Grief is such a strange sensation. It’s the culmination of so many different feelings, and sometimes it’s feeling nothing at all. Let me tell you, I have felt many ways since losing Alice; shock, loneliness, purposelessness, anger, and helplessness are just the start. But for me, the most overwhelming, the most haunting, the most pestering sensation is guilt.
Let me tell you a little secret. No matter the cause of a child’s death, the Mother feels guilty. The Father feels guilty. Everyone who has encountered the child in the last week or month or whole lifespan feels guilty. Especially when the circumstances surrounding the child’s passing are unclear and the exact cause is uncertain.
I’m not saying people SHOULD feel guilty. I’m just saying that it is extremely likely that they will.
Because Alice passed away unexpectedly at home, it had to be treated like a crime scene. Police invited me to leave my home, kept Alice’s precious body in their care, and I was escorted to the upstairs unit where my brother and his wife live. Someone from the medical examiner’s office came in and asked me hundreds of questions (I am not exaggerating. Ok I might be, but honestly that day is a blur.) about the previous 72 hours.
He asked what I had eaten, what Alice had eaten, when I last saw her, where I slept, where she slept, what medications had I taken, what medications had she taken, was a humidifier on, was she sick, had she seen a doctor recently etc. The list went on and on and if I remember right, he asked me the same questions multiple times, asking me to recite the last few days forwards and backwards many times.
Each time I answered a question, two others sprung up in my mind in its place,
“Is that why she died? Did I kill her?” I often think, “I am her mother. I was supposed to care for her”. My husband has expressed guilt by saying he was supposed to keep her safe. My mind is bombarded by thoughts like, “We tried our very hardest, and she died. We are her parents and we failed her.”
Whether these thoughts bear credence or not, they are potent, they are powerful, and they are poison. They do not need to be fueled by outside sources.
I guarantee there is not a single scenario or possibility that you could ever think of as a potential cause of Alice’s death that I have not thought of, and felt sick to my stomach for.
Allow me to get to the point here. The absolute worst thing you can do to a grieving parent is to make them feel guilty. No mother, and I mean no mother, who has lost a child under any circumstances, deserves to be shamed by you. She is carrying enough guilt already. She already feels responsible whether she was or not.
I urge anyone who encounters stories of loss to simply respond with love, support, and deepest condolences. What gives you the right to respond to my story of losing Alice with a comment like, “Well she should have known that rock and play sleepers are not for unsupervised sleep” or “It was probably because she swaddled her wiggly 5-month-old” or “SIDS is a side effect of vaccinations”. Even if these things were true, do you think that’s what a grieving mother deserves to be told? In her darkest hours when she has reached the very lowest point a mother can bear, a mother needs love, and unconditional support.
Maybe I did do something wrong. Maybe something I did caused Alice’s death. Maybe something I didn’t do caused her death. The truth is, I just don’t know. But even if I did, all I can do is remember that I did my best. How could I go on living a productive, even functional life if I blame myself for her death every day? I couldn’t.
Comments that place blame on me for Alice’s death are extremely difficult, but important to ignore. One reason least of which is because people do not have all of the information.
Of course I wouldn’t have put Alice in her rock and play if I didn’t think it was safe. I put her in it because she was congested and I thought the incline would help her breathe. Plus she was old enough that she had excellent control of her neck.
Of course I wouldn’t have continued to swaddle her if I thought she was too big. She couldn’t roll over yet, so I kept swaddling her because she liked it. People have also said she couldn’t have been buckled in the rock and play since she was swaddled. Well let me tell you something. Swaddleme swaddles have a hole on the bum so you can sneak buckles up into swaddles so babies CAN be swaddled and buckled. I’ve also heard comments that Alice likely overheated in her swaddle. If you had ever visited her cold room in our basement apartment I guarantee you would know that just isn’t true.
As far as vaccines go, Alice had a bit of a cold the two weeks before she passed and I was waiting for it clear up to take her in for her next set of shots. She hadn’t had any for over 3 months prior so I feel certain it wasn’t that. If you chose not to vaccinate your child, which is your prerogative, and they were to die from smallpox, I wouldn’t DREAM of messaging you and saying “If you had just vaccinated your child, this wouldn’t have happened. I hope you learned your lesson.” I would say, “I am so sorry for your loss. No mother deserves to feel this pain.” Do you know why? Because that would be cruel, and because I believe in being kind.
I know that every mother is doing their utmost to provide the absolute best life possible for their child.
I did my best for Alice. I really tried to be a good mother to her, and I feel that I was. Every choice I made, I stand by. I did the very best I could with what I knew at the time, because that’s all anyone can do. I am already battling every day to keep the guilt I feel for her death at bay. I couldn’t live if I allowed that guilt to consume me.
So please, support everyone you encounter. Be kind. Don’t assume you have all the information. Grieving parents are struggling as it is, and they already blame themselves enough.
I challenge each of you to hesitate before the next time you criticize someone, and instead of judgement, offer them love, because we all need it. Do it for them because we are all just trying our best to make it through life, but also do it for you, because you want to be that kind of person.