Monday, November 4, 2019

In Grief: Coping With Infant Loss

[Reviewed and updated October 23, 2023]

I remember the people I love who have died even though it brings my heart deep sadness. Not to remember them feels like I'm living a lie and like they are dying twice. ~ Dr. Joanne Cacciatore

My husband Michael and I were just out of college when we married in 1965. Less than two years later we were mourning the unexpected death of our second son, who succumbed to an Rh incompatibility when he was barely three days old.

Our baby David Luke Tousley was delivered via C-section on May 23, 1967, after what we thought had been a normal, full-term pregnancy. He died three days later, on May 26.

I remember awakening from the anesthetic in the recovery room, with my obstetrician standing over me. “How is the baby?” I asked, and the answer was written all over his face. “Not good,” he said. He explained that due to a severe Rh incompatibility between my blood type and the baby’s, our little son was suffering from a massive breakdown of his blood cells, causing bilirubin to accumulate in his blood, leading to severe jaundice. Treatment required the baby to be kept in an isolette in the nursery for round-the-clock phototherapy (special UV-light treatments), in hopes that the jaundice would clear up, but the fear was that too much damage to his vital organs had happened already.

My husband and I knew from the beginning that our baby’s chances for survival were slim. Over the next three days our pediatrician took over the baby’s care, stopping by my hospital room several times a day to report on his condition. The news was never positive, and since I was bedbound following the C-section, our baby was never brought to me and I never got to see him, much less hold him before he died. I was desperate to know what our baby David looked like; my husband and my sister did their best to describe him to me, telling me that he looked just like his older brother Christopher, who’d just passed his first birthday. That was of great comfort to me, as I knew that when Chris was born the nurses had told me they thought he was “the most beautiful baby in the nursery.”

Immediately after David’s birth I was in shock. I remember feeling numb, empty and very, very sad. From the first moments in the recovery room I had a strong feeling of dread, as I sensed immediately that our baby wouldn’t make it. With the exception of my husband, who openly shared in my sadness and fear, everyone in my family kept assuring me that baby David would be fine. After he died, no one knew what to say to me. It seemed as if our baby’s death was more of a shock to them than it was to my husband and me, since they’d been in denial from the beginning, while we had feared the worst, talked openly about it with each other, and on some level expected it.

Although this death happened more than fifty years ago, and things are done so much differently now, I’m still angry that I never got to see or to hold our baby, and angry with myself that I didn’t demand to do so. I simply didn’t know any better, and in those days there was no such thing as grief counseling for infant loss, much less any special postpartum care for a mother whose baby had died. At the time, I wasn’t even moved to another room, away from the other postpartum mothers. I remained in a room with another new mom, whose baby was brought to her regularly, every four hours, as I lay there with empty arms and a broken heart. I remember one morning when the nurse’s aide came into our room and told us she needed to make up our beds “before your babies are brought in for feeding.” I glared at her and snarled, “I don’t HAVE a baby!” I was furious to think that, before being assigned to care for the two of us that morning, she hadn’t been informed that one of us was a bereaved mother whose baby had died.

With the support of my husband and our one-year old son at home, with my return to a demanding job as a nursing instructor at our local community college, and with my own determination to carry on, our lives returned to normal within a matter of weeks. That October we fulfilled our dream of having two boys close together in age by adopting our younger son Benjamin, and we became a family of four.

My own mother had lost a baby, too, when I was five years old. My baby brother Timothy had been born prematurely and died shortly after birth. My parents never talked to me about that, and when my David died, we never talked about that either. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things very differently. I’m sure my mother and I could have shared so many feelings that never got acknowledged or expressed.

What I remember most after our baby died is the silence, not only from family members and friends, but also from my colleagues when I returned to work barely three weeks later. No one ever asked me about it, and after the first week or so everyone acted as if nothing of much significance had happened to me.

In the first few days I did receive some lovely condolence cards and notes, and made a point to answer each and every one of them. Writing those responses was probably the most therapeutic thing I could have done, as it served as a vehicle for me to acknowledge, express and release what I was feeling at the time. In those days, grief counseling didn’t exist, and it never occurred to me to seek outside support. 

Because our baby died so soon after my C-section and I was still in the hospital, I was unable to attend his burial. My husband had to make all the arrangements and go through the very simple graveside service all by himself. I’ve kept every single one of the condolence cards and notes I received in a special keepsake box, so I can take them out, hold them and re-read them whenever I feel a need. Along with our baby’s birth and death certificates, they are the only evidence I have that he even existed at all.

We have kept him alive in memory with our sons and their families, and all four of our grandchildren have accompanied us to visit his grave in northern Michigan. It warms my heart that our older son and his wife named our firstborn grandson David, and our younger son and his bride were married on our baby David’s birthday, at St. David’s Church in Davie, Florida.

My lifelong interest in the subjects of attachment, loss, grief and healing eventually led me to a career in grief counseling. In my work with bereaved individuals, families and groups, I have witnessed over and over again the triumph of survivors over their deepest sorrow, suffering and pain. I have seen them experience profound moments of healing and growth, and I have learned so much about surviving and transcending grief.

Having experienced, struggled with and come to terms with my own particular share of losses over the years, I've come to realize that grief has taught me some of life's most valuable lessons. I've learned that losing someone or something we love can remind us not only how fragile and temporary life is, but also how important it is to appreciate what we do have: life, health, family, friends and loved ones. And I've learned that the difficult process of healing through loss can leave us with greater emotional strength and self- reliance, and a greater awareness of what really matters in life.

[Excerpted from Carried Within Me: Echoes of Infant Loss from Bereaved Parents by Joann Cantrell, and reprinted with permission.]

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