Dedicated to our friends who came and helped.
You know who you were.
“No parent should have to bury a child … No mother should have to bury a son. Mothers are not meant to bury sons. It is not in the natural order of things…”
– Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
‘Need your help…David’
The text came quite abruptly in the night. My colleague had just received news that a close friend’s baby had died, and she was feeling clueless how to render support. Like many, my colleague had never experienced pregnancy complications, much less child-losses. But like many too, she knows of people who have. Among them us.
This was not the first time we were approached to render help to those who have suffered child-losses. As a married couple, we have experienced multiple miscarriages, two stillbirths and one infant child death. These are ‘accolades’ we’d rather not have but we believe in God’s sovereignty that this is the path He has chosen for us to walk. Now that we’ve made it to “the other side” of child-loss, we want to reach back across the fence and grasp the hands of all those in the same plight – to steady them, comfort them and journey along them – until their own healing begins.
You would think after a decade, surely it is easier to talk about our child-losses. It isn’t.
Different But Deeply Intense:
There are many forms of child losses, from unborn miscarriages to stillbirths, neonatal deaths, early infant deaths and teenage suicides. However different they are, they carry the same intensity – that deep searing heart-gutting pain which takes a long time, if ever, to heal.
The experience of losing a child is very different from that of losing an adult loved-one. When an adult passes-away, we have their memories to fall back on to remember them. Sometimes, surviving friends and family members summon comfort and strength to carry on the unfulfilled desires of the dearly departed.
But to a parent, when a child dies, the future dies. A future which you and your spouse have envisioned, seeing your kid take his/her first step…utter his/her first words…sending the kid to his/her first day of school…This sense of loss is immeasurable and will surface in any corner: at playgrounds, birthday parties, at the beach, at the park, at the hospital, anywhere. In addition, the couple may be wrought with guilt and anger. ‘Why me?’ ‘Why us?’ ‘Why, God? Why?’ Hence, psychologists believe that losing a child is possibly the most difficult loss to accept and resolve.
These intensely painful moments are often too complex for ordinary folks to fathom. Sometimes in their good intention to ‘help’ bereaved couples, they may come across as being insensitive or non-emphatic.
Help…from the Husband and More
The following perspective is mine – from a husband supporting my grieving wife, and as a couple who survived multiple child-losses.
1. The Doctor: We were fortunate to have a very caring gynecologist /obstetrician with excellent bedside manners. I know it may sound strange that I start with this point but if you suspect yours is a high-risk pregnancy that may complicate delivery, getting a good doctor who emphasizes really helps. Heaps.
2. Focus on Your Wife: “David, as expected, the baby did not survive. Now your wife needs you. Focus on her.’ With these words, our gynae, Dr. Foong LC, greeted me solemnly as he stepped out of the O.T (Operating Theatre). His words set the tone for this young grieving Dad to be in control of his own emotions so that in turn, I can support my wife.
Men are naturally wired to be problem-solvers but when confronted with a mixed bag of conflicting emotions – the precious baby is dead and the wife is fighting for her life… I find my mind darting back and forth. It helped that the doctor set the focus right for me in his firm, assuring voice. I channeled my attention to my wife while the good doctor tended to her medically. We were all focused on saving her from post-emergency C-section septicemia.
As a friend: Offer your condolence (say something along the line of ‘I am so sorry for your loss….’) but yet give space for the bereaved couple. At the opportune time, you may want to ask if there’s anything you can help (e.g. bring a change of clothes, order food delivery, babysit their pets or older kids etc.). The couple’s emotions are raw and they may not be ready to face visitors or they simply want time alone to grieve for their baby so please don’t feel offended if they prefer not to meet. Instead try sending them a ”Thinking of You’ Care Package comprising of simple everyday items which might cheer them up – coffee, tea bags, flowers, ice-creams, music CDs, books etc. Alternatively, you may offer to be the couple’s point of contact to update their friends/family so they can be spared from of replying the slew of text/FB/WhatsApp/email messages.
3. Beyond Words: No words. No, not even Bible verses will help at this point. They ring empty. In fact, I was thankful for friends and family members who were sensitive enough NOT to say, ‘Everything will be OK.’ Or spew some Bible verses to the same effect such as ‘All things work for the good of those who love God…”.
