The gel felt cold on my first trimester belly. I was too excited to care, though. We were about to eavesdrop on our fourth child, to listen to his or her tiny heartbeat for the very first time.
As Kathy, my nurse, expertly moved the Doppler across my skin, my ears strained to catch that “galloping horse” sound among the static.
One minute, two. Only static.
“It can be hard to find this early,” Kathy comforted.
The minutes ticked on. My concern grew. My husband Ted and I exchanged glances. And when our OB ushered us into the ultrasound room to “take a look,” I knew something was wrong.
Through it all, our five-year-old daughter Olivia watched.
It was the first time we’d included one of our kids in the momentous “first heartbeat” appointment. It was also the first time there was no heartbeat to hear.
We left the office that morning devastated to learn that our preborn baby, whom we later named Noah, had died in the womb five weeks earlier. And we found ourselves assigned the task of not only grieving personally, but of walking our three young children through the death of a sibling they’d never met.
Why We Grieved with Our Kids
Not all families approach a miscarriage the same. Many parents decide not to include their children in the grief process, while others do. I have friends and family who’ve approached this difficult season in both ways. I don’t assume to know what’s best in each individual situation or to prescribe one approach as “the right way.”
I think we have a strong inclination as parents to protect our kids from pain. Yet in the process, sometimes we forget that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” as Dr. Seuss reminds us. And these little people have very real feelings. Even though they’re young, they sense that something’s going on. While we obviously need to use discretion as a parent, I’ve noticed that when I don’t bring my children into a process and guide them – in an age-appropriate manner – they can feel lost and unsure. It can be more unsettling for them to realize that something’s wrong, but have me pretend that everything’s okay.
For us, grieving with our kids felt natural. We had included them in the anticipation of this new life early on. When that life ended here on earth, simply glossing over it wasn’t healthy for any of us, especially the kids. They needed a sense of “closure” as much as we did.
Four Ways We Helped Our Kids Process
Our kids’ ages ranged from 5-years-old to 18-months, so there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to guide them through grief. Here are four things we did:
1. We named our baby.
When we chose the name Noah and called our baby by it, this unseen child became more real to our kids. As Jenny Schroedel writes,“To speak a baby’s name is to move the child from the abstract into the concrete….you’re no longer talking about ‘pregnancy loss’ or ‘infant loss,’ but an unrepeatable human being that had already begun to have a relationship with his or her parents and siblings, even in the womb.”[i] This was true for us.
2. We talked openly.
“Mommy, how can Noah be in two places at once?” our 4-year-old Ava asked the morning of my D&C. She didn’t understand how Noah’s body could still be “in my tummy,” while his or her spirit was with God. This not-so-simple question from our preschooler led to a conversation on the eternalness of our spirits. It was one of many. Our decision to talk openly about Noah’s death provided opportunities to discuss heaven with our kids in a new way.
3. We celebrated tangibly.
We celebrated the birth of our third daughter Savannah with a Happy “Birth”day party, complete with cake and balloons. When Noah died, we wanted to tangibly celebrate his or her life also. We released balloons in our backyard, and read Scripture together. While Noah never had an earthly “birth”day party, these activities reminded our kids that we have a “Welcome Home” party to look forward to. They were a tangible way to teach that heaven is our home and we now had one more reason to anticipate it.
Our three daughters released balloons at the gravesite on what would have been Noah’s due date.
4. We remembered regularly.
One of our girls’ favorite activities was and continues to be art. We asked them to create pictures and write notes for Noah. They wrote things like, “I love you” and “I miss you.” We attached these pictures to the balloons and “sent” them heavenward. Throughout the next couple of years, until we moved from the area, the girls regularly left notes at the community memorial Noah was buried in alongside other preborn babies who had died. Artwork allowed our girls opportunities to express what they may not have been able to fully convey with words.
A picture our then 5-year-old Olivia drew for Noah. We attached this to a balloon she released and sent “heavenward.”
It’s been three years since our miscarriage, yet Ava never misses an opportunity to remind us that we are really a family of 7, not 6. Nor does she miss the chance to tell her friends – or her new baby sister Dorothy – that she has a brother or sister in heaven. While it may have been simpler for us to have grieved without our kids, our family is stronger because we have loved and missed Noah together.
[i]Schroedel, J. (2009). Naming the child: Hope-filled reflections on miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.
Ashleigh Slater (www.ashleighslater.com) is the founder and editor of Ungrind, an online magazine churning out encouragement for Christian Women. As a freelance writer, her articles have appeared in print and online in publications including Marriage Partnership, Thriving Family, MOMSense, Crosswalk, Guideposts' Angels on Earth, Clubhouse, Jr., and David C. Cook's Family Currents Newsletter. She currently lives in Atlanta with her husband Ted and four daughters. You can follow her on Twitter @ashslater.