Should Parents “Move On” After Their Baby Dies?

When parents experience the death of a baby—at any time during pregnancy, birth, or early infancy—many of us cannot comprehend the depth of the parents’ bond and their grief. We may wonder, “What’s the big deal? Just move on and have another!!” And grieving parents marvel at how clueless we are.

Unfortunately, some medical and mental health professionals echo this naiveté, mostly because they lack sufficient training, sensitivity, or support for offering quality perinatal bereavement care.

Why are we so out of touch with how deeply parents are affected by the death of a baby?

 Deborah L. DavisParents are deeply affected by the death of their baby. Source: Deborah L. Davis

We didn’t used to be. Before the 1900’s, when birth and death typically happened at home, parents were able to spend time with their baby, taking care of the body until interment. Family and friends would stop by to pay their respects and witness the parents’ devotion. Mourning was expected and rituals gave meaning, comfort, and memories.

But by the mid-1900’s, modern medicine had pushed birth and death out of the home and into the hospital. Lives have been saved and extended, but this shift turned family events into medical events. There was no room for traditional wisdom, longstanding rituals, or even loved ones at the bedside. As a result, these monumental life transitions became unfamiliar, and often feared.

Talk about what it means to be a good person. Start early: When you read bedtime stories, for example, ask your toddler whether characters are being mean or nice and explore why.

Over the past 5 decades, we’ve been slowly reclaiming our birthing experiences and the care of our newborns. We no longer tolerate drugged-up labor, hyper-managed deliveries, family members and friends banished to waiting rooms, and newborns routinely carted off to the nursery.

But we’re lagging behind on reclaiming death experiences and care of the dead. We still consider dying and death out of our reach. We typically hand over our loved ones way too soon to medical professionals, morgues and funeral homes. And we’ve paid a great emotional price, particularly when the dying and dead are babies.

 Deborah L. DavisExpressing their love in meaningful ways-- such as memorializing their baby with a poignant grave marker-- is enormously therapeutic for parents. Source: Deborah L. Davis

For many parents, handing over their babies robs them of critical experiences. When time with their baby is cut short, they miss out on multiple opportunities to express their devotion through caregiving, including examining, bathing, holding, and generally spending time with their baby. Because they are grappling with shock and grief, parents can benefit from being with their baby's body over the course of several days or more, so they can determine what is meaningful. For some parents, taking their baby home is especially important. Expressing their love-- which includes making memories, gathering keepsakes, and memorializing their baby-- can be enormously therapeutic for the parents as they endure their complex journey of parenting, grief, and mourning.

Don't clip your child's wings. Your toddler's mission in life is to gain independence. So when she's developmentally capable of putting her toys away, clearing her plate from the table, and dressing herself, let her. Giving a child responsibility is good for her self-esteem (and your sanity!).

Modern medicine also tends to isolate bereaved parents during the period they're with their babies. So another critical piece for parents to reclaim is inviting friends and relatives to meet the baby and be folded into the parents’ support network.

Why is this so important? When we can witness parents taking care of their little baby, expressing their devotion, and mourning deeply, we can more clearly see the parents as parents and behold this baby as their baby . Witnessing this tableau firsthand helps us truly understand this baby’s importance, the tragedy of this death, and the profound effect on the parents, all of which enables us to be supportive, including affirming this baby and validating the parents’ profound and lengthy grief.

 Deborah L. Davis
When death and mourning are obscured by modern medicine and culture, we forget how deeply parents grieve. Source: Deborah L. Davis

Unfortunately, when we don’t get to witness it, we often cannot imagine it, and then we are prone to misunderstanding it. And this brings us to a second reason we’ve become clueless: living in a fast-paced, “snap-out-of-it” culture. We define "strength" as the ability to maintain a stiff upper lip, look ahead into the future, and not cry over spilt milk. Especially after a tiny baby dies, we tend to assume the parents’ adjustment should be smooth, quick, and easy. They should be able to move on after a few months, right? Click, drag, done!