As a husband, I knew no amount of words can bring back my dead child but what I say and do, can make or break my fragile wife. I chose to be by her side as she wept. We embraced a lot. We held hands a lot. We were silent a lot but I made sure I was physically there with my wife in the hospital (slept on the hospital floor in sleeping bag nightly) and back home.
As a friend: Be physically present but be silently supportive. If you should talk, be sensitive of the couple’s feelings. What worked for me was that a friend or two came around and were just there. In fact, my ex-colleague, Aleric, came late in the middle of the night to the ward after news broke…He himself was a father of two very young kids but he came. We sat there quietly. He bought me coffee…we chatted sporadically but by and large, he just let me recount our struggles and verbalize my confusion. He let me talk. When it got a bit too late, I urged him to go home to his family. He offered to help me with aspects of work which I appreciated. Al’s wife, Karen, came the next morning. She held my wife’s hands by her bedside and allowed her to sob, for hours. Till today, we owe both of them that gratitude for validating our grief process and for being there at ground zero to share our loss.
We also remember the relatives who took turns to deliver home cooked food and replenish fresh flowers in the ward while my wife was hospitalized on complete bed rest trying to save our twins. We remember kind Pastor Philip Heng and his family who visited us to pray for Ashley before she was taken away to the mortuary.
Me and my wife, we remember.
4. Stop the Speculating: This is NOT the time to speculate on what happened with the ‘Whys’, ‘What-ifs’ and ‘If-onlys’. Please. Not as a husband and definitely not as a friend.
In such situations, the grieving couple (mostly the wife) would inadvertently blame themselves for the loss. Guilty thoughts would be darting aimlessly in their minds, affecting their well-being.
For me, I focused on helping my wife navigate this confusing, depressing period…holding her, embracing her and praying with her. There is no need to play the blame game or wish to turn back the time. It is futile and counter-productive.
As a friend: The couple does not need any form of ‘advice’ on how to conceive again…really. Leave it to the real experts – the doctors. At this crucial time, your presence and listening ear will suffice. Try not to trivialize the couple’s loss by saying things like “You can always try again…” or “At least you already have one child….” or “Maybe it’s God’s will that you won’t have kids…”. We know you mean well, but a loss is a loss. We just want you to acknowledge that our baby is dead and not make it seem less important or any less painful that it is.
5. Necessary Evil: Amidst taming our frenzied minds and emotions, there are administrative formalities to see to when your child dies. Here are some admin tasks where the husband needs to be stoic enough to complete:
- Signing the death certificate: The very first time I identified myself as a father was when I signed on the death certificate of my firstborn. In fact for Ashley, who survived one day in the NICU, I had to sign the birth-cert and then walk a few steps to the next counter to sign her death cert. It looks like a set for a sad movie except this was for real and I’m in it.
- Assigning custody of the child’s body: The hospital will ask if you’d like to bring the body back – for a proper burial/cremation or for the hospital to manage it for you (i.e. dispose it as medical waste.) For Nathaniel, our first stillborn, we were so shell-shocked that we took the nurse’s advice to let the hospital ‘dispose’ off his body – a decision we regret till this day. For our subsequent losses, we steeled ourselves and managed to give our babies proper memorial service and cremation.
- Choosing the Casket(s): This was tough. Really. Our undertaker was kind enough to bring sample child-sized caskets to the hospital basement car park for me to select. It was surreal…it was really tough emotionally, even for a grown man. I went through it twice. In the end, I picked beautiful white caskets for my babies as my parting gift to them.
- Bidding Farewell: Just like any deaths, there is a need to supervise the release of the body, book the crematorium, decide on religious rites, plan for memorial services and more. Family and close friends may offer help at this point to relieve the couple of the tons of coordination needed with various parties. If you’re tasked to help, be mindful of the preferences of the couple. Really. There is no need, to insist on how things should be done. What truly matters is your willingness to stand in the gap for the bereaved couple as they find closure in putting their angels to rest.
6. Getting the Home ‘Ready’: The toughest moment for the couple, from our personal experience, begins after the funeral, the moment they step home. Like any expecting couple, the home would have been decked with baby furniture, baby toys, baby clothes etc. to receive a baby who will sadly not be coming home. Everywhere you turn, you’ll be faced with stark reminders of your terrible loss.
