garden.
Set aside a portion of your yard for a memorial for your baby. Jill Czajkowski of Ashburn, Virginia, wanted to create a memorial garden for her daughter, Catherine Bailey, who was stillborn at 40 weeks in February 2005.
“Friends, co-workers, and family all chipped in when they heard of the idea by giving us trees, plants, a memorial stone, and a bench. Each wanted to contribute something towards the garden. I have one friend who has pledged to give us a new plant every Mother’s Day,” says Czajkowski.
Hamilton planted a weeping willow in the corner of her parents’ property. Though she can’t see her son, “It’s nice to see something that was planted for him, so it’s like watching him grow,” Hamilton shares.
Make crafts in honor of your baby.
No matter what type of handiwork you enjoy—quilting, knitting, cross-stitch, painting, etc.—you can use it as a therapeutic and generous way to memorialize your baby.
“I took up crochet and made baby blankets and outfits to donate to the hospital for other mothers who had lost a baby so they would have something special to wrap their babies in and then to have it to bring home,” says Beth Hansen of New Jersey. “Attached to each item was a little card that said who had made it, and that it was made in memory of my children.”
Hansen was never given a definite reason for why her daughter and son were stillborn: Hope at 20 weeks (in April 2001) and Daniel at 25 weeks (in April 2002).
Crocheting these gifts is part of her healing process. “It gave me an outlet to keep busy so I didn’t think so much. But it also helped me to know that I might be giving grieving mothers something special to have—although nothing would ever replace their babies—it was good for me to make something special” for them, says Hansen.
Collect gifts for a memorial fund.
Czajkowski and her husband organized a charity fundraiser. Every year, they host a big holiday party. This past Christmas, the first one since Catherine was born, they decided to ask their guests to give a donation in her memory instead of bringing wine, food, or gifts.
“After people heard of this, it evolved into a silent auction (we found a lot of our friends and neighbors had some wonderful talents!),” says Czajkowski. About 100 people attended this year, and the Czajkowskis raised more than $2,600.
They decided to support The MISS Foundation (www.missfoundation.org) and the Perinatal Memorial Fund at the hospital where Catherine was born. “The money that went to the hospital was used to purchase memory boxes from Memories Unlimited for families who will unfortunately go through the same tragedy,” says Czajkowski. “There will be a plaque on each box with a note stating that the box was donated in memory of Catherine.”
Adopt a cause you care about.
Hamilton’s son, Stephen, and her living daughter are honored on the Trans Canada Trail. Stephen’s paternal grandparents purchased a portion of the Trail, so the children’s names will be engraved on a plaque along the recreational trail, which will eventually run from one side of Canada to the other.
New Castle, Delaware mom Tiffany Chalk delivered her son, Jared, at 23 weeks gestation in March 2003. Babies born that prematurely have very little chance of surviving because their vital organs are underdeveloped: Jared lived 28 days. During the long days at the neonatal intensive care unit, Chalk read materials about the March of Dimes and its research and funding for therapies that help premature babies in the fight to survive.
In 2005, Chalk organized a team of friends, family, and co-workers to walk in the March of Dimes’ WalkAmerica. “I felt like every step I took was a step in the name of love for my son and towards finding answers to the question of why some babies are born prematurely,” shares Chalk. “What helped me the most was knowing that supporting the March of Dimes could help keep another family from going through the pain my family has endured.”
The first year after Jared’s death, Chalk was grieving deeply and struggled to find meaningful ways to memorialize her son. “I wish, during the first year after I lost Jared, that someone had shared their story about memorializing a baby, because since getting involved with the March of Dimes, I have a sense of well-being about Jared not being with us,” says Chalk.
Never Too Late
Even if an extended period of time has passed since your baby died, it is never too late to memorialize him or her. The March of Dimes website suggests, “You can have a memorial ceremony long after your loss. Or you can hold an annual service on a meaningful date,” like your original estimated date of delivery or the date of your baby’s birth.
You can also ask family and friends to join you in lighting a candle, wherever they are, on October 15th, a day set aside as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.
“Memories and mementos help you cope. They affirm your baby and let you experience a gradual goodbye,” writes Davis. And “rituals and memorials honor your baby’s importance in your life.”
In her almost 25 years of working with bereaved couples, Wismer has seen the power of memorials: “I think it is very important to memorialize a baby’s life. It is the only parenting you are able to do.”
Jill Czajkowski says that the various ways her family has memorialized Catherine have helped them through the difficult loss.
“Whenever we look at Catherine’s garden or receive a donation in her memory, it makes us realize just how much our friends and family love and support us,” says Czajkowski. “It has helped us so much with grieving our little girl. Plus, working towards forming a foundation in her name gives us a drive and a purpose to honor her life and not let it become forgotten.”