As October marks Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month, the topic of miscarriage and stillbirth occupies news headlines. From Mark Zuckerberg talking candidly about how he and his wife struggled with multiple miscarriages before becoming pregnant, to Kiele Sanchez and Zach Gilford whose son tragically died and was stillborn during her 35th week of pregnancy.
Even shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” are tackling the subject of pregnancy loss in powerful storylines. This month, a couple gives birth to twins who are diagnosed with liver cancer, and Dr. Karev has to determine which baby he’s going to be able to save and which will die. It’s a heart-wrenching episode, but what struck a chord was how one of the interns confides in Karev that he didn’t want to pursue a specialty in pediatric surgery because he wasn’t equipped to help comfort grieving parents after they’ve experienced such a tremendous loss.
It doesn’t matter how long ago it happened, certain dates, sensations or memories bring it all flooding back, and the grief can sometimes hit you like a tidal wave.
When my son Norbert died during my third trimester, I was in complete shock. Similar to that storyline in “Grey’s Anatomy,” my son had a cyst on his liver that went undetected and then burst in utero, causing him to die. In what felt like an out-of-body experience, I was forced to deliver my infant amidst my inconsolable grief and shock. After I held Norbert in my arms and said goodbye, a hospital nurse eventually took him from me and placed his tiny body in a cardboard box. While the OB/GYN team was trained to deliver healthy full term babies, there was no one in my community who knew how to support me as I experienced a roller coaster of emotions.
My subsequent pregnancy with my daughter as well as the time after she was born was filled with overwhelming anxiety. At the time, I was unaware that the risk of postpartum depression/anxiety after a loss is much, much higher than after a regular pregnancy. I later learned that I had undiagnosed postpartum anxiety and PTSD for 10 years. Despite going home with a healthy baby girl, I still struggled and wished there was someone who would have been there from the beginning, giving me tools to work through my grief and trauma.
After my husband and I shared our personal story in the Lifetime film “Return to Zero,” the feedback from other women who had gone through a similar experience was overwhelming. The response was so powerful that we formed the Return to Zero Center for Healing in order to offer resources to women, their partners, and family and friends who have endured the death of their baby and need guidance during their grieving process.
Over the course of the last year, we have spearheaded healing retreats for women from all over the country. The retreats provide these women with a safe haven where they can devote time and find comfort, connection, and healing as they honor their baby.
With the help of accomplished professionals in the health and wellness sector, we try to make our retreats extremely hopeful and positive. The retreats can be emotional at times – it is an intense experience but heart warming at the same time.
The Importance of Self-Care
When a pregnancy loss occurs, as mothers we often feel guilty and are angry with our bodies for failing us. Because of this we often stop taking care of or finding time for ourselves. At our retreats, we provide women with an opportunity to discuss this guilt and shame as well as the topic of self-care, looking at ways how we can add it back into our lives.
Perhaps they are artistic or a writer and stopped writing, sketching, or painting. We present different suggestions of how to start caring for ourselves again. Often it is helping the women to remember the activities from their past that they used to participate in and want to reincorporate into their lives. From lighting a candle to meditating, to going for a walk or a run, it’s important to take care of ourselves in order to find healing.
Coping with Secondary Loss
If the loss of your baby is categorized as a first loss, secondary loss could be loss of a relationship or friendships, loss of life purpose, loss of your faith or belief system. Some women who attend our retreats have near death experiences themselves. That is why we address secondary loss to help women understand the ripple effects of their experience, know they are not alone, and offer strategies to cope with these secondary losses.
Finding a Community
We have women attending the retreat in various phases of their grieving journey after the death of their baby. Some come only weeks after their loss while for others years have passed. Many of the women find it difficult in their everyday lives to remember the child they lost without feeling uncomfortable among others. There is usually not the opportunity in society to outwardly express that connection and love.
Many parents feel that the pain of grief connects them to their baby, and because of this they can be stuck in their grieving process. We believe that this connection does not only have to be painful and sad. Our aim is to slightly change the perception of the experience. We want the women to make connections with their babies that are more positive. At the retreat, they come to find a community of people where it is safe to find connection and devote special time to remembering their baby.
We believe it is important to incorporate rituals into our retreats. We have a candle lighting ceremony before each group gathering where we light votive candles and say each baby’s name. We also create a safe environment to have a memorial table where people can bring photos or items that remind them of their child. Sometimes there are women who do not have a sacred area at home devoted to their baby. After coming to the retreat and participating in this ritual, they gain the confidence to create a space of their own when they return home.
We also talk about finding ways to connect with your baby’s spirit. Sometimes people associate a spirit animal with their baby. For example, my son’s spirit comes to me as a white butterfly. We also encourage people to find a special place they can go to that reminds them of their baby. I truly believe there is a spirit after death, and this allows me to continue my relationship with my son.
We lead guided visualizations and simple meditations that help you to connect better with yourself and with that, bond better with your child. Our aim is to get the women in a very relaxed state, letting go of their anxiety and fear, so that they can explore different places in their mind.
Prior to the weekend retreat, we create a private Facebook group so that everyone can connect in advance and feel less anxious about attending. The Facebook group page remains strong and active after the retreats have ended. Each retreat has its own group and the members reach out for support when they need it. The women are willing to provide that support, share their personal experiences, and offer advice to the other women who are having trouble in their journey.
If there’s one piece of advice I’d like to offer to a woman whose baby has recently died, I will tell her you are not alone. At the Return to Zero Center for Healing, we have created a welcoming and compassionate community of parents who have experienced the pain and the grief firsthand and are discovering how to connect with and honor their infant in comforting ways.
It is our hope that the topic of pregnancy loss is not only talked about openly but health care professionals address the subjects of postpartum depression, trauma, and grief. While there are no words to comfort a woman who has just said goodbye to their baby, there are ways to help her live a beautiful and meaningful life. At the Return to Zero Center for Healing, women can find that support by connecting with other women who have been in their shoes and discovered positive ways to move forward – all while celebrating and honoring the precious life they have lost.
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