A Guide to Surviving Stillbirth
This guide was created to support families in the midst of child loss due to late miscarriage or stillbirth. It also provides a window into the lives of those who have faced this tragedy.
For a video version of the guide click here.
Either at your doctor’s office or a hospital, you will receive the devastating news.
You may feel shock, anger, extreme sadness, nausea, depression, all at once or in waves. Whatever you are feeling is normal and ok. Feel those feelings. Cry, scream, stare at a wall, whatever you need to do.
Push away any guilt. All the “what if” thoughts running through your mind are not helpful. This is not your fault. No matter what happened keep repeating to yourself "this was not my fault".
If your significant other is not with you, get them there. Your nurses can help call them if you cannot talk.
It is perfectly natural to want answers. Just know that you will not have them yet, so give yourself grace for not knowing.
You may have the option of going home. Know that this is your decision and there is no right or wrong way to do things.
If you go home you are able to pack a bag. If you stay at the hospital (or go directly there) you can have a loved one close the door to the nursery. Talk to your significant other and decide what is best for you.
Going home is your decision. If your doctor is telling you to go home and you do not want to, tell them. You get to make that call.
I was already at labor and delivery and I knew I absolutely did not want to go home. Fortunately, my doctor agreed. Do not let anyone tell you to do something that you know will be bad for your mental health. The same goes for going straight to the hospital if you want to go home.
At the Hospital
If you are not already there, you will be taken to Labor and Delivery. Many nurses and staff are trained in handling loss and they are there to help.
Just a heads up, there is baby stuff everywhere. This can be triggering and infuriating. I moved the rolling bassinette thing into the bathroom because I couldn’t stand looking at it. You are not crazy. Everything you’re feeling is normal.
You have two delivery options, vaginal and c-section (unless you have already had a c-section or have other health conditions).
Your doctor will push for a vaginal delivery. This is your choice. I pushed for a c-section because I couldn’t handle the idea of delivering Henry vaginally, or waiting for Pitocin to kick in.
Talk to your significant other and make any phone calls to friends or family that would help. I called my mom and texted my friend who had a c-section. After talking to them I knew it was the right decision for me.
A c-section is not for everyone! Some women know that the experience of delivering their baby vaginally is something they need to have. A lot of women want to feel the experience of delivery without an epidural. They want their child's birth to continue just as it should have. Additionally, delivering vaginally can be very empowering! Just know that the choice is yours and there is no right way to do things.
I will say that now that I have had a c-section I will have to have one for our next baby. Part of me is sad that I may never experience labor. A bigger part of me is happy that I will deliver early next time around. Recovering from major surgery is no joke and for me, the physical pain was a distraction from the emotional sorrow. This is an area where you will need to make the decision that is best for you.
Decisions and Options
Let me start by saying you will need to make a lot of decisions after just giving birth. These are decisions no parent should have to make. Sometimes there are no good choices and you have to make the one that is best for you and your family. You have to make the least worst choice.
Holding your baby
This is a very personal decision. You will have the option of holding your child either right after delivery or after the nurses clean him or her.
Fear is normal. I honestly don’t know if I would have held Hank if I hadn’t recently known someone who held their daughter.
Personally, I will say that holding our son was the most magical wonderful experience I have ever had. That feeling of motherly love is so incredibly strong.
I’ve known other moms who could not bear to see their children and they knew what was right for them. There is no right or wrong. Just know that everything you are feeling is normal.
I strongly encourage you to hold your baby, so you are prepared you can ask your doctor what they will look like.
Stillborn babies usually have what we call “red lipstick” just a little red on or around their lips. Depending on your baby’s gestation he or she may also be a little red. The younger the baby, the redder their skin will be.
Like I said, fear is normal. I do not know one parent who had a bad experience holding their child. This is your precious baby whom you worked hard to create. They will always hold a special place in your heart and your home.
Most hospitals have options for professional photography. This may or may not be available due to covid restrictions.
Any photographer who photographs birth and infancy can photograph stillborn babies. They do not have to have special training or be affiliated with a particular organization.
I was already on the fence about pictures and so we only have some from our phones. I wish we had more, but there could never be enough. I love our pictures and I look back on them often.
Due to covid, only Drew and I could be in the hospital. No one else from our family got to meet Hank.
