In honor of Maternal Mental Health Day, I want to acknowledge all the parents who have experienced the death of their baby.
It is estimated that 20 – 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. In addition to grief, many of these women also experience postpartum depression. Giving birth to a premature child, or having a child spend extended time in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, can also take a toll on maternal mental health.
When I began my career as a chaplain in 1999, my first internship assignment was in an Alzheimer’s Unit. I would often listen to the stories of the middle-stage Alzheimer’s patients as they shared the glimpses of memories that passed through their minds, mixing decades together through loose associations. At times, I noticed a woman would state that she had more children than we knew of. Sometimes, it became apparent that she had a baby who died as an infant, who she had never really mentioned in public or included in her “official” count of children. But, in her heart, the memory of that child was still there. Sometimes, a family member would put the pieces together and share the story behind the child that died. Often they would say, “Oh, she never talked about that.” I always felt honored to hear those stories, even if I never could confirm their accuracy.
My second assignment was in the neo-natal intensive care unit. I was with parents who were facing a serious illness and sometimes even the death of their own baby, in the here-and-now. The natural questions arose: Why? What should we do? What should we tell people? And, often the terrible false feeling that “I’m not really a parent.” The women in the Alzheimer’s unit never stopped being a parent to their babies who died, and I learned to understand that the birth-mothers and parents in the ICU would always be parents to their babies, as well. Each pregnancy is a little different, and the personality of the child may be present in those differences. For the generation of women in the Alzheimer’s center, it may have been taboo to speak about a miscarriage or stillbirth.
My hope for our generation is that the stories of these babies will be more and more interwoven into our family stories through the years, that we will know their names, that parents will not have to wait until our dying days to share the love that remains in their hearts for these babies. Let us speak their names, and share their stories…they are part of us, and we will remember them.
Check out the H.E.A.R.T. strings Perinatal Bereavement & Palliative Care Program for additional resources from Northside Hospital in Atlanta or Rachel’s Gift for support group at DeKalb Medical among others.