In March of 2014, I gave birth to my second baby girl. Her name is Zoe, which means “life.” She was named with a hopeful purpose as our first baby, Nora, was stillborn and never came home with us. Zoe is our rainbow baby — a baby born after the loss of a sibling who came before them.
Being pregnant again after a loss was the second hardest thing I ever did after saying hello and goodbye to my stillborn baby girl. I found few pregnancy after loss resources while I was pregnant with Zoe, so three months after my rainbow baby’s birth I founded Pregnancy After Loss Support (PALS). PALS is a place where moms pregnant again after miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, and child loss can find a community that offers hope that a future baby will arrive safely into this world while also honoring their grief over their babies who died.
I thought that when Zoe was born alive and well, life would magically get easier and the grief would lift a little. In some ways it did, and in some ways it got harder. I still experienced emotions and situations I wasn’t prepared for. If you’re about to bring home your rainbow baby, here’s what you might experience and what I wish I’d known to expect myself.
1. There will be triggers.
Your new baby will be a trigger. I still have nights where Zoe, my baby born after a loss, falls asleep in my lap. With her eyes peacefully closed, she looks like her sister who never opened hers — just for a millisecond. It’s terrifying and reassuring all at the same time, and it’s a trigger. There are other things that might trigger grief bursts. The old clothes that were given to you for your child who died, now reused for your living one. The car seat never used, now strapped in with a baby in the back of your car. The hardest trigger of them all is the things you missed and never got to experience with your baby who died and are now before you with this child. It can seem unfair at times.
2. You will second-guess everything.
You might think, “Do I have a ‘right’ to this baby when my previous one died?” Thoughts like, “Why do I get to keep this one and not her sister?” may creep up on you. Feelings of guilt for loving your living baby may come up because you may think you are betraying your child who died by loving a new baby. These thoughts couldn’t be further from the truth. You deserve this baby and the life that comes with her, even if at times your mind might tell you otherwise.
3. It will feel empowering once you leave the hospital.
I once left a labor and delivery room without my baby. It is one of the worst memories I have in my life. To be honest, the day my rainbow baby was born was not the best day of my life. It was terrifying and overshadowed by the memories of the death of her sister. The best day of my life was the day we left the hospital to go home with a baby in tow. It was the most exhilarating feeling. Truly the best day ever!
4. It will feel scary.
Pregnancy after loss is no easy feat, and neither is parenting after loss. Bringing a baby home after one has died can be overwhelming and scary for some. For me, my anxiety was so high I couldn’t sleep at night if she was sleeping. I feared that if I wasn’t watching her breathe, I might miss something and she might die. But there are things that can help you cope with these emotions, like special baby monitors, extra support from family, or in my case, anxiety medication and therapy. Whatever you choose is what’s right for you, but realize that some anxiety after bringing a rainbow baby home is normal. At other times, you might need outside support.
5. You will weep over your rainbow baby.
Bursts of grief will find you during this time. You will purge tears of “if only” and “it should have been” over your baby who lived while thinking of your one who died. It’s called re-grief, where your grief rises again as you see everything you missed with your child who died. There were many nights while breastfeeding our daughter that my husband would find me sobbing over our beautiful bundle of joy as she peacefully slept in my arms, my tears rolling onto her soft forehead. Out of concern, he would come in, sit down gently beside me, and quietly whisper, “Nora?” and I would only be able to nod my head through the tears. It was healing even when it hurt.
6. It will be hard to let others hold your rainbow baby.
I have read this is a common experience of all new moms, regardless of having a previous loss or not. But the mama bear instinct of a loss mom is fierce, and it’s okay if you don’t share that baby with others right away. Just take your time, and let others know what you need.
7. At times, it might be disorientating and confusing to look for your child who died in your rainbow baby’s eyes.
Yes, I did this. And it’s okay! The minute they placed living, breathing Zoe on my chest, I searched her face in hopes that Nora would be there and had come back to me. Of course, I know Zoe is not Nora, and I would never want her to be. Still, I had that feeling for a fleeting second. It was confusing, and I needed to work my way through it in order to make space in my life for all the beauty Zoe is bringing into the world without thinking she is here to replace her older sister. It only took a second or two.
8. You might call your rainbow baby by the name of your child who died.
My husband and I did this a lot in the first months after Zoe was born. At first, I would feel badly about our slip-ups. Nick would say, “Do you want me to get Nora?” I’d stare at him blank-faced and quizzically, and ask, “You mean Zoe?” At which my husband would blush. However, let’s put it in a different perspective and think of it like this: If Nora had lived, and Zoe was born after her, we would still slip up their names now and then. It’s only natural. I mean three years later, I chase Zoe in her pink dress running around the grocery store yelling, “George, George,” which is the dog’s name. So please don’t feel bad if you accidentally swap your deceased child’s name with your living one. At least it’s not your dog’s name!
9. You might experience postpartum depression and anxiety.
Know the risks. Pregnancy after loss moms are at a greater risk for experiencing anxiety and depressive symptoms during and even after the birth of a healthy subsequent child. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please consider checking in with your health or mental health care provider to see if added support could benefit you. I had overwhelming postpartum anxiety, and seeing a therapist and taking anxiety medication helped immensely during my postpartum period. There is no shame in asking for what you need.
10. You will grieve again for all the things you missed.
I mentioned this earlier, but it’s important to point out again. You will not just grieve after you bring your rainbow baby home from the hospital. You will grieve for the rest of your rainbow baby’s life. Birthdays never to be had by one child but met by another. Milestones achieved by the living baby but never to be achieved by the deceased. An empty chair beside your living child that should be filled but never will be. Your grief will always be present and a part of your life but in a different way than you might think.
11. You may feel detached or overprotective.
Research shows that it’s common for moms to have complex feelings after their rainbow baby is born. At times, you might feel overprotective of your little one’s safety while at other times you might feel detached, still afraid of losing this baby too. These feelings of detachment will gradually fade. The feelings of overprotection may take a little longer to dissipate, but they will decrease too.
12. You may feel isolated or alone.
Most new mothers feel isolated and alone during the weeks after birth, especially in our society where paid family leave is so lacking. Unfortunately, this means moms bringing home rainbow babies often feel even more alone. We feel like we don’t belong in new moms’ groups because we aren’t really new moms. We have other children who just happen to have died. Even if you feel alone, please know you are not. There are online groups and other courageous pregnancy after loss moms at PALS waiting to connect during your journey through parenting your rainbow.
13. You will feel joy.
Joy will find you again! You will smile. You will laugh. You will love. It will all be there. You have overcome some of the hardest things a woman could ever have to go through, and during this time with your baby, you deserve to enjoy any moment of happiness that comes your way. It will come.
14. You will still remember.
A rainbow baby is not a replacement for your child who died. Don’t worry. You will not forget your baby that passed away. You will never forget. You will always have a place in your heart for your baby who died. They will always be with you. If it’s in the way the light glistens and dances on the fresh morning dew, the way your rainbow baby smiles, or just a soft whisper in your heart, your baby who died is ever-present in your mind, body, and soul. You will always remember.