Prayerful Pause: What the Family Needs After Losing a Baby or Child

Though we are overwhelmed with our own emotions, our children need more attention during this time of grief.

Funeral for the baby alongside a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Funeral for the baby alongside a statue of the Virgin Mary. (photo: Theoni Bell )

As mothers, we respond whenever someone gets hurt. We show compassion when feelings are crushed. We “take care” when someone is sick. No matter what we are engaged in, we know our whole day will go on pause if anyone in the family is wounded. 

When a family experiences the loss of a baby, “going on pause” is exactly what needs to happen because everyone in the family is wounded. Whether a mom suffers an early pregnancy loss, stillbirth or infant death, or the death of a child through illness or accident, no one should ever feel guilty to take time to grieve and heal. 


Your Mental Health

Intense grief can last for months after such loss, even years. Beyond the expected period of crying and brokenness, studies show it’s also very common for women to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

After my stillbirth, I sometimes caught myself blankly staring out the window. I was randomly struck by vivid images related to the loss, which felt like being punched. For a time, I had an intense fear of death. I could not enter certain parks or stores because of their association with my pregnancy. These places became black holes threatening to suck me into darkness. Other triggers of anxiety were pregnant women and babies. 

If you are experiencing flashbacks, lack of focus, agitation, social avoidance, insomnia, nightmares, guilt, loneliness or mistrust, you may have PTSD, depression or anxiety. Make sure you have someone to share your feelings with. If you have been struggling to regain stability for more than six months, you should contact a doctor or psychologist to talk about your symptoms. 


Grief of Siblings

Though we are overwhelmed with our own emotions, our children need more attention during this time of grief. It’s not uncommon for siblings in families who have lost brothers or sisters to also experience a period of disorientation or mental imbalance. I know a little boy who still has anxiety about bedtime because he remembers being awakened by his mother’s cries during her miscarriage years ago. 

After we had our stillbirth, our 3-year-old daughter asked questions every day. She wanted to understand the loss of her sister. Outgoing and verbal children will often tell total strangers at the park or grocery store about their “sibling who died.” A child like this won’t stop talking about it because they have swimming or piano practice. It’s their way of grieving, even if each time it comes up, your heart hurts.

This type of heavy grief requires an immediate and focused response from Mom and Dad or another loving caretaker. It is emotionally taxing. Of course, we expect it during the early days of grief, but it can last for years. It can appear to have subsided into a gentler, infrequent grieving, only to arise out of nowhere again. 

Our 9-year-old daughter cried often when her sister died, and we had conversations late into the night. She was unable to focus on her schoolwork. But after a few months, she buried the feelings. A year later, she burst into angry tears when we read The Little Match Girl because the little girl dies at the end. Yet, now, after three years of patient coaxing, she can speak openly about her feelings related to the loss.

I was better able to support my children in their earlier episodes of grief, and the unexpected ones that arose later, because I slowed down when I needed to.


Being Tender

My heart was tender in those early days. The sight of suffering in others, even strangers, led me to tears. Taking time to heal meant cutting down on things that caused stress in our lives. It meant taking a break from schoolwork and lowering household expectations. One of my children had difficulty sitting still and staying focused during lessons, but even studious children can be difficult to keep on track. My heart could not handle the normal daily conflicts that arise when guiding the children through their schoolwork and chores. 

In the absence of our normal routine, we filled our time with activities that we could enjoy together. We went on walks to the park. We had a beach day. We listened to audio books and drove around to Little Free Libraries. Dad bought each of us one special brand-new book. We were relaxed about bedtimes, and the laundry piled up. The kids and I meandered through these days until I felt we could handle taking on some more schoolwork and chores.


A Word About Dads

Contrary to appearances, our husbands grieve deeply, though they might grieve differently. Fatigue seemed to be my husband’s biggest symptom. In the beginning, he cried, and we talked a lot about the loss. But after a few weeks, he carried an invisible weight. He didn’t need to cry or write or talk, though some dads might. His biggest need was to have me put every unnecessary thing on pause so I could be present for our family. (It was at this time that I deleted my social-media accounts for good.) He needed to watch TV next to me after bedtime. He needed me close, even if we weren’t talking. I couldn’t have been present for him if I had kept the wheels on everything turning.


The Workplace

It may be uncomfortable, but you should share the loss with someone at work who can advocate for time off. My husband was able to take two weeks off because he shared our loss with his boss. Many people struggle to talk to their friends about the loss, so talking to co-workers might seem terrifying. Most people you work with will suspect something is wrong. If you share the sad news, you can remove the burden of having to tell people when they randomly ask you about the pregnancy. Whether you can get time off or not, your co-workers may want to help financially or with meals. Since at least 1 in 10 women experience a baby loss, one of your co-workers may have lost a child as well, which could make you feel less isolated at work.


Pray Together

The most important thing my family did during the “time off” was pray together. While I was in the hospital, we prayed our daily Rosary together on video call. We continued to pray together each evening when I got home. It forced us to slow down, which made it possible to feel emotions that were usually suppressed during the day. We cried together. When one person needed something, the whole family was able to provide comfort. My son would rub my neck when I cried. My husband would take my hand and send the kids over to hug me. I would cradle a child who was hurting. We called out to God together. We sought Our Lady’s comfort as one. Our bond was strengthened. 


What Soothes You

Everyone grieves differently, and in the down time after our loss, we were able to figure out what brought us the most comfort. For me, it was tending the flowers from the funeral. I changed their water, fed them, and rearranged them for almost two weeks. I dried each one as they began to fade. I cared for those carnations, daisies and roses as if they were the body of my lost child. This is what I needed to lose myself in, and I would never have figured it out had I not slowed down. I still love carnations, which I learned are very hearty plants, and now grow them around the statue of Our Lady in our yard.


Find Hope

While you are in the depths of your grief and sorrow, try to find reasons to hope. In his love, God will not abandon you. He brings good out of everything. Loss can lead to more gratitude for the smiles of your surviving children or the moments of affection you have with your spouse. Take the time to cry with Our Lady, to tell her Son how much pain you feel, and God will show you the meaning of your suffering. You might recognize his graces better, because suffering with Christ brings his purposes into clarity. 

When we allow ourselves the time we need to heal, we open a space for prayer and love to grow. This time can lead to deeper faith and stronger bonds in your family. We will miss the grace that comes from carrying crosses faithfully and open-heartedly if we don’t stop to grieve and help our loved ones do the same.


Theoni Bell writes from Houston. She is the author of Jellybean: A Baby’s Journey to God and The Woman in the Trees, a novel about the first approved Marian apparition in the United States.