Ask your nurses if you can have visitors and talk to your SO about who you would like to meet your child. Know that they may be scared, but assert your wishes.
Some states have funeral home laws that allow you to leave the hospital with your baby, or you can visit your baby at the funeral home. This is especially helpful if you have living children who want to meet their sibling and can't due to Covid regulations.
You have the opportunity to give your child a bath, dress them in a special outfit and have them baptized.
Throughout all this, a question you may ask yourself is, “What would I do if my child were alive?” Then do whatever that would be. This is your child and nothing changes that.
Mortuary and Autopsy
Someone from social services will most likely come in and go over your options. This was really painful and honestly, I really disliked the way it was handled for us. (A man came in at three in the morning and it felt like our decisions were being rushed, I was like ummm why are you telling us all this in the middle of the night when our baby is right here?)
You will need to make a decision before you leave the hospital. That does not mean that you need to make that decision right away. If someone is talking to you and you can’t handle it, ask them to come back later. You can also ask a loved one to handle this for you.
We decided against having an autopsy. Ask your doctor what kind of answers you would get and how certain they are that you would actually get answers. With that information, you can make your decision.
Decide on a mortuary.
I just took a deep sigh. This is a decision no parent should have to make and I am so very sorry this is one you are making/have made.
We picked one that was closest to our house. They were wonderful and I’m so thankful for their care.
Somone will have to call them and sort out some of the details before you leave the hospital. See if you can have a loved one take care of this for you. This is awful. My husband did a lot over email because we broke down every time we tried to call them.
Burial or Cremation
With burial or cremation, you may have cultural or religious reasons behind your decision. You may also have loved ones buried and you may want your child near them. Talk to your SO and make the decision that is best for you.
Henry was cremated and we were originally going to scatter his ashes in Zion Utah. We ended up keeping him at home and I love that he is with us. There is no right or wrong.
Holding a Service
Many families choose to hold a service for their child, either a funeral or a memorial. This can be a good way to find closure and include family and friends. This is entirely up to you and there are no expectations.
Again, I am so very sorry you are making these decisions. This is so painful and no parent deserves this.
There will come a time when you will have to say that painful goodbye. I have no advice here. There is never enough time or no way to do this that lessons the pain.
Know that you are not alone and that you are so very loved.
I had my c-section at 11:30 pm on Wednesday and I went home at 7:30 pm on Thursday. That is not typical.
I knew I needed to go home. I could hear babies crying and I couldn’t stand the thought of happy parents one room over.
Know your needs and tell your nurses. My nurse was awesome and she advocated for me. I’m so very thankful for her.
If you can’t go home ask if you can be moved to a different area of the hospital. There is no request you can make that is asking too much.
Get your prescriptions before you get home or ask a family member to get them. You will not want to leave the house once you get there so make sure you have everything you need.
We asked my father-in-law to hide some of the baby stuff. I didn’t expect him to break down the crib and clean out the entire room but he did. This was amazingly helpful and I am so grateful. This is not for everyone and navigating this is not one sized fits all. Some moms want to see their baby's things and hiding them makes it feel like they never even existed.
The best advice I can give is to keep open and honest communication with your partner and family. Ask them not to take action without your consent and be specific about what they can do to help. Here are some things you can ask them to do:
Clean your house
Mow the lawn
Stock your fridge/bring a meal
Set up a meal train
Walk your dog
Pick up prescriptions
Get cabbage, stool softener, and granny panties (you'll need them)
Call to check-in
Plan a memorial/funeral
We slept on the couch with the lights on for at least two weeks. I had the tv on nearly 24/7. Nothing you do is weird.
Everything is triggering. Check out my blog post Triggers and Scars for my thoughts on changing my mindset on triggers.
Door Dash is your best friend. It took me months before I was able to start cooking/meal planning. Give yourself grace.
Like any other delivery, you will experience postpartum. This may include postpartum depression.
As your hormones shift and change it is perfectly normal to experience restlessness, a lack of sleep, anxiety, and a lack of appetite. This, on top of the trauma you have just experienced, is really really tough.
Take each day at a time, go down to hours, and seconds if you need to. Breathe. You are going to survive this.
