Note: This post contains references to pregnancy and infant loss, which may be triggering to some readers.
Throughout October, our blog featured various topics related to writing and mental health in honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month.
However, October was also Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, spotlighting another issue that deeply affects the mental health of parents.
One in every 160 pregnancies ends in stillbirth, while one in four pregnancies miscarry. The impact of these losses on families is devastating. Yet, the grief of parents and their desire to remember their children are rarely recognized.
This has led to ongoing stigma and silence that deprives bereaved families of spaces to share and celebrate their children’s lives. Frequently, a stillbirth or the loss of a pregnancy opens the door to other mental health consequences, including depression, suicidal tendencies, PTSD, anxiety, and addiction.
As we’ve explored this month, though, writing can be a powerful source of relief for people who face these issues, and grief is no exception. Sarah Warner, a blogger and mother of two who has worked with Inkling Creative Strategies on nonfiction and poetry projects, knows this particular kind of loss firsthand.
Having grown up in a creative family that encouraged storytelling and imaginative play, Sarah is a natural wordsmith who has crafted stories and poems for years. But when she lost her firstborn son, Charlie, her writing took on new and diverse roles that matter to people struggling with