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When a loved one dies, the process of grieving begins. Grief is the painful, but necessary process that lets us say goodbye. Parents, who have had a baby die, either before it is born or soon after birth, face a difficult emotional task: they must try to say goodbye to someone they had little chance to know. They must accept that a life has ended, even though it had barely begun.
If you are a parent who has had a baby die, you will likely experience some of the common reactions of bereavement. You many go into shock, deny that your baby has died, feel depressed or become physically ill. Two other normal reactions to death that you will probably experience very acutely will be anger and guilt. You may be angry at the doctor, feeling that he or she should have been able to do something to save your baby. You may also feel angry with God for letting your baby die. Parents are likely to feel guilty, often mistakenly blaming themselves for the death of thief child. The mother may feel that she did not take well enough care of herself or both parents may feel that they should have sensed that something was wrong and told the doctor.
If your baby died before birth or shortly after, you will likely be overcome by a tremendous sense of emptiness. Pregnancy often brings with it a number of expectations and dreams for your life as well as the life of your child. Now, after the emotional buildup of preparing to welcome a child into the world, you must instead accept the loss of both your baby and your dreams.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or “crib death” as it is commonly referred to is the leading cause of death for infants between one week and one year of age. The primary role of parents is to protect their children; therefore parents whose baby dies of SIDS often blame themselves for not somehow preventing the death.
How can parents work to resolve the grief they feel over the loss of their baby? Before you can accept your baby’s death, you must accept his or her life – the baby’s existence as a person. Everyone will experience grief a little differently, so don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing or feeling. It is suggested that you touch or hold your baby before he or she is taken away at the hospital and that if you wish, a photo be taken of your baby, as well. You should give your baby a name, thereby declaring his or her life. Make sure that you share your feelings with family and friends, talk about how you feel and express your anger and grief. Remember, no matter how brief your baby’s life, you have just as much right and need to grieve as any other bereaved parent. Well meaning people may try to comfort you by saying that you can have another baby, but you know another child will never replace this baby. Other friends may not know what to say and may seem to pull away. You can bridge the gap by telling them what you need or how they can help you. Most importantly, parents need to talk to each other. The death of a child can put a tremendous strain on a marriage. No two people grieve the same way, and you may find that you and your spouse are on such different emotional wavelengths that communication is difficult. It is important to set aside time to be alone together to talk about your feelings, cry or simply hold each other. Bereaved parents often find that talking with others who have lived through the loss of a child to be most helpful. The Compassionate Friends is an excellent support group for parents who have lost children and they often have an extensive library of books and resources available to parents. Grief can be very slow to heal, and there is not set timetable. If you believe that you are not handling your grief as you should, you might want to consider talking with a counselor, who would be able to help you through the grieving process. They are there to listen and sometimes help you put your thoughts and feelings into prospective.
If you have other children at home, you will need to explain the baby’s death to them. A child’s questions about death will depend on his or her age, but your answers should always be honest. As simply as possible, explain that the baby was sick and died, then answer the questions as they come without offering more information than they are asking for. Assure your other children that they had nothing to do with the baby’s death. Young children who perhaps felt jealousy or anger towards the baby may believe that their negative feelings could have somehow caused the baby’s death. Your other children probably had hopes and dreams for the new baby and how your family would be with the baby as a part of it, therefore they also need to work through their grief. As painful as it may be, you need to talk to them about the baby so they can accept his or her life, as well as the death. They will be watching you, so give them permission to grieve by letting them see you grieving. You will not do them any favors by trying to “protect” them from their feelings.
Grandparents have the double burden of grieving for the grandchild they never got to know, and seeing their son or daughter suffer pain. Although you cannot take that pain away, you can still offer your help in taking care of the other children, making meals, and most importantly, just being there and listening when they need you. Remember your own grief as well. You also need to express your feelings. “Being strong” for the rest of the family is not going to help anyone in the long run and often has negative results. Be together as a family and grieve together as a family.
An essential part of the grieving process is having a funeral or memorial service for your baby. There are several options available to you, therefore take your time and decide what would best suit your needs. Make sure both parents decide together so that the decision is best for both of them. You may wish to hold a private family funeral service either at your church, local funeral chapel, or at the grave side. Other families may want a funeral service that is open to the public to give their friends, relatives and neighbors a chance to share in their grief. All of these and more options can be discussed with your funeral director. You will be asked to bring clothing in for the baby as well as any other items you may wish to place in the casket such as a receiving blanket, small toys or photos. The funeral service will be tailored to meet the specific needs of your family, therefore, take the time to think about what you really want and then discuss and make the necessary arrangements with your funeral director and clergy. Although, at the time, you may feel a funeral service would be too painful to endure, it heals much more than it hurts.
For parents, getting on with their life doesn’t mean forgetting – it means finding a way to incorporate the memory of their baby into their life in a meaningful way. Remember, it takes time to work through the grieving process, but by being open and honest with each other, as well as allowing family and friends to offer support, you will eventually come to experience joy in your life once again.
Written by Connie Danyluik
Licensed Funeral Director/Embalmer