Being Held and Holding Space

“This is what it means to be held. How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life And you survive…”  - “Held”, by Christa Wells, sung by Natalie Grant

When President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in 1988, he stated, “When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them.”  For any parent who has lost a child, they know that not only is there not a word that distinctly describes them, there also aren’t any words to help express their depth of grief.  What is one to do when no words or thoughtful action can make things better or lessen the pain?

Being Held

In early summer of 2012, I was 20 weeks pregnant with our 4th baby.  I was excited to go to my 20 week perinatal appointment as the entire family was anticipating finding out the baby’s gender.  We had 2 girls and 1 boy, and were hoping for another boy to round out our family.  I still remember the silence when the sonogram technician moved the wand around my belly.  She was chatty all throughout our time together - I had seen her regularly less than 2 years before when I was pregnant with my 3rd child - up until she noticed something and checked and rechecked before she said a sincere “I’m so sorry Jenny, the baby doesn’t have a heartbeat.”  The next day I was induced, and after nearly 36 hours I delivered a tiny and beautiful baby boy we named Max.  We spent the day with him in the hospital, and then we had to let him go.   

Those days were a blur, but I remember reaching out to my friends and family.  In all my previous births, I spent the first postpartum month on a special “confinement month” diet.  This is a traditional Chinese diet that is based on the theory that our bodies are healthiest when its chi is balanced between yin (cold) and yang (hot) energies.  After giving birth, with the mother’s loss of yang energy blood and need for physical recovery, as well as building the body up to provide for the baby - yin energy foods are avoided.  I felt how difficult it was for my body to give up Max, and I needed to feel like I was doing something to help myself heal even though I knew that nothing would alleviate the grief.  So, I asked my family and friends to provide confinement meals - and those meals and the presence of friends and family, and their prayers, gave me the innate knowing that I was being held.  If you are going through the loss of a pregnancy or infant, here are some ways that you may be held in the midst of excruciating grief:

1.      Hold tightly to reprieves

         I distinctly remember going home from the hospital and my older three children running to me.  As I embraced them, I felt that sliver of love and joy shining through the heavy cloak of grief.  At that moment, I heard something inside me; I believe it was God: “hold on to that bit of joy, it will sustain you.”  Throughout the next year, that’s what I did.  Grief was all-encompassing, but those slivers were still there.  And I held on to them tightly. 

2.     Allow yourself to retreat, with a caveat

         Being out in the world after pregnancy or infant loss is hard.  At home, in the safety of family, everyone feels the way you feel and misses the baby you miss.  Out in the world, it’s harder to navigate.  Allow yourself to hide out.  However, the caveat is, within limits.  Give yourself space to grieve, and plan out time frames for when you’ll go back to work and your usual social and spiritual activities.

3.     Give yourself an out

         Going back into the world doesn’t have to happen all at once.  Anticipate giving yourself an out in all the areas mentioned above.  Allow yourself to set limits to activities or tell friends and family that how you’re feeling and your energy level is hard to anticipate. 

4.     Allow anger and guilt, along with sorrow

         The song lyrics at the beginning of the article mention having the sacred torn from your life.  That is a poetic rendering of what it is to lose a baby, a new burgeoning life full of your dreams, hopes and love.  There is anger and a sense of intense unfairness, there is also overwhelming guilt that accompanies the loss and a plethora of unanswered questions.  “Should I have…”, “What if I…”, “Did I cause it….”.  Allow those feelings without judgment, along with sadness, and eventually they too will give way to acceptance.   

5.     Share your baby, if you wish.

         We held a memorial service for Max on his due date.  At first, I vacillated between whether or not to share a little photo album we had of him with our friends and family.  But, I wanted to share our little son with everyone, I wanted them to see him and his perfect little hands and feet that looked just like his siblings.  Share your baby, if you wish. For those who experienced infant loss, share your memories of your previous one. Help others remember him or her with you. 

Holding Space

There have been many TED talks and articles about how to hold space for others who are hurting or going through a difficult time.  As Heather Plett states so well in her article “What it really means to hold space for someone” (https://upliftconnect.com/hold-space/), holding space “means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control.”

I found out after I lost Max, that it is not a natural thing for us to hold space for others as they grieve.  In general, we want to “make things better.”  Our own discomfort with the harder emotions causes us to instinctually recoil to another’s pain.  It is counter intuitive, and takes a conscious effort, to walk alongside someone’s pain as a supportive and active participant in grief, willing to let it take center-stage, and not our efforts to relieve it.  In addition, out of fear of adding on pain many people also choose to avoid talking about the baby that is deeply missed, unaware that erasing the baby from conversation doesn’t erase the grief. 

If you have a friend who has experienced a pregnancy or infant loss, here are some ways that you can hold space for them:

1.     Be present

         During the confinement month I previously mentioned, I had friends and family consistently come by to drop off food.  Sometimes they would stay for a while, other times only for a few minutes.  But it was their mere presence that meant so much to me.  Often, there didn’t even need to be words said - taking my hand and squeezing it tightly, looking at me with love and compassion, those moments spoke loudly to me that I was being held. 

2.     Remember

         Max’s due date was October 27th.  There was one Halloween, before our rainbow baby was born, where 6 pumpkins were left on our doorstep with cute faces painted on each one.  We knew that a thoughtful friend was remembering Max with us in a simple and sweet way.  Don’t be afraid to tell your friend, “I’m thinking of your little one today.  She/he is missed.”  Or, “I was just thinking of baby today.  Would you mind telling me a favorite story you have with him/her?” 

3.     Keep your advice to yourself

         In the same vein as trying to “make things better,” sometimes well-intentioned people can resort to advice giving.  I still remember vividly running into a friend a few months after losing Max and her telling me with concern, “You need to rest more.  You look really tired.  It’s okay to rest.”  I knew that she was concerned that I was taking on more than I needed to, but I remember thinking “how does one rest from grief?  And you’re telling me I look horrible too.”  I can laugh about it now, and take it as a good reminder to be aware of inappropriate advice giving.

4.     It’s okay to talk about other things too

         We still want to hear about what’s going on with your life.  Laughter and lighthearted banter is always good.  Don’t be afraid to talk about things that bring you joy and delight.  Although it may be excruciating to be out in the world, it is inevitable and we need people who will help us learn how to live our new normal.

5.     Don’t be afraid

         Above all, don’t be afraid that you’re going to say the wrong thing.  We all say the wrong thing at some point.  Your presence and care will speak louder than words. 

I’m going to end this article with saying that my friend was right.  I did need to rest.  In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  I needed to be held by God and others.  May we learn how to hold those around us who need rest for their souls.

Written for Pregnancy and Infant Awareness Month By Jenny Wang, MABC, LPC-S

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash