Remembering a Child Lost to Stillbirth or Miscarriage

Ideas for honoring the children we never met

When you lose a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, or shortly after birth, the grief is very real and visceral. Yet because there is no typical way to commemorate these babies and no socially accepted way to grieve, parents can feel confused and isolated in their sorrow.

I know I did.

I was driven by a strong desire to do something for the children I lost. After one miscarriage, I hysterically planted a large garden in one day – moving rocks and planting seeds that were guaranteed to grow. "There are as many ways to commemorate and remember as there are losses," says Christiane Manzella, PhD, senior psychologist at Seleni who specializes in grief counseling. Finding your own way to memorialize a pregnancy loss or stillbirth can bring some measure of eventual comfort. Some of the options below are more appropriate for stillbirths, and some may feel right for miscarriages. But each can be a starting point to help families find what fits best for them.

The nonprofit organization, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, will send photographers free of charge to capture the time that parents have with a stillborn child or baby that has died shortly after birth.

"I am so grateful for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," says Sarah Muthler, a Texas mother who lost her daughter Genevieve to stillbirth and was afraid of seeing her after the delivery. "I feared that there would be some obvious physical problem with her, something frightening to see, but the nurses suggested that we have photos taken because this would be our only chance. And they are lovely."

On days when Muthler finds herself disbelieving the fact that she had a daughter who died, she says, "The photos make Genevieve real to me."

Some families choose to make a video or slideshow of their baby's photos. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep offers tips for capturing these moments on your own (including eight suggested poses) and will help edit your photos.

Sending announcements
California mom Nora Nicholson sent out announcements for her son, Bryce, who was stillborn at 36 weeks. "My husband and I sent a card to announce my son's death. Because I was so close to my due date we wanted to spread the news of his death without having to reach out to everyone directly," says Nicholson. "We used the quote 'In an instant you touched our hearts' and the footprint that they took at the hospital."

Unfortunately, most vendors have very few (if any) options for parents who have lost a child, and having to browse through traditional birth announcements can be upsetting. Grieving parents may have better luck searching a website such as Etsy. 

After Riley Giles, 33, from Brentwood, California, lost his premature twins shortly after birth, he and his wife decided against naming the babies or holding a memorial service. Giles wanted a private way to remember his sons, so he chose to get a tattoo of their footprints. "I'll catch [sight of] it as I'm walking by the mirror, and I'll stop and stare for a little bit," says Giles. 'This is my way of keeping my family with me."

"I have a 'mommy ring,'" says Tara Westfall, a California mother who lost two pregnancies to miscarriage. "It's a white gold band with four diamonds representing each of our children." The ring has become a meaningful conversation piece with her two living children as well.

Julia Keevey, 42, of Orinda, California, chose symbolic jewelry to commemorate her daughter Eleanor Hope, lost to stillbirth at 32 weeks. "I wear a butterfly necklace that reminds me of her," she says. "It's something I can touch when I think of her."

Just as with birth announcements, Etsy and eBay have many varieties of miscarriage and stillbirth-related jewelry – everything from traditional angel wings to more contemporary designs.

Engraved markers
Families can publicly or privately memorialize a child with an engraved brick or plaque. As Julia Keevey found, having something you can physically touch is a common desire for grieving parents.

The nonprofit organization Be Like Brit, founded by grieving parents, Len and Cherylann Gengel, offers parents the chance to buy a brick in a child's honor, ultimately helping to build an orphanage in Haiti.

On any brick or plaque, you can simply state your child's name and date of birth or add language such as "In Loving Memory" or "Grows Forever in Our Hearts."

When Nicole and Steve Long lost their son Evan at 30 weeks, they weren't certain what to do. "At the time, I was devastated and in denial so we did nothing right away," says Nicole. "He was cremated, and after a few months we realized he was still a part of our family and wanted him to always enjoy the fun we all had together." They sprinkled his ashes at the base of a tree near their vacation cabin. "Now whenever we are sledding on the hill or playing in the creek or just having dinner on the deck, we see the tree," says Nicole, "and we remember he is still with us having a great time." Dr. Manzella says that maintaining an "ongoing bond with a child who has died, can be a real source of comfort."

Julia Keevey chose a more traditional burial for her stillborn daughter. "We had her ashes buried in a cemetery near my hometown and had a small service. It was comforting to be able to visit her and see her name on the headstone, something I could touch."

Other families may wish to keep their child's remains closer to home. Nora Nicholson cannot part with her stillborn daughter's ashes and chose not to have a formal ceremony.

Group ceremonies
October is SIDS, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and many communities hold events for parents during that month. For example, October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day, so there are often opportunities to connect with others in your area who have experienced similar loss.

Nicholson has found these to be a comfort. "We always have our son's name in the program." Parents can also choose to include photos, poems, or essays about their child.

Regardless of how grieving parents acknowledge their loss, finding a concrete or symbolic action that is meaningful to your family can help with the healing process and bring comfort over time.