If you truly want to support someone who feels guilt, fault, or blame after the death of their child, then listen, acknowledge, and mirror back to them. This is so much more powerful and authentic than any glib phrase. Please don’t tell them “It wasn’t your fault”
Guilt Fault Blame
If a bereaved parent feels guilt or blame about their loss, simply telling them not to feel that way is not a solution. Feelings don’t work that way.
I think people are conditioned to tell bereaved parents it isn’t their fault because they are worried. If parents blame themselves, what might they then do?
After my son died at the end of a term pregnancy in 2017, I created this list of things I would like to see done differently in prenatal care, both before & after loss. These are things that would have made a difference in my pregnancy. These things might have kept my son alive.
Let’s try thought experiment: Don’t think of an elephant. What are you thinking of right now? Of course, an elephant. Why? Because thoughts don’t work that way. Now think about this analogy as it applies to telling bereaved parents that their child’s death was not their fault.
These tools were available to me and I chose not to use them. I didn’t choose for you to die, but my choices did not save you. I wish that I had saved you.
I think of all the signs the providers brushed off. I think of the other signs I just didn’t see. My heart hurts. I wish I could go back in time. I wish I had saved you.
My head knows I did everything I thought was right, but my heart will always wonder. Why didn’t I want to know more?
We talk a lot about blame. Everyone says it’s not my fault. Does it really matter? Are you any less gone?
One year ago yesterday I drove to the doctor’s office — nervous, excited, and full of such hope. I never expected you to happen so quickly, but I was ready. You were my dream.
Is it possible this isn’t my fault?
I don’t know how long you were struggling. I felt your movements, I thought you were excited. I thought you were getting ready to come. I wish I had known. I wish I had saved you.
My worst regret is drinking half a can of Red Bull on those mornings I struggled to get out of bed. In that reality, I know it’s not my fault. I loved you more than life itself.
I don’t know what I could have done differently. You were the very best part of me. And now I’m just empty.
I don’t think too much about actual dates, and so I missed the anniversary of my 39th week. And this is important to me, because it’s the date my providers had pushed for induction. And I wonder — if I had chosen differently, would I have a living child?
I don’t understand it, little one. I don’t understand how you could be here, and then not. I don’t understand how you’re still in my belly, but you’re already gone. I don’t understand how the world makes sense anymore. I never got to hold you, and I miss you so much. My heart is broken.
You were more than pain. You swept into my life and your presence promised happiness. And I hated that, because happiness wasn’t something I wanted to know. And I hate it more now, standing here, awake and oh so lonely. And this pain isn’t comforting. And this new life feels broken.
I hate talking about these memories, because everyone is quick to tell me that it wasn’t my fault. Screw that! I don’t care about fault. I want to share my story. I want to remember the last week of my son’s life. I want to share these things that complicate how I feel about his death. I want to remember that this experience wasn’t entirely sunshine and roses. I want to remember what was real.
You sheltered him for nine months. You expanded with him, kept him safe. I watched you grow stretch marks, tiger stripes. I talked to him through you. I never thought to say thank you. Thank you. Thank you for holding my son, for cradling him even in death. He only ever knew love in you.
I know what you want to talk about. I know how it pains you when others try to chase your words away. It isn’t a question of guilt. It’s fact — if you had chosen to listen, I would be alive.
I used to think that grief was this sad time that followed the death of someone you loved. I never imagined it was really this new layer, this new identity. I never imagined the loss I was grieving would include the loss and rebirth of me.