Housekeeping ran an essay of mine,
"Loving Lucy," that was timed to appear around Father's Day. Though it was
written to answer a lot of questions, there are a few that
remain--including, if you've not read the piece, the question, "what's all
It's about Lucy, our first child, who was born, and died,
in 1998. My wife and I have been fortunate since to
enjoy the arrival of three more daughters, and also to publish a few books, including my first , The Cloud Atlas. And though a novel
about World War II bomb balloons would seem to have little to do with a
little girl, the truth is that that book has everything to with her. (If
you've read the article, I do urge you to read the book; you'll see it
through different eyes than most readers.) If we had not lost her, I would
likely still be working at the wrong job, gunning for the wrong goals.
Losing Lucy definitely helped my wife and I reorient our lives. Things have
worked out well, which is lucky, or rather, it's not—it's the result of a
lot of hard work. I wanted to talk a little bit about that hard work here,
including some of the hard-won knowledge we've gained. (For the full story
about Lucy, please see the piece in the June 2005 Good Housekeeping
(PDF versions here, both
I offer the advice below
quite humbly—people experience, and deal with, tragedies in different ways.
What worked for us may not be right for you, or your friend. I will say,
however, that of the many e-mails I've received in response to the article
all seem to agree on several key things, and I've tried to distill those here.
What to do if you, or
a friend, delivers a stillborn child
First, if you yourself
have recently lost a child, my heart goes out to you. I don't mean that to
sound trite—"my heart goes out to you"—because it's not, it's true. You may not
realize it yet, but there is a vast, and mostly invisible community of
parents who've lost children to stillbirth: trust me, you'll feel their
hearts reaching out to you soon, if you have not already.
If you have a friend or
family member who has suffered such a loss, again, my sympathies. I hope the
advice below helps. Don't be shy about reaching out to them, but don't be
upset if they're not ready to receive you yet. Less intrusive means of
communication—a letter, an e-mail—are usually more welcome than calls or
visits, but again, this varies from person to person.
Things to do
- Take a photo. We never got a photo
of Lucy, and it's something we'll always regret. Even if you don't think
you'll want the photo, allow a nurse or family member to take a picture
anyway and hold onto it. Maybe you'll want to see it in a year, maybe
you'll never want to see it, but you will want the option. No matter what
condition the baby is in—and some deliveries, some circumstances can leave
a stillborn child rather wounded—take the photo. If possible, ask the
hospital to get the ink impressions of the hands and feet that they do for
live newborns. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a beautiful
on this subject, highlighting the volunteer work done by the professional
photographers of the Now I Lay
Me Down to Sleep Foundation.
- Hold your baby. No hospital should
deny you this; sometimes, they may try, if they think you are unprepared
to see a baby who is not "normal", healthy and pink. Consider their
advice, but please, please, consider mine: hold the child. Have
those with you hold it.
- Name the baby. This is your child,
a real child. Part of the process of making him or her real involves
naming. You need not use the name you'd planned on if that makes you
uncomfortable, but don't leave the child unnamed.
- Hold a funeral, and burial. Even if
you are not religious, you may find some sort of ritual comforting.
Cemeteries, morticians, and even stonemasons are usually incredibly
kind and generous to parents who have lost infants. They will often
dramatically reduce or eliminate the fees charged. (If they don't, or they
don't treat you well, stop dealing with them immediately and find someone
else--this is too important.)
- Buy cabbage. No one ever told us
this, and we wish they had, my wife especially. There's nothing more
painful, mentally and physically, than breast milk building up with
nowhere to go. Fresh cabbage leaves, placed against the breast,
help dry up the milk. You may also check with your hospital to see if
they accept donated breast milk. Some do not, and you may also simply not
be emotionally ready to do this. Don't worry; do what's right for you.
Things to do later
- Talk to someone.
Talk to a counselor or therapist or some other type of professional. Find
a support group. And: both of you should go. There's often this sense that
only the mother needs to grieve, or will be affected. Both parents are
affected, and in different ways. Both should go.
- Wait on your next
child. If you are planning on trying again to conceive, wait. You
would have waited if the child had been born alive; every child, even
those stillborn, need time and space in your lives. The next child will
not be a replacement (despite the occasional assurances of the
well-meaning, but ill-informed). How long should you wait? Your doctor may
tell you a year, or at least long enough so that the pregnancy won't be on
the same schedule. I would only say, wait as long as can, no longer.
- Read. Sometimes
the easiest solace to receive is from books. Books we liked and recommend
to others are Silent Sorrow by Ingrid Kohn et al., and Empty
Arms by Sherokee Isle. The first is encyclopedic, the second intimate,
and both are helpful.
- Reach out. If you are a friend of
a couple who's lost a child, don't worry if you have trouble reaching them
in the early days. They will need to hear a friendly voice weeks, or
months on—by that time, the immediate tidal wave of caring has passed, and
it's often a time when the couple feels most lonely. Don't be shy about
contacting them on Mother's Day, or Father's Day, or the child's birthday.
Never worry about bringing the topic up—if they don't want to talk about
it then, they won't. People sometimes worry, "oh, but I don't want to
remind them of this horrible thing." Believe me, you're not reminding
them. I've received emails from mothers who lost children 20 years ago and
they think about them every day. Of course they do—is there a day you
don't think about your kids? And if you're someone who has lost a child,
be there for the next couple who hears the horrible news. I can't tell you
what relief it has brought my wife and I to try to bring relief to others
in the years since we lost Lucy.
PS Thank you to all who
have written over the years.