Dear Orla – life after loss: The heart of a bereaved mother

Surviving stillbirth - Dear Orla - bereaved mother -

In the penultimate article from Michelle Tolfrey, who writes so honestly and movingly about the devastating loss of her baby girl Orla – who was born sleeping, she asks us to be gentle with the heart of a bereaved mother…

Dear Orla - life after loss: please be gentle with the heart of a bereaved mother -

Please be gentle with the heart of a bereaved mother.

Your happy birth or pregnancy news or beautiful family photos may be a painful reminder of everything she has lost. Her response may be sadness or overwhelming pain. It may be intense anxiety or possibly even panic; a fear of how she will be able to cope as your belly swells, or your baby grows. A need to run and hide.

It can trigger a renewed sense of grief and be a stark reminder of everything she has lost. She may feel guilt and shame that she was not able to bring her baby home. She may again question herself, her abilities and whether she did something wrong. Did she miss a sign or eat the wrong food? She may wonder if she has done something to deserve her fate when others are able to avoid such suffering. If she is a bad person. Or worse – a bad mother.

It may be hard for her to say how she feels, through fear of being judged as bitter or selfish. This only adds to the guilt and shame she may feel. She may congratulate you with enthusiasm or glassed over eyes, attend baby showers and birthdays, like your photos; but know that her fragile heart is potentially shattered that bit more each time. She may instead avoid, make excuses not to attend but find it hard to put into words why. Please don’t take this personally or criticise, but instead recognise and name for her that you understand that this might be difficult. Spare her of this additional burden.

Be aware that her ability to be strong changes daily, hourly even. That one day she can manage your happiness and the next she is broken by it. There is no logic, no linear path, in grieving for your child.

The bereaved mother knows all too well that the world continues to turn and other’s lives continue, even though hers has stopped. She would not wish this pain on anyone else, but she so wishes that this was not her own reality. Know that her difficulty in sharing in your joy is something that she hates and something she so wishes she could change. Do not cut her out, avoid her or withhold your news as this can lead to further guilt and shame. Do not assume what she should do or needs to do. Only she knows what is right, or even possible, for her in that moment. Ask her what would be helpful and how you can make this manageable for her. Acknowledge that you want to be as sensitive as you can.

Know that she wants you to enjoy your happiness, she does not want you to conceal it completely. However, she is potentially envious of your naïve, innocent and untainted joy that she will never again have the opportunity to experience. You cannot un-know trauma and loss. You cannot unlearn the pain of your heart breaking. Think of the words you choose. Words are powerful and can have a devastating impact. Try not to make assumptions. Do not compare your experiences of other losses or near misses to her own.

Please be gentle with the heart of a bereaved mother. Put yourself in her shoes and attempt for a moment to imagine how you might feel if your world had been shattered and your heart ripped out. Try to speak what she cannot and do not ignore the pain that she may be experiencing. Doing so does not make it go away. Ask what she needs and what you can do that will make this easier. Understand if she cannot explain and ask permission to make some suggestions on her behalf. This may take you moments, but poorly chosen words or actions can cause days or weeks of distress for her that you will never see. Tears, despair, desperation, rumination, isolation, shame, hopelessness.

If she does speak of her inner turmoil, listen and know that she has been so brave to do so. She may not be angry at you, but she is angry at the world for dealing her this hand. She is not jealous of what you have – if only it were that simple. She is devastated for what has been taken from her.

Do not judge if she seems more ready and able to share in the joy of those who have walked her path. Those that she has maybe never even met. Those that truly know her own pain and have supported her just by being there and saying ‘me too’. Know that these rainbows after the storm give her hope. Hope that she may too see lighter and happier days, even though she will always have a hole in her heart and soul.

Please be gentle with the heart of a bereaved mother.

Next Monday, we’ll hear from Michelle Tolfrey about the complexities of pregnancy after loss…

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The Early Hour is donating to Michelle’s Just Giving page – raising funds for SANDS (the stillbirth and neonatal death charity) – as payment for her articles. If you’d like to donate too, please click here.

Please be gentle with the heart of a bereaved mother was originally published on Dear Orla on 29 August 2016. It has been republished with permission.