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Advice for those who have lost a baby and to their friends and family. In a nutshell: hugs.

I had a perfect baby girl, Zoe, on February 14, 2016.  Although she fought as hard as she could in the NICU for 8 days, she was unable to make it.

I just learned that a friend from the past, M, lost his newborn baby.  I don’t know any of the details beyond Nora was born early, was in the NICU, and passed away a few short days later.  He’s not a big Facebook person, so although we’re FB friends I don’t really know anything about the situation.  Back in the day (over 10 years ago…I can’t believe it!) I used to buy alcohol for one of the guys I worked with, J, and all of his friends.  M was a friend of J and we all hung out pretty frequently back then.  Since M was more of a friend-of-a-friend I lost touch with him over the years.  I think the last time I saw him was when J got married about 4 years ago.  He was (and I’m sure still is) the absolute sweetest guy ever.  Someone who doesn’t deserve to experience what he is experiencing.  Although honestly, I wouldn’t wish the death of a child on anyone, not even my worst enemy.  Well, if I had enemies.  I’m not the type of person who makes enemies.  But regardless, it’s something no one should ever go through.

J contacted me yesterday to let me know what happened.  He apologized, saying that he’s sorry to say anything, he doesn’t want to make me sad with thoughts of Zoe, but wanted to know if I had any advice for him as M’s friend.  And to let me know that he shared my blog with M.  Please, if anyone finds themselves in a situation where a friend has lost a child, don’t hesitate to do exactly what J did.  The main reasons I write everything down are to help me work through things and to keep all of my friends aware of where I am emotionally since I don’t like to talk about it.  But also to possibly help anyone else out there who is experiencing something similar.  To let them know that they’re not alone.  And that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  That there will come a day when you can breathe again, where every moment of every day isn’t consumed by what you’ve lost.  I’m not there yet, but I am getting there.  Please feel free to share my blog with anyone who needs it.  If there’s the possibility of any good coming out of this situation then I want to utilize it.

And never be afraid to bring up Zoe.  Especially in a scenario like this.  I don’t need a point blank question to make me think of her; she’s always in my thoughts somewhere.   And although thinking of her makes me sad, it’s a wistful kind of sad, not a devastating loss anymore.

I’ve been thinking a lot since I learned of the passing of Nora.  About what I can say to people who have been thrown into this god awful situation and to those who are friends with them.  Because I remember thinking how bad I felt for our friends and family through the worst of it.  I could only imagine how helpless they felt.

This is based solely on what made me feel “better”.  Everyone experiences grief differently and I can only speak for myself.

To the bereaved:

