I Had a Stillborn Son, and This Is What I Needed

In honor of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, Kiley Hanish shares her story about healing and helping others.

My son Norbert, who was named after the dragon in “Harry Potter,” died before he was born — he was stillborn. I was planning a home birth, going the “natural” route, and I wound up having an emergency medical delivery. Norbert had a liver cyst that developed late in the third trimester and burst, causing him to die. Neither my midwife, backup doctor or the hospital staff was adequately prepared to help me make my experience beautiful nor did they have any information on parenting a baby who has died.

After Norbert died in 2005, I desperately wanted someone to take care of me. I felt completely numb, incapacitated and alone in my grief. I longed for anything that might alleviate the unbearable pain I was feeling, and even secretly wished a fairy godmother would come and make it all easier. Fourteen months later, our daughter was born in perfect health. Yet a flood of grief washed over me. Though I was grateful and relieved, her birth didn’t take away the pain of losing our son. I found myself in a similar space emotionally as when Norbert died, while feeling overwhelmed at being a new mother. I did not know how to navigate the waters and had no idea where to turn for help or guidance.

It would have been immensely supportive to be assured that I didn’t need to act like I was keeping it all together, or that I wasn’t hurting so badly, just to make others feel comfortable.

Looking back, having a grief guide would have been invaluable. My fear might have been assuaged had someone told me that what I was feeling was normal and that my thoughts and feelings, although different from most people’s, did not make me crazy. I could have used the insight of knowing it was OK to not be OK, and the pain wasn’t always going to be so intense. It would have been immensely supportive to be assured that I didn’t need to act like I was keeping it all together, or that I wasn’t hurting so badly, just to make others feel comfortable.

Having some direction about how to honor Norbert and incorporate him into our lives would have been hugely beneficial, as the reaction of a number of people around us was to shut out Norbert completely, as though he had never existed, only exacerbating our grief and frustration. I wish someone had been there to remind us that memory-making, ritual and reflection could be helpful tools in keeping his spirit alive in our family. Most importantly, I needed to know that opening up a connection to him would actually help me in my healing process.

Reliving the experience as a movie

I am a very private person, but in 2014, my husband Sean directed a film based on my experience, “Return to Zero,” starring Minnie Driver. For the eight years preceding the film, I rarely spoke to anyone of my experience of losing a child. I was ashamed that this horrible thing happened to me. I tried very hard to put on an outward appearance that things were OK, however inside I was suffering and barely surviving. Over time, the pain softened and my sadness transformed into anxiety.

During production and post-production of “Return to Zero,” Sean created a very large global Facebook community. I watched how the mere existence of this film was helping people feel validated in their experience and less alone. When the film was released, similar things happened and people experienced a great deal of healing just by watching this movie.

It was at that moment that something changed inside of me. I knew it was worth the risk of putting my story out there and sharing my vulnerablility with others so that I could help people find healing and community. About the same time I began sharing my story, while it was the hardest thing for me to do, I found it was also the most beneficial in my own healing journey. Being open with my heartbreaking personal story inevitably took away its shame.

Advice and guidance for bereaved mothers

Being a bereaved mom can be very isolating. The most important piece of advice would be to let those moms know they are not alone and to find a support group. Research has shown that support groups can be one of the most beneficial ways to help a grieving parent on her road to recovery. Support groups help normalize the grief process as well as connect you to like-minded individuals who have been through a similar experience.

Transforming your grief into a productive action can truly feel empowering.

If there isn’t a pregnancy and infant loss support group in your area, there are quite a few groups and resources online. I have compiled a list of resources and helpful links at Return to Zero Center for Healing, an organization created out of my experience as well as the grassroots response to the film. The site addresses topics such as online support, normal grief reactions, family and friends, pregnancy after loss, living without a rainbow, remembrance and healing projects, and research and advocacy.

It can also be helpful for a bereaved parent to become involved in an organization that supports other bereaved parents. Perhaps it’s making memory boxes (pictured above) to be given in the hospitals to parents who lose a baby or participating in a Remembrance Walk. Transforming your grief into a productive action can truly feel empowering. Regaining some sense of control is also an important part of the healing process.

While Norbert never got a chance to experience life, his untimely passing has left a lasting legacy that is impacting thousands of parents around the world. It is our mission at the Return to Zero Healing Center to be that healing guide you can turn to after losing a child during pregnancy, childbirth or in the early stages of life. No matter your experience, there truly are no words to describe the grief associated with losing a child. Through our retreats, yoga therapy sessions, wellness education classes and online support, we hope to become an important resource for couples who can turn to the Return to Zero Healing Center during their time of loss.

For more information about the Pregnancy and Parenting After Loss Retreats planned for 2016, go to the Return to Zero Center for Healing website.

Kiley Krekorian Hanish, OTD, OTR/L (pictured above left), is an occupational therapist living in Los Angeles. Before founding the Return to Zero Center for Healing, Hanish was an assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.