If you are feeling suicidal, or depressed, talk to your doctor and your significant other.
I was honestly suicidal at one point. I thought about hurting myself and ending my life. I talked to my husband and we got it out in the open. That open and honest communication (plus anti-depressants and less drinking) probably saved my life.
Ok, this part really sucks. Your body will kick into “we just had a baby” gear and that means your milk will come in.
Get yourself some cabbage leaves put that in a fridge and place them in your shirt until they warm up. This is really soothing and helps with the pain.
Wearing a tight bra or binding your breasts will help the milk dry up faster, however it can be painful.
You can express and donate your milk. Some women find this really healing and helpful. Here is a resource for that option. There is absolutely no pressure to do this. You have been through a lot.
To get your milk to dry up:
Do not express. If it gets really painful you can express a little in the shower. I didn’t and my milk dried up fairly quickly.
Use clary sage. Ok, I’m not a homeopathic person, but this shit works. A friend dropped off some essential oils and told me how to use them and when it comes to clary sage, I’m a believer. Mix 5 drops to about a tablespoon of oil (olive, coconut, almond, etc.) rub the mixture all over your chest. I did this probably three times a day for two days and it freaking worked.
It is helpful to wear a tight sports bra to help your milk dry up instead of just a loose shirt. You can also get this CaboCreme that is unscented but helps your milk dry up. I'd also recommend peppermint oil/tea.
P.S. you are not a weirdo if you taste your breastmilk. Curiosity is normal.
The beginning stages are tender, painful, and raw. I called this time the grief cocoon.
We felt really loved and taken care of by our family and friends. We were also very fortunate in that Drew was able to take a lot of time off and I don’t have a real job.
Try to take as much time as you can and enjoy the new intimacy with your partner.
Yeah so speaking of intimacy… The first time having sex can be painful emotionally and physically. Relax and go slow.
Waiting 6 weeks wasn’t fun for me so we adjusted to meet each other’s needs. Keep those lines of communication open.
Have fun. You deserve to have some fun so do whatever you need to do to make that happen. Kick guilt and shame to the curb.
When it comes to Guilt
This has always been an issue for me and guilt reared its ugly head hardcore after losing Hank.
After a “good moment” I would be consumed with shame. How can I be happy when my son is dead? What kind of mother am I? If you are dealing with this you can check out some of my thoughts in my post Let the Good be Good.
Talk about this. Get it out in the open. Shame has little power when it isn’t hidden.
Be it therapy, a support group, or long talks with a close friend. Seek out the help you need.
There are three ways of processing grief; talking, feeling and doing. I have learned that I am a talker (really no surprise there) and Drew is a feeler.
Don’t push yourself to talk or do if you’re a feeler and don’t push yourself to feel if you’re a doer and so on. Be whatever feels right and find avenues for that.
I am compiling more resources here.
Finally know that you are loved and so very strong. Connect with me on Instagram or email and do not hesitate to reach out. I’m no expert but I have walked this painful path and I am happy to walk with you.
In love and strength,
I also just want to say that I went back and forth on whether or not to actually write this. In the midst of my grief I really resonated with the statement “there is no guidebook for this”. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is personal, situational, and so very complex. The same goes for stillbirth.
That being said, I think there is an opportunity for an increase of awareness and information regarding the stillbirth process. When we found out Henry had died inside me, I was completely blindsided. I had no idea what this next chapter of our lives would look like. I remember looking at Drew and saying, “I feel like this isn’t a miscarriage, what is this?” he responded, “We had a stillbirth.”
That was the very first time I had thought about the word and all its implications. I had heard stories of babies who became very sick or had problems with the umbilical cord, but I never thought about (or knew about) babies who suddenly died. Sure, this happens to other people but they must have had some warning… right?
Wrong. If you haven’t already heard our story you can check it out here. Besides a lack of movement (I was told he was sleeping) and my unease (new mom how would I know?), we had little to no indication something was wrong. I had never heard the term “placental abruption” or even thought about the notion that a life-giving organ could stop working.
I decided to sit down and compile some information in the hopes that it will help someone who has experienced or is currently experiencing a stillbirth. As I said, there is no right or wrong way to do things. From here on out every decision you make is the right one for you and your family. So, take a deep breath and know that you have not done anything wrong.