  1. Exercise.  Not for those endorphins, not for your health, not to lose weight (although all of those are obviously bonuses), but to get out of your head.  Those 45 minutes a day where I put on headphones, blast upbeat music and workout so hard that I can’t think about anything at all except taking my next ragged breath are a life saver.  10 weeks later I still need that time every day.  A guaranteed time that Zoe will not cross my mind.  45 minutes where my brain empties out.  45 minutes of freedom.  I never feel better (or more like I’m going to keel over, haha) than when I climb down off of that elliptical or bicycle or put down my weights.  Sometimes that feeling will be enough to get me through the rest of the day; sometimes it fades within minutes.  But it doesn’t matter how long it lasts; the important thing is I have that time.
  2. Get help.  I never did this and I wish I had.  Sometimes I consider doing it when we get to Leavenworth.  There are support groups, both in-person and online.  These groups are catered specifically towards late-term miscarriages, stillborn and neonatal deaths.  There are counselors who specialize in grief, even some specifically in childhood grief.  Reach out and find help.
  3. Talk to each other.  This is another one that I still struggle with.  Jeff and I are fortunate–we have a very strong marriage.  But it’s easy to see how this can tear a couple apart, even the strongest ones.  Even though he’s the only other person who knows what it feels like to lose Zoe, I still have a difficult time talking to him about it.  I think because he’s the only person who completely understands.  So find a way to communicate.  Go to couples counseling (which we almost did when I was at my worst).  Write in a blog/journal and let your partner read it.  Any way you can think of to let him/her in on your feelings.  You need each other.
  4. Let someone spread the news at work and with friends and family.  I can’t imagine how much more difficult all of this would have been pre-Facebook.  I hated putting that on there but it sure was an easy way to make sure that all of those acquaintances that you never really talk to find out what happened.  It’s certainly easier to write it down on FB than it would be to pick up the phone and call people.  And it helps to avoid the awkwardness when someone doesn’t know.  Jeff learned firsthand what a huge mistake it was when he asked his boss to not tell people at work.  A few days after Zoe’s death he went in just to pick up some paperwork and figure out his leave time.  One of the guys he worked with came up, clapped him on the back and exclaimed, “Congratulations man!  How are mom and baby?  Anyone getting any sleep?”.  Tears are coming to my eyes just thinking about how awful that had to have been for him.  And it made his coworker feel like a complete jackass when Jeff had to inform him that Zoe died.  There was no need to feel that way–he had no idea.  Who could’ve guessed?  The only way for him to find out is if someone tells him.  As much as we don’t want people talking behind our backs, this is one scenario where it’s better than the alternative.  Unfortunately when I returned to the gym and story time and various other places, there wasn’t anyone to do that for me.  Believe me, I contemplated asking the regular front desk lady at the YMCA to put up a flier for me, explaining that “the pregnant chick who was always working out had her baby but she died”.  It certainly would have made things easier for me.  Just last week I had another random person come up to me and say, “Hey, aren’t you the one who was pregnant?  You’re looking really great!” (which was a bit weird since it came from a 65 year old man.  He wasn’t gross about it, but it was still a bit uncomfortable.  I  could tell he regretted his choice of words after they came out, haha).
  5. Accept hugs from strangers.  By stranger I really mean more like people you know, but don’t really know.  Dear God, please don’t go up to random people in the grocery store and say, “Can I have a hug?”.  Like I’m going to mention here in a minute in the friends and family section, hugs are amazing.  Hugs are almost a cure all.  Especially when people don’t ruin them with words.  The first time I went back to the gym and the front desk lady asked me all about the baby I burst into tears.  She asked me if I wanted a hug and I told her no.  As I continued to stand there and sob she told me she didn’t care, she was giving me one anyway.  And man was it hard to let go of her once it started.  That hug was exactly what I needed at that moment in time.  And sure, every time I check into the gym and see her I feel awkward remembering that hug from a relative stranger, but I don’t care.  Nothing could have felt better at the time.  I didn’t want to say yes, but I wanted one so badly.  So just say yes.  It’s the right answer.
  6. Grief really is like waves. Those experts weren’t kidding about that. One minute I’m fine, the next sobbing for no apparent reason. It’s all consuming. It’s powerful. Let it consume you. Have a breakdown. Don’t fight it. It’s inevitable and the sooner you come to terms with that and succumb, the sooner you’ll be able to start to heal. This is another one I’m still working on.
  7. Whatever you’re feeling is the right way to feel. Sometimes you’ll be okay–that’s okay (better than okay–that’s wonderful). Sometimes you’ll be a hot mess–also okay. Sometimes you’ll be angry, depressed, inconsolable, ecstatic, a zombie. Those emotions and thousands of more are all okay. Everyone grieves differently. There’s no timeline, no right or wrong way to do it. Go easy on yourself–the last thing you need is to feel guilty that you’re not “getting over it” fast enough or too fast. Do what you need to do.
  8. You’re going to regress. You’ll have some really good moments in the beginning…and then some good hours…some good days…eventually good months in a row. But it will hit you like a brick, seemingly out of nowhere. The first time I stumbled backwards I was devastated. I thought I was better; the grief had subsided. And it does–but not permanently. And just because you are back to being a hot mess doesn’t mean that stage is going to last either. Allow yourself to have a meltdown.
  9. Don’t actually steal a baby. Hand-in-hand with having to tell people your baby died is seeing other babies and pregnant women in public. Nothing will prepare you for that and it doesn’t get any easier. Leave if you need to. Ask to hold the baby if you think that will help. I never had the courage for the last one but I wish I had. You will now understand why some people steal babies. Empathize with them, but don’t actually do it! Grieving parents can get away with a lot, but I’m pretty sure that one is still frowned upon…
  10. It will eventually be bearable. There’s no timeline, no end date, but it will happen eventually. You’ll never get over it, it will never be okay, but someday you’ll be able to function like a normal person. Hold onto that thought. Don’t rush it; you’ll get there when you get there. But know that you will get there eventually.

To the friends and family:

