Trigger warning: child loss
You never really realize how heavy grief’s fog truly is until you’re in the thick of it. My daughter died from SIDS, and I never understood what it was to live moment by moment, second by second, unable to see anything other than where I was standing, until I became a bereaved parent. Things that used to matter didn’t anymore. What would usually take me 30 minutes was now consuming several hours. I walked out of the house in mismatched shoes, forgot to brush my teeth for a couple of days, and almost got into more than one car accident.
On top of trying to navigate my way through this haze, I was also tasked with the nearly impossible mission of trying to plan a funeral. A funeral that would mark a new start in this life after loss, and pave the foundation I would walk through with my heavy grief.
I had a limited amount of time from the day she died to the day of her burial to preserve final memories, and truthfully, I didn’t know where to start. How do you fit what was supposed to be the rest of my life in five days? I planned the funeral, printed out the pictures, wrote the words that would be spoken, I did anything that would make me feel more like her mother for a little longer.
After her burial, I went home, laid on my bed, and felt my heart sink as I remembered: I don’t have a lock of her hair.
We may not realize it in the moment, or maybe we are too heartbroken to think about it, but preserving those final memories with a late child is crucial for many bereaved parents’ healing. I’ve learned that sometimes when we are in those immediate stages of grief, we can’t think clearly, and we need help remembering.
Compiled from stillbirth doulas and grieving mothers and fathers who have been there, these are the eight things bereaved parents wish they could go back, change, and hold from their child’s final days.
1. A lock of hair
What I would do for the tiniest sliver of my daughter’s hair. I think one of my biggest regrets from her funeral is forgetting to ask for this, or even cutting a lock of myself. To have that, would be to tangibly hold and cherish something, perhaps the only thing, that was authentic to her.
2. Mommy and me/daddy and me lockets
As my baby’s casket was about to close before the burial, I put my favorite sundress and a handwritten note inside of the coffin with her. Even though I knew she was gone, with her being just four months old, I couldn’t stomach the idea of her being all alone without some part of me going with her. If I would have thought about it then, I would have purchased matching lockets for her and me. One for her to be buried with, and one for me to wear.
How special would it be to hold that locket knowing your child will always be the one with the matching piece?
3. Hand and footprints
Normally, hospitals will do this when an infant or young child has passed. In instances where this isn’t done, the funeral home should do it if you ask. If they do and they aren’t done with the level of care you would have desired, know that it’s okay to ask for new ones. Your lifelong grief is worth more than the extra few minutes of effort it takes to make new ones. Speak up, or allow the person designated to be your voice do that for you.
If the death was something expected, it might be fulfilling to consider doing Christmas ornaments early. One bulb with a hand or footprint would do a bereaved parent’s heart well.
4. Breast milk keepsakes
For the mother who wanted to breastfeed, or even the one who was robbed of that special time far too soon, breast milk keepsakes like rings, necklaces, blown glass, etc. are a special way to acknowledge and honor the mother-baby/toddler bond, and they only require a small amount of milk.
5. Placenta mold
In cases of stillbirth, or even a mother who has just birthed a terminally ill child, parents may want to consider having their placenta molded. If you’ve ever seen a placenta up close, then you might already know the striking resemblance it bears to the beautiful tree of life. For parents who have lost a child, proof of their existence can help with the overwhelming, invasive questions that come with trauma like, “Was she really even here?”
By having something that represents a huge part of a baby’s creation, it has the potential to validate a bereaved parent’s current reality.
6. Hand and foot molds
Similar to the hand and footprints, both hospitals and funeral homes usually offer this. I have a mold of my daughter’s right foot, and I love being able to run my fingers across the shape of her small piggies.
7. Preserved flowers from the funeral
The reason we have funerals is so friends and family can say final goodbyes, and despite the fact that there is no “closure” in child loss, memorial services are a great way to soften the strong shock of grief. Preserving flowers from the funeral, though a tragic day, brings memories grieving mothers and fathers still will themselves to remember. Though not all bereaved parents are the same, many of them fear forgetting anything in regards to their late child.
8. Pictures from the funeral
I took pictures of my daughter at her funeral, and though that may be controversial, I am so glad that I did. The mortician who took care of my daughter did so beautifully. She didn’t look gone, she looked like she was sleeping. Whenever I get invasive thoughts that try to twist the way I remember her, or even bad dreams doing the same, I have these photos to look back on.
Grief’s fog does lift, and when it does, that’s when we typically start to remember all of those things we “should have done.”
There is no manual that comes with grieving a child, but there are those who have been there before us. We do the best we can with what we have. So from someone who “gets it,” let me send you this gentle nudge to preserve the memories you might, one day, want to remember.