If you've been following this series, you know we have been profiling families who have given birth during this pandemic, are expecting, or have had to halt or adjust their fertility and/or adoption proceedings due to the coronavirus. It's been powerful to read the stories of families navigating a new path through the joy we've come to assume and expect in regards to growing a family, and the sorrow that can often accompany it - outside a global pandemic - that is now heightened with the loss of typical support systems, isolation, and the changing of deliberately laid plans.
This week is a little different. (Trigger warning: Loss, death, miscarriage, infant death). It would be irresponsible and disingenuous of us, in a series about the journey to bring life into this world, that we didn't allow space and acknowledge the incredibly common, shared experience that can come with this journey - and that is pregnancy and infant loss. In fact, October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, although probably all of us reading this either have experienced it ourselves or know someone who has, in every month of the year.
So this week, we spoke with Jennifer Hepton, a Seattle-based Grief + Fertility Awareness Educator who shared her surrogacy journey with us several months ago. Jennifer has not only experienced this acute type of loss firsthand, but has dedicated her career to supporting, bringing awareness and activism towards, providing resources for those going through it as well. While she didn't experience her loss in 2020, Jennifer helps give us insight, navigate this critical topic and share resources that have and continue to help her.
This is a delicate conversation that can be really hard and uncomfortable to talk about. We hope that by handing the mic over to Jennifer today, this article may make it into the hands of someone who needs it right now.
Seattle Refined: Jennifer, can we start by having you share your story with us?
Jennifer Hepton: Absolutely, I think it’s so important to share our story so we can help normalize loss. My husband Nic and I have been on a fertility journey for 10 years, including TFMR (terminating for medical reasons), several miscarriages and the stillbirth of our daughter Loey in 2017. After Loey died, I became a grief coach, working with families who have experienced pregnancy loss and are trying to make sense of their world. We are the proud parents of a baby boy named Milo, who was brought into this world via surrogacy. Now in 2020, our story continues as we work towards the goal of having another baby via surrogate. Parenting after loss is hard. Loss and grief is hard and going through a loss during a pandemic just adds another layer of grief, and I want people know that they are not alone.
As someone who has experienced loss firsthand, what advice to do you have for others going through this right now, especially during a pandemic?
My advice is connection. Find someone who has gone through something like this. A support group, grief coach - pregnancy and infertility is a different type of grief and you need a different type of community. Finding those virtual support groups on Instagram and Facebook. But also being cautious and allowing yourself to numb when you need to and being careful of social media and how it can cause anxiety. The human spirit needs touch and connection, and when you’re going through loss it’s even more important. That can be extra difficult during our current pandemic. In hearing other people’s stories - you heal, because hearing that grief makes your emotions and thoughts normal, and normalizes what you are going through and how you feel. When you see someone else’s journey, it can help prepare you for certain feelings. Please take the time to slow down and pause. After loss, your mental state is just fried, your physical body is healing as well. Know that all the feelings that you are feeling are real and normal. And in a pandemic, you feel an extra layer of grief, confusion and uncertainty. Up your self-care if you can.
After your loss, how did you practice self-care?
Sleep. When you experience loss, your brain and body changes, you can develop aches and pains, short term memory loss, you can’t hold a conversation. Listen to your body. After my baby Loey died, I ached. Joint pain and headaches, pregnancy loss encompasses it all. Nourishing yourself, eating the right foods, drink a ton of water. Your body is intelligent, and it will tell you what you need. Movement is also super important. Taking walks around the block when you are up for it, moving in the house...when you stay stagnant the grief gets heavier. Journaling was also helpful for me.
What can friends and family do to show support from afar?
I always suggest the trifecta. Find your three support systems:
- A friend to connect with, someone to hold space for you, even if its just virtual due to COVID-19,
- An A-type personality friend, the one who will drop groceries at your door, the organizer, and
- A friend who is there to talk about anything other than grief.
Others can send texts and gifts. You can’t fix grief, just listen. It’s so human to want to fix things. If you don't know what to say try, “I really don’t know how to support you but I’m here,” people can’t read your mind.
What about addressing the partner’s needs?
Whoever was carrying the baby feels the physical part, but there's also the emotional health of both parties. Know that everyone feels grief differently. When someone's person is taking care of the other so long, they may neglect their own needs and they will start to feel grief in their own unique way. Someone’s grief may show up in anxiety or anger. You guys are going to be emotionally exhausted. I still tell my husband,” I’m having a grief day.” We see different therapists because our grief was showing differently. Also, self-advocating to your partner, for example, “I really don’t want to go to your sister's baby shower.” Don't do things just because you feel like you have to.
What local resources are available to support families right now?
We are so lucky in Seattle, we have so many supports. Here are some Instagram accounts that I followed that helped me a lot:
- I Had a Miscarriage - Psychologist specializing in reproductive + maternal mental health
- Life After Miscarriage - Real stories from real people
- Sisters in Loss - Inspirational Pregnancy Loss & Infertility Stories and Black Women Replacing Silence with Storytelling
Local Support Groups
- Seattle Children's Journey Program
- Parent Support of Puget Sound
- Here's a summary of a few chapters of baby loss + grief support groups in Washington
Does it get better?
Grief doesn’t go away; it stays with you. But the thing about grief is it integrates in your life. It can soften yes, so it a way it gets better. Think of grief like the waves of the ocean. Sometimes you feel like you’re sinking and other times you stay afloat. Or like a ball that shrinks and expands. Time does wonders, so does finding a community of support that right for you.