  1. Be there.  It doesn’t have to be physically, although that’s definitely the best way.  As much as I dreaded going home for Zoe’s memorial, it actually ended up being so much better than I thought.  I was with my people.  Just sitting around with my friends and family, the people who care about me the most in the world besides Jeff, was such a relief.  To just talk about things.  To just have company.  Although I absolutely love everything that everyone sent us–the statues, the books, the jewelry, the flowers, the thing that meant the most to me was that J drove 3 hours to come to Zoe’s memorial, stayed the 2 hours he had a sitter for, and then turned around and drove the 3 hours back.  I had assumed that he wouldn’t be able to make it (which I would have completely understood.  Things are complicated now with jobs and kids.  I still feel awful that I wasn’t able to make it to Noelle’s mom’s or dad’s funeral because of life, even though I know she understands).  That’s friendship.
  2. Check in.  Like I said, it doesn’t have to be in-person.  The texts and FB messages just asking how I was every few days–those were just as important.  Although there were times that I didn’t answer and times when I felt annoyed and overwhelmed by them, I needed them.  I can’t talk about my feelings on my own–I need to be asked.  Even though I still don’t like talking one-on-one with people about it, I’d much rather keep everyone updated through my blog, just knowing that people were thinking of me was helpful.  I’ll never bring up my feelings on my own, and even though there’s a good chance that I still won’t be honest when asked point blank, there is still a chance I’ll talk.  Give me the option.  And don’t just do it the first couple of days, the first couple of weeks.  Keep on checking in.  Sure, it’s “easier” as time goes on, but there are still bad moments, bad hours, bad days.  And the more time that passes the less people ask.  Be one of those people that sticks around.
  3. Less is more.  There is absolutely nothing that you can say to make it better.  I know that, you know that, everyone knows that.  So don’t try.  Offer a simple “I am so sorry for your loss.  I am thinking/praying about you and your family.”  Leave it at that.  Don’t try to fill the silences, don’t drone on and on how she’s in a better place, how now at least you have a guardian angel, how at least she isn’t in any pain any more.  Let me say all of those things if I want to, and then agree.  And honestly a hug goes a long way.  A hug says it all.  Those are the times when I would lose it around people–when I was being hugged.  Opt for hugs, not words.
  4. Ask about the baby.  My emotions aren’t the only thing I have a difficult time bringing up on my own.  I won’t talk about Zoe unless asked.  I know it’s dumb, especially with family and my closest friends, but I feel like nobody wants to listen to me drone on and on about my dead baby.  It’s depressing.  But if you ask me about her then I feel perfectly justified talking about her.  And I want to talk about her.  I want to talk about what she’d be doing at almost 3 months old.  About what it was like sitting by her bedside.  About the songs we sang, the books we read, the nurses and doctors who took care of her.  How much she weighed, her birth story, why we chose the name we did.  She’s a part of my life and I don’t want to pretend she isn’t.  Zoe changed who I am more than J or C ever will.  Jeff pointed out that talking about her is all we have left of her–of course we want to be able to do it.
  5. Opt for a donation over flowers.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved having all of the flowers.  I debated even saying anything because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or make anyone think for a single second that we didn’t appreciate and love all of the flowers.  But it was the people who made a donation in Zoe’s name to a cause related to her death that I truly treasured.  We had some people give to the Ronald McDonald house after I raved about them and what a difference they made in our lives during that week.  We had some donations go to the American Heart Association since Zoe’s problem has yet to be diagnosed, but was related to her heart.  Even if there wasn’t a cause or an organization that made a difference in the grieving couples’ lives, there are still places to consider.  If they were amazed by the hospital staff like we were, donate to the hospital.  There are organizations out there that help families that can’t afford it to bury their babies (had we opted to bury Zoe instead of having her cremated it would have been an outrageous expense).  Grief support groups.  Organizations that provide grieving families with “gifts” that I’m sure could use the money.  Just find something reputable.
  6. Show that there’s still good in the world.  One of the biggest things that has stuck in my mind through all of this is a gift from a random stranger.  There was an envelope in my mail a few weeks back addressed to me with a return address I didn’t recognize.  I opened it up to reveal a bracelet and a card.  The card said simply “Nicole:  Just a little note to let you know that people (some you have never met) are praying for you, baby Zoe and your family!” and was signed by a name I’d never heard before.  The bracelet is beautiful–it’s comprised of silver and amethyst (Zoe’s birthstone) beads and has a butterfly on one side.  Most importantly, however, it also included a typed note explaining that 20 percent of the proceeds from the bracelet are donated directly to a charity that assists families who can’t afford to bury their newborn children.  The fact that some stranger would not only send me a note and buy a bracelet that not only honors Zoe’s memory but also gives to a charity that helps families in similar situations hit me hard.  It was what I needed.  So if you ever hear of a friend of a friend or read in the paper a story about a premature death, consider doing something like that for a stranger in need.  So simple and yet it meant the world to me.
  7. Share.  J did the exact thing he should have done.  He passed along my blog to M and his wife.  He told me what happened so I can also reach out myself.  Please, if you ever have a friend in this situation (knock on wood that you never do), please do what he did.  The couple may not read it, may not talk to me, and that’s perfectly understandable and more than fine.  But they may want to.  Give them that option.  I remember a few weeks after Zoe’s death I was having a really hard time.  I went online to look through some support groups to see if that would help.  It ended up having the exact opposite effect:  I was reading all of these stories about people who 3, 6, 9 months later were still unable to get out of bed.  Who were still completely consumed by their grief.  Who had made zero progress in healing.  I was devastated.  I couldn’t do that for 3 more months.  Hell, I couldn’t do it for 3 more weeks.  Jeff’s cousin and his wife had a stillborn boy, Titus, a few years back.  She had reached out to me a few times, letting me know that she knew what I was going through and was there if I ever needed to talk.  I never took her up on it until that afternoon.  I messaged her and told her what I had read and that I needed to know how long it took her to start healing.  That I needed to know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  That some day I was going to be okay.  And I didn’t need to hear that from friends and family who had no idea what it is like to lose a baby.  I needed to hear it from someone who had been there.  I needed to know that it was going to be okay.  So even if the couple you know doesn’t read my blog immediately or ever get in contact with me, at least it’s there if they need it.

Like I said, this is just what helped me.  Some people may not want to talk about their babies.  Some people may have no problem discussing their feelings.  Some people may “get over” it easier or take longer.  Just be there for them.  Be willing to listen, any time, any place.  No need for advice, for words of wisdom, for gifts, for anything except you.  That’s all you can do.

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