I remembered whenever I went home in between hospital visits, I had to start disposing things that will remind my wife of the baby. This includes her maternity clothes. While some items can be stored away with the hope of re-using again in the future (e.g. pregnancy books), some others, like toys, cribs and strollers, may have to be given away as they take up too much space.
It would be good for the husband to explain to the wife his motive for putting these items away and perhaps leave a memento or two to validate their child’s existence, however brief it might be. Friends can help with the moving, storing or even selling of these items so that the couple can start ‘afresh’ once they come home.
7. ‘How Are You?’: To help the couple heal, it would be good to roster some close family friends to rally around them, to check on them, not just when the loss took place but weeks and months after.
I remembered my then cell leader, Andre, would offer to meet me once a fortnight to catch up and hear me talk – man to man. He didn’t push any agenda nor did he question me when we would return to Church. He certainly didn’t shove any empty Bible verses at me or gave me a deadline to snap out of my grief….He was just there to offer a listening ear. On days when I couldn’t meet, he would text/call to ask, ‘How are you David?’
I truly appreciated that. While we were feeling vulnerable, he gave me space and time to reconcile my thoughts and feelings while still letting me know that he and his wife, Clara, are never far if we needed any help.
8. Feeding our Soul: We needed the space to grieve and make peace with God. We allowed ourselves to stop attending Church for a few months but retreated into books and literature on child bereavement, especially penned by Christian authors to gain new perspectives on why a loving God would allow such traumatic and terrible losses to take place. We would read individually, at our own pace, but when it gets too painful or emotional for my wife, we would stop and head outdoors to take a breather. We also kept a detailed journal (similar to an infant remembrance album) to record our feelings and thoughts (together with all the ultra-sound scans of our babies). It was cathartic and serves as a memory keeper of all our losses.
9. Going Away: Two months after we lost our twins, my wife wanted to go on a solo trip, on her own. I respected that she needed this ‘time-out’ but I wasn’t too comfortable with her going alone, given her fragile mental state. Eventually, her Aunt and Grandma accompanied her to Hokkaido for a week. This trip gave my wife the time and space to reconcile with her loss and allowed her to reconnect with the people she loved most.
10. Moving On: After Ashley’s death, we found out that there is a Child Bereavement Support Group in Singapore that meets on a monthly basis. We decided to attend its meetings and mass memorial as part of our healing process. Listening to how other families manage their painful losses gave us strength and courage to pick ourselves up. If you’ve friends, colleagues or loved ones who are in the same predicament, you can refer them to the webpage here: http://www.cbss.sg/ On Ashley’s first death anniversary, we made a small donation to a local charity organisation in our babies’ names to fund one of their charity runs. It gave us a glimmer of hope to know that we can channel our grief towards the many good works around us.
As a friend: Friends would normally remember the birthdays of children who are alive – so why wouldn’t we do the same for a child who has died? It is a very touching gesture to the bereaved parents that our angel babies still ‘count’ when friends remember their birthdays and death anniversaries. Even when two, three or many more years have passed, it is still comforting to know that friends remember the day our world has changed forever. This is also an acknowledgement of the fact that even years later, we will still be deeply affected by the fact of our child’s (birth and) death. Our babies may be gone but never forgotten.
There is now a newly formed ‘Angel Gowns Singapore‘ FB group manned by volunteers who hand-sew baby gowns to bless families whose babies who have passed on. If only we had such beautiful outfits to dress our babies in when we sent them off. If you know of any couples whose angel baby would be blessed with an angel gown or would like to contribute to their work, please connect with them here: https://www.facebook.com/AngelGowns.SG/
Today, 13 years after our firstborn, Nathaniel’s passing and 10 years after the twins’, there are moments when the raw feelings and memories still sting. Death anniversaries are still commemorated with tears and silence. While we want to believe that our prayers have been answered – now that we have two lovely children – the questions as to why we had to endure child-losses still remain, only God will know. Having mature friends and family who remember our losses encourage us that while we have been called to walk this difficult journey, we need not walk alone.
In memory of Nathaniel, Joash and Ashley Joy…run to us when we meet in heaven. ok?