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Speaking out: Honoring a trauma that doesn’t go away

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We got to hear the heartbeat. But then it was gone. Emotionally, it felt like my insides were being ripped out. Physically, it felt like my insides were being ripped out. And that was just the first time.

We talk culturally about how unnatural it is for a child to die before their parents. What do we do with the special dreams we had for our little one? How do we process something once so full of promise that abruptly became devastating? A 2017 New York Times article described it as a, “trauma that doesn’t go away.”

“To have a child die before you, at any age, upsets what we all consider to be life’s natural order. ‘You lose a part of yourself,’ Ms. (Anne McBrearty) Giotta said. Children are supposed to outlive us. When they don’t, grieving parents can suffer depression, poorer physical health and higher rates of ruptured marriages even decades later, researchers have found.”

October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and my husband and I are just two of the many, many people who have experienced it. In fact, for something that is seen as rare, I’m heartbroken to know so many women who have experienced miscarriage, even later term, as well as SIDS, stillbirth, and other infant loss. Our parents, other family members, close friends, distant friends, and co-workers had all navigated this grief.

It’s different for everyone, of course, and it can even be different from one loss to the next. I could more easily see our second miscarriage coming. My hormone levels were dropping despite medical help, and by that time (my fourth pregnancy) I had learned the signal. The first time, I had no idea what anything meant or what my odds were. We were blindsided. The second time, I remember opening my MyChart to see my latest test results and just walking out of the office in a numb daze. There it was in black and white, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

This month was nationally recognized in 1988 for the “unique grief of bereaved parents in an effort to demonstrate support to the many families who have suffered such a tragic loss,” extending to those who have “lost a child to stillbirth, miscarriage, SIDS, or any other cause at any point during pregnancy or infancy.” (Star Legacy Foundation)

Back then it was estimated that this affected 1 million pregnancies or infants. Data today show about 24,000 babies per year are stillborn in the United States (Cleveland Clinic), 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (Mayo Clinic), and there are about 3,400 infants who die of SIDS (CDC). These numbers tell a story because they aren’t just data -- they are people. Each one with parents or other loved ones thrown into confusion, sadness, and sorrow by what happened.

Like the Times said, it can be a trauma that doesn’t go away. But I am so inspired by the people who use their grief to support others. Several women I know have started benefits to help other families in their same situation. Others have attended and then become counselors at family grief camps. Many more, still, have just been open about their experiences when they saw others going through it, letting them know they were not alone. They were nowhere near alone.

Rationally, I think we know that talking about our grief is one of the healthiest ways to move forward. But when we experience grief firsthand, we’re not often rational. Bottling up our emotions can feel the least painful in the moment. It’s a survival tactic. Furthermore, when we know someone who is grieving, the last thing we want to do as Midwesterners is make them talk about it. This month opens an opportunity in both lanes. It’s a time for those directly affected to honor what they lost and find the healthiest ways to heal, and for others, it’s a time to reach out in love. Let this month allow for a pause in the midst of our busy lives so that we may hold each other together and move forward as best we can.

When not living it up as a wife and mom of three, Amanda Godfread is regional director of Make-A-Wish North Dakota and a co-host of the podcast, "Welcome to Our Box."

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