When Robyna May lost her son, Xavier James, four years ago, she turned to writing poetry, which she hadn’t done since she was a teenager.
May, who lives in Australia, launched her blog, Chasing His Sunshine, in order to escape the heavy pain she felt from Xavier’s death. He was only 2 weeks old when he died suddenly. May says she first felt shock and disbelief, and then entered a “very deep” grief.
“Right after he died, my arms completely ached. They physically ached because he wasn’t there,” says May, a mother of two boys. “You changed your life entirely so the baby would fit into it, and then they’re not there anymore. That gaping absence is probably what hurts most.”
Losing your child is one of the most harrowing events a parent could experience. But for many parents, grieving that loss may seem impossible. After all, how do you bury the child you expected to outlive you? How do you grapple with knowing your child is no longer a part of your future?
Healthline spoke with May and other experts on how grieving the loss of a child may take shape and the ways in which you can honor your child while you heal.
Grief is a physically and mentally taxing experience that leaves you feeling worn out, hazy, and despondent. But how that grief is shouldered differs based on the person.
“The most important thing I could tell you is that everybody experiences grief in their own way,” says Dr. Timothy Legg, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in traumatic stress.
While Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — gave mental health professionals “a really great tool to work with,” it’s expected that people will waver between stages, says Dr. Legg. Not everyone will go through denial or bargaining. Some may even pass away while still in the anger phase. And for others, depression may come before bargaining.
“It’s not a linear chain of events as the theory appears on the surface,” says Dr. Legg.
May admits that knowing there’s “no road map” for grief isn’t particularly comforting. When you’ve just gone through the loss of your child, she says, “You really do want someone to hold your hand and tell you, ‘OK, this is what it’s going to look like.’”
But May says newly bereaved parents experience some universal truths. You feel “absolute shock” followed by a period of anguish after “that fog lifts.” You will, at some point, feel guilt over how you choose to grieve or the first time you genuinely feel happy. And, one day, after a long period of feeling fine, hearing your child’s name may “plunge you right back down to day one of grief,” May says.
“That’s perfectly normal,” she says. “That happens to everyone who’s lost a child.”
When Susan Lacek lost her infant daughter, Faith Ann, nearly 16 years ago after an umbilical cord accident in utero, she and her husband turned to other bereaved parents for comfort. While their family and friends provided support, Lacek says connecting with other grieving parents provided a sense of relief and acceptance. They understood their journey and would let them fully express what they were feeling, she says.
“When you’re around other bereaved parents, you don’t need to be brave anymore,” Lack says. The couple runs Faith’s Lodge in Minneapolis, a therapeutic retreat named after their late child where grieving parents can go and heal. “You can just be yourself and cry if you need to.”
Communities where grieving parents and families can connect and share honest and compassionate support include:
- A Bed for My Heart
- A Place to Remember
- CarlyMarie Project Heal
- MISS Foundation
- Nickolas’ Gift
But many online support groups exist, and it’s important to find the one that best suits you and your path of healing.
May says she found many of the grief support sites to be “quite negative.” “It wasn’t helpful for me and how I wanted to process my grief,” she says.
Instead, May started writing to cope with Xavier’s death. Her blog gives her a space to write about Xavier on her own terms. Sometimes, she says, it’d feel as if the words flowed from Xavier himself, which helped her to regain the connection she thought she lost. And while Chasing His Sunshine is a public blog — one without much of a community, she says — May considers it part of a private grieving process.
“[Writing] not only became a way for me to try to resolve some of the issues I was having over his death,” May says, “it also became a way to connect with him.”
May suggests parents who prefer to grieve privately find something that bonds you with your child. That could mean writing poetry or painting landscapes.
“No one has to see it. It’s between you and your child,” says May. “But find that thing that connects you to your baby and spend time with it.”
At the time the Laceks lost Faith, in June of 2000, they were setting up her nurseries in their Minneapolis home and their lake house up north. Workmen filled the houses, but all Lacek wanted was to be alone. So she picked a resort in the woods where she and Mark could cope without pressure.
“It was so beneficial and healing to just be in nature,” says Lacek. But, she continues, they felt they couldn’t connect with other guests because they all seemed to be celebrating joyous occasions. “We were there for a very different reason.”
