This past summer, my grandmother died.
The loss of her presence in my life was devastating, and yet also, strangely beautiful: death has a way of forcing us to confront what’s important about life. After my grandmother passed, I was surrounded by the love of family and friends – people I didn’t know personally who had seen my Instagram posts about her death reached out to offer condolences. Cards with kind words came in the mail. There was a memorial service: a wreath of white flowers, people who gathered to honor her memory, a tangible grave marker bearing her name.
The experience of the rituals surrounding my grandmother’s death stood in stark contrast to my experiences with pregnancy loss: at 27, an unplanned first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and at 32, I lost my children’s triplet sibling towards the end of the first trimester of that pregnancy. Both losses were devastating; both losses were emotionally complicated. With a handful of notable exceptions that I’ll always hold close to my heart, I don’t remember anyone showing up with cards and flowers after those losses. And I didn’t have a clue how to honor those losses for myself at the times they occurred.
A pregnancy loss is a death we experience in our own bodies: there is no death we experience more intimately than one that literally passes through us.
And while we may eventually find beauty and meaning in the experience of miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion alongside our pain, rarely are we surrounded by family and friends bearing cards and flowers. In many cases, the loss may be invisible to others or even invalidated with cliche comments: At least you know you can get pregnant. At least it was early on. Triplets would probably have been too much, don’t you think? At least you can try again soon.
We may even invalidate our own grief if it’s mixed with other emotions that seem contradictory – relief that an unwanted pregnancy ended before we had to make a decision about termination. Relief that a pregnancy of uncertain viability finally had a certain outcome. Relief that we don’t have to rearrange our lives to make room for a(nother) child the way we thought we’d might, at least not yet.
I’ve come to believe that grief rituals matter after pregnancy loss: rituals matter because our grief matters, and because tangible, open acknowledgement of our grief is essential to healing. Grief about a pregnancy loss is always valid, no matter how or when it occurred, and no matter what other emotions we may be experiencing about the loss.
If you’re grieving a pregnancy loss, even one that happened years ago, here are ten simple ideas for grief rituals to help honor your experience and the memory of your baby:
- Create an altar in your home to honor your baby. You might include a small figurine that aligns with your spiritual traditions, such as an angel or a Jizo statue (to learn more about the beautiful Jizo tradition from Buddhism, see the following links: The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage and Adopting a Buddhist Ritual to Mourn Miscarriage and Abortion).
- Hold a grief ceremony. Here is a framework that may be useful in designing a ceremony that is meaningful to you – modify it to fit your own spiritual traditions or beliefs.
- Wear a piece of jewelry that honors your baby: you might wish to have a necklace or bracelet engraved with your child’s birth/death date, or choose a piece that has your baby’s birthstone.
- Take note of the anniversaries that are significant to you around this loss, such as your due date, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, anniversary of finding out you were pregnant, or the anniversary of your loss. If you sense that these dates may be difficult for you, plan extra self-care around these days, or set aside time for a ritual that is meaningful for you.
- Take note of Infant Loss Awareness Month in October. Sometimes, local hospitals or churches will host remembrance ceremonies during this month – call your local resources ahead of time to find out what services may be available near you.
- Plant a tree (or any other plant that is meaningful to you) in honor of your baby.
- Hang a special ornament in honor of your baby during the holidays.
- Donate a toy each year to a child that would be the same age as the baby you lost.
- Light a special candle to honor your child – light it whenever you miss them.
- Have a star named after your lost baby.
The pain of losing a pregnancy is devastating, and often comes with layers of grief: grief over the loss of your child, and grief over the loss of the future you thought you were going to have with that child. Taking the time to fully honor your journey through grief, no matter how long it has been since your loss, is a gift to yourself and the family you may wish to create in the future.