Every year, thousands of families in the United States and Canada mourn the death of their babies.
About 26,000 pregnancies end in stillbirth in the U.S. each year, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. That’s about 1 in 160 pregnancies, and more than one-third of these deaths are never explained. In 2011 alone, 23,910 infants died before their first birthday.
In Canada, 2,818 babies were stillborn and 1,810 infants died within one year after birth in 2011.
While the numbers are staggering, often families grieve in silence.
Stigma surrounding childhood death prevents society from speaking about its devastating effects on parents and their families. While there is an open dialogue about some forms of death, this is often not the case for babies and infants who have passed away. What types of support are available to bereaved parents?
“A person [who] loses a partner is called a widow. A child who loses a parent is called an orphan. But there is no word to describe a parent [who] loses a child, because the loss is like no other,” [Unknown].
October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. This day is recognized nationally in the United States, and although it is honoured in parts of Canada (British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories), this hasn’t made it to the federal level yet. Not only is October 15th a day for grieving families to come together, it is also a day for creating awareness for the wider public on how to help support those who have experienced this devastating loss.
Bereaved parents face tremendous challenges after the death of their baby. Their grief is a lifelong process. The grieving experience might change over time, but the child will always be missing and major milestones like the birth of a sibling can bring back painful memories of loss. Grieving parents and their families learn to live with their feelings of sadness and happiness simultaneously.
A general tendency in our society is to focus on the positives in life—expressed through statements such as “You can have another child” or “At least you did not get to know your child too well, which would have made it harder”—which can be inappropriate and hurtful.
Simply being present, listening to the parents, crying with them, allowing them to speak about their children and acknowledging the babies, the mother and her partner as parents and the birth experience (if applicable) may be what’s truly needed.