So the Laceks opened Faith’s Lodge, in honor of their daughter’s legacy, to give couples who’ve lost a child a serene place where they can find support away from their daily lives. Faith’s Lodge offers parents-only and family counseling, group therapeutic projects, yoga, bonfire and s’mores, and other meditative activities.
“We wish that Faith’s Lodge would have existed when we went through our loss,” says Lacek. Over 2,500 families have visited Faith’s Lodge so far. “It’s a place where you don’t have to hold it together anymore. You can let the grief come.”
Dr. Legg also advises bereaved parents to unplug from social media at first. Social media can sometimes hinder the grief process since news stories, photos, comments, and memes can re-traumatize a person in mourning.
“It’s kind of like when you cut your finger and the scab forms on it. If you keep picking at that scab, that skin is going to keep bleeding,” says Dr. Legg. “Let it pile up for a few days. Just be with your family, your loved ones, your friends.”
There are many ways you can honor the memory of the child you’ve lost, but do so in a way that’s meaningful to you, says Lacek and May.
The Laceks hang a stocking for Faith every Christmas and bring her flowers and balloons every birthday. Lacek also brings her girls to Faith’s gravesite on Mother’s Day so she can celebrate the holiday with all of her daughters. They also have a small special tree, named Faith’s Angel Tree, where they hang angel-shaped ornaments they or family members bought to remember Faith.
“It’s incorporating that child into your traditions that makes you feel like they’re still part of your family,” says Lacek.
Families who visit Faith’s Lodge can paint rocks with their child’s name and place it on the Bridge of Hope. They can also buy a bench with a special in memoriam plaque for their child, she says.
May says she spent every day leading up to the first Christmas after Xavier died doing special creative crafts for him. Today, she makes him two prayer flags — one at the end of the year and the other on Xavier’s birthday, June 24, to honor him.
But, she says, it’s OK if you don’t want to celebrate your child’s birthday or plan big memorial events: “It’s your decision, and your family’s decision.”
When a woman learns she’s pregnant, she starts to imagine an entire future for her little one. She thinks about everything they’ll do — attend prom, go to college, get married, and have children of their own. But when that child dies during pregnancy or at birth, the bereaved parent experiences “a loss of the future,” says Dr. Legg.
“It hits you a lot on the milestones,” says Lacek, who held Faith after she was born. She’s often reminded of Faith when her two other daughters go through key life events. One daughter is about to start driving lessons, but Lacek knows Faith would be driving right now. And when she sends them off to school in the fall, she knows three kids should be going instead.
May experiences the same sorrow. “You always know what age they would be,” she says. “You don’t only lose that time with them as a baby, you lose that time with them growing up.”
Lacek says nurses took photos of Faith as keepsakes for the couple, but there’s now a nationwide nonprofit agency, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, that will send a volunteer photographer day or night to take remembrance photos of you with your baby.
Places like Skyler’s Gift Foundation and Heavenly Angels in Need will help with funeral arrangements and memorial items for parents who’ve experienced premature loss. And organizations and online communities like Star Legacy Foundation and Silent Grief offer resources and guidance to help bereaved parents cope with stillbirth and miscarriages.
At one point or another, you will experience grief. But that grief, says Dr. Legg, should lessen over time until you are close to the person you were before the loss.
Yet grief can also turn into something more worrisome. Some bereaved parents may develop anxiety, panic attacks, or depression during their grief, says Dr. Legg. They may lose their appetite, have little energy, stop self-care, and express thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
If these “more ominous signs” are present, Dr. Legg recommends the bereaved parent seek counseling. He also suggests bereaved parents living with mental illness work with a therapist to monitor how they cope with grief while they treat their mental illness, and track their progress.
Lacek and May still get emotional when they talk about the child they’ve lost. But the way they cope has changed, and they now experience more moments of joy than despair. And while the feeling of loss may not be as strong as when their child first died, the pain still lingers, sometimes resurfacing in an intense way.
“Grief never leaves. It’s a constant companion,” says May. “But it becomes a much easier companion to walk with.”