Permission to Heal: Allowing Yourself the Time and Space to Grieve on Your Own Timeline
Why do you think we don't give ourselves the permission to allow ourselves the time to fully heal after the loss of our babies? And if we did how different would the outcome be?
First, I would love to take a look at what is behind someone not allowing themselves to take the time and energy they need to heal from the loss of their baby. Parents who have suffered the loss of a pregnancy or a stillborn baby are notorious for trying to rush their healing process and move on. No one likes to sit in grief because it is uncomfortable, and when we are faced with uncomfortable things, our instinct is to do whatever we can to make it better as fast as possible. We are given all kinds of quick-fix advice on so many things in life to deal with the uncomfortableness of pain, but this is something we are forced to just sit in pain with. There is no fix to it, no magic pill or stretching exercise or change of location that will fix what we need to go through and the only way through it is to feel it.
Luckily, (insert sarcasm) we all have people in our life who let us know that we are still young and can try again or that it was Just meant to be. It's a nice thought but what about the couple who have spent thousands of dollars and have reached their limit for this one last try at IVF? Or the mother who had to have an emergency hysterectomy because she had a uterine rupture? Before we accept the possibility that we can try again or see any of the blessings that were brought to us in the very short time we were with our babies, we need to do our best to try to heal.
The Imaginary Timeline
There seems to be a period of time that is deemed acceptable and they seem to be set by people who have never experienced a baby loss themselves. Have you ever noticed this? If you come in contact with a mother who has had a loss she understands without a doubt that this is a long-haul and something that won't have an end date. As time passes it seems to get better but it never actually goes away. I have been hearing more and more lately from my followers who have experienced the loss of their babies 20, 30 plus years ago who say that they still find things that trigger them periodically and that there's no end to the grief even though it gets easier to navigate day-to-day life as time goes on.
Dr. David Kessler is a leading grief specialist and author of a new book called Finding Meaning. He recently talked about this and said that grief doesn't get smaller we have to become bigger and that once you find a way through the pain you will find amazing meaning. He says that "a broken heart is an open heart" and grief can be and is transformative, but first, you must take the time to allow healing.
So how much time is the right time? That's the tricky part. It's different for everyone. It is as unique as the person who is grieving as well as the person who has left us. That's why I think it is so hard for parents of babies to process the loss. I'm not sure who assigned the number of years lived is the amount of time allowed to grieve but it's simply not true that longer or shorter equals more or less and no one knows that more than a loss parent.
We are told by Great Aunt Mildred to just stop thinking about it because people in her day lost babies all the time, That it's to be expected when you are childbearing age and everyone she knew had one or two and it didn't affect their life in any way at all. I find that hard to believe for so many reasons, but it's that kind of thinking that has caused so much shame and the desire to keep quiet for fear of being judged. Judged because we didn't get to actually birth our babies so we shouldn't need to spend much time grieving and can just hop right back in the saddle, so to speak, Or judged because we are assuming a risk in becoming pregnant that it may end up in a loss of some type so we shouldn't get "too attached" to the idea. It's this kind of archaic thinking that causes too much suffering to too many people and has created a society that doesn't appreciate how long it may take us to heal or allow us the space to do it.
What does healing look like?
Depending on how long it has been since your loss it can look many different ways. If you are weeks or even a few months out, it may feel like healing is taking place because you aren't crying as much or you are actually getting a little more sleep here and there. About a year after maybe you are pregnant again or thinking about it and healing may look like your loss was a chapter in your life that definitely isn't going away but you can begin to see a glimpse of a future again, even though the anxiety, grief, and triggers show up on a regular basis. Five years after may have you consumed by your career or other children then you suddenly go into a public bathroom where someone has a child that would be your baby's age and you burst into tears (this happened to me), and you wonder when you will ever be "over" your loss. 10 years out may have you starting to see the gifts that loss brought to you. All the ways you are more compassionate to those who have suffered a loss since yours, the way you love your children harder than you ever could have without this experience and an overall passion to be kinder to people in general because you cant see the scars they are trying to heal themselves.
I knew before I left the hospital without my twins that this was not going to be the end of the story for me. I longed to hold a baby in my arms and God willing I would as soon as it was safe to do so. I suppose it was my way of feeling like It was my way of healing, yet when I became pregnant again 5 months later, I don't think I was prepared for the mixed emotions it brought up. It was very clear that this new baby wasn't replacing the ones I lost and it was healing in some ways, but it also amplified my fear and anxiety in other ways.
Give yourself permission to heal in your own way on your own timeline.
If that means that you need to keep it to yourself and process in silence because that will truly serve you best- fine. do that. If it means that you need to take a year or two to process fully and get past all the "firsts' that were missed then great do that. But don't let anyone, even yourself, make you feel like your grief is out of time or inappropriate. Don't keep it quiet to make someone else more comfortable if talking about and remembering your baby is an important part of your own healing process. How would the rest of your life be impacted if you took the time you need to process all the feelings that come with your loss? Wouldn't that be the ultimate version of self-care and listening to your body? If it's something you have never done before or aren't used to doing, I'm urging you to do it now.
Put down the blame stick
I already know what you're thinking. It's all my fault. If I would have... I should have... My body didn't... whatever it is that you're thinking stop it right in its tracks. A very common feeling that we all have and almost no one talks about is the feeling that we don't deserve to heal.
Could you imagine wishing that on anyone else? That they don't deserve to heal their broken leg, or they don't deserve to heal that cancer diagnosis. It feels terrible, doesn't it? And it makes me a little sick to my stomach even to say things like that, yet we do this to ourselves all the time. It's this kind of shame and guilt that stops us from allowing ourselves the grace to know we just need some time and space for healing.
We feel like if we work on healing that it is somehow disloyalty to our babies who were lost. I know this because I lived it. I was convinced that I would never find joy again and while I was generally happy, I had a loving husband, two adorable, active boys, a rainbow baby daughter, and all the things life had to offer were in my favor, I was very cautious because to me being joyful meant I no longer carried the grief that I thought I needed to carry in order to be a bereaved mother, in the silence of course. I thought if I punished myself enough it would ensure that I didn't go through that terrible experience for no reason or that I would be sure to not forget them.
If this is you I'm urging you to stop this cycle of self-destruction. It's not helpful to those around you, it's a hard habit to break and it causes so much damage to your self-esteem, health, and well-being. I think most of all I want you to stop it because it isn't honoring your baby. They wouldn't want to know that their existence caused us to destroy our lives and made the others around us suffer as a result.
Truly honoring your baby means that you are uncovering the transformation that takes place on the other side of healing because you realize that a part of them now lives within you. You are forever changed and to keep beating yourself up because you are different is not kind.
Here's your Permission Slip:
I want to give you permission to breathe. I'm giving you permission to cry, and stay in bed, or lay on the floor curled up if that feels right. Permission to forgive yourself. Permission to smile, laugh, and even feel joy. Permission to give yourself grace when things don't feel good and you need to leave the party. Permission to feel the stab in your heart when someone else announces they're expecting. Permission to question your faith and not feel guilty about it. Permission to allow and ask for help. Permission to listen to your body and mind for what's true for you in your own journey of healing and the permission to give yourself as much time as you need to do it, as many times as you need to.
Jennifer Senn is a Certified Life Coach and Pregnancy Loss Recovery coach who specializes in helping women who are struggling after the loss of their baby heal and find hope to live a life full of possibility again. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her website jennifersenn.com for more info.