Yes, it's healthy to remember and honor the baby

There’s grief that we talk about — the grief that follows the loss of a spouse, a parent, a sibling — and then there’s a grief that we rarely mention. We downplay it, sweep it under the rug, forget it even exists. That’s the grief that follows a miscarriage or stillbirth, and it’s a grief that hasn’t much been talked about in Western society until recently.

Miscarriage and infant death are heartbreakingly common. In the U.S., one out of every five or six confirmed pregnancies ends in miscarriage. One in about 200 pregnancies ends in stillbirth. More infants die within their first 24 hours of life: about 11,300 every year. Miscarriage or infant death has almost certainly happened to someone you know — but they may not have even told you about it.

Especially in the case of a miscarriage — and even more so in the case of an early miscarriage — those who lose a baby are expected by society to move on quickly. They never got to know a living, breathing human being, never got to love their personality and quirks, so what’s to mourn, we reason. But the reality couldn’t be more different. Miscarriage can be emotionally devastating, and it can take a long time to heal from the grief it causes.

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One of the crucial steps in the grieving process is to celebrate the deceased’s life with a funeral or memorial service. But that’s a step that has traditionally been left out for those who suffered a miscarriage. Until recently, it would have been considered highly unusual to invite family and friends to a memorial service for a miscarried child who never drew breath. But that’s beginning to change, and funeral homes like Woody Funeral Home in Richmond, Virginia are helping guide us toward a new kind of memorial tribute.

Doctors and nurses at local hospitals know that when would-be parents are grieving, Woody Funeral Home is one place they can send them. Funeral director Ingrid Brown will talk to them about the ways Woody can help arrange a beautiful, customized memorial service for them — often, free of charge.

“We don’t want to make any money from a baby,” Brown tells us. There may be a small fee for an urn or casket, if one is used — just enough to offset some of the cost to the funeral home. But the stereotypical thousands-of-dollars funeral is absolutely not what Ingrid wants to offer these grieving parents. “We try very hard to do as much as we can. And they have access to the whole funeral home,” so they can choose exactly the service they want, without worrying about money.

Some families opt for a visitation or memorial service as well as a graveside service, just like they would do for an adult. It’s very common, Brown says. But “Sometimes the moms can only handle too much. They can only go to one place, and that’s it.” She means physically — in the immediate aftermath of losing a baby, a woman can be weakened and in pain. But for many, it still means a lot to have at least a graveside service.

That service matters for the fathers, too, and Ingrid finds that these men often approach her with a request they’re not sure they should make. “The fathers want to place the baby in the ground, and they cover the baby,” she tells us. “They actually bury their own babies. Most of them say, ‘It’s because it’s the last thing I can do for them.’”

Not all services for miscarried or stillborn babies are quite so traditional. At Woody Funeral Home, Brown says, sometimes families are looking for something a little more creative. That could be a balloon launch, an evening service with sparklers, or even just a small prayer together. The goal isn’t to fit a specific mold, but to acknowledge and honor the grief the family is experiencing.

That’s a grief that doesn’t follow any timelines. A very early miscarriage can be just as devastating as a stillbirth — and in many cases, the family doesn’t have the support of their social network for an early miscarriage, because convention tells us we should never announce a pregnancy before three months. The reasoning is that we wouldn’t want to have to “take back” the pregnancy announcement if it ends in miscarriage. But for many who suffer an early miscarriage, it’s not as simple as just never mentioning it at all. Grief can be massive, and loved ones can help get us through it.

A memorial service can help draw out that support and comfort from loved ones, even if there is no body to bury or cremate. A funeral after an early miscarriage is just as valid as one after an infant’s death, Brown says. It’s all about what will help the family: “You can lose a baby at ten, eight weeks, and to us, that’s a baby. We don’t really make those rules. It’s considered a baby when you tell me it’s a baby.”  

(Locate a nearby funeral director for help and consultation)