Keep the tube in the family room. Research has repeatedly shown that children with a TV in their bedroom weigh more, sleep less, and have lower grades and poorer social skills. P.S. Parents with a television in their bedroom have sex less often.

But bereaved parents cannot move on, and as a result, they often feel misunderstood, abandoned, and disenfranchised. Indeed, the bereaved often feel adrift because we feel uneasy and helpless when witnessing their grief, which is why we tend to prod them to snap out of it, look on the bright side, and move on.

In fact, some people—including too many professionals—consider it detrimental for parents to continue thinking about and feeling connected to their baby for more than several months, and certainly beyond a couple years or so. And because we’re so isolated from birth and death, we buy into the myth that by ruminating, parents are only making themselves sadder than they need to be. We assume it’s healthier for parents to detach from “this baby that never was,” or at least distract themselves with positive thinking so they can “get over it” and “get on with life” in a timely manner. Moving on ASAP is seen as a reasonable and worthy goal.

But parents generally disagree with this view of their grief and mourning. And those who specialize in perinatal bereavement have learned to listen to parents as the ultimate experts on this experience—including how to endure it, what healing looks like, and the value of taking all the time they need. Indeed, the vast majority of parents discover that “moving on” is impossible. So therefore, and apparently, moving on is neither a reasonable nor worthy goal.

Why do parents view moving on as impossible?

Talk about the risks associated with meeting online “friends” in person. Adults should understand that the internet can be a positive meeting place for children, where they can get to know other young people and make new friends. However, for safety and to avoid unpleasant experiences, it is important that children do not meet strangers they have met online without being accompanied by an adult you trust. In any case, the child should always have their parents’approval first. In addition, it is also a good idea to have a fail-safe plan in place such as calling them shortly after the meeting begins so that they can bail out if they feel uncomfortable.

 Deborah L. DavisThis grave marker captures the depth of a parent's bond and grief: "My heart, my soul, my baby boy." Source: Deborah L. Davis

To “move on” is to close a chapter. Moving on is what we do after we break up with a lover, after we get fired from a job, after we lose a cellphone. Lovers can be outgrown, jobs can be a bad fit, and phones can be replaced. Moving on is adaptive and allows for full recovery. Moving on also means forgetting, or perhaps having only a fleeting or distant memory with no emotional load.

For parents, there is no full recovery. There will always be somebody missing; emotion will always accompany the memories. Moving on would be akin to driving off and watching their baby disappear into the past as they glance at the rearview mirror. This is unthinkable. Especially for the mother, it’s biologically impossible. She is wired for nurturing, and every cell in her body cries out for this baby. In fact, moving on is maladaptive when a baby dies. Parents invest in each child as unique, and fold him or her into their family no matter how long that little life gets to live. They don’t want to forget. They can’t. And they don’t want to “move on.”

But fear not. Parents are also resilient. Over time, as they grieve and mourn, they can experience a transformational healing.

 Deborah L Davis"Beloved Daughter." Parents hold tight to their heartfelt connection with their babies. Source: Deborah L Davis

Healing means gradually letting go of what might have been and adjusting to what is . And in time, after their anguish softens and naturally fades to the background, they can lean fully into the future. But they don’t “move on.” They continue to hold tight to that heartfelt connection with their baby. They continue to cherish their memories and keepsakes. And they will always feel a twinge of grief when they think of their baby. That’s because they will always honor that little life, and they will forever be their baby’s mother or father.

Parents don’t move on; they simply learn to lean into life again, with their babies still tucked into their hearts and minds.

Heidi Klum (mom of four: Leni, Henry, Johan and Lou (above)): “I’m not someone who [lives] like, ‘OK, this is a museum and you can’t sit here and you can’t touch this and everything has to be put in its place - [the kids] live here as much as we do. You come into our house and a giant elephant and lion are welcoming you. We have toys and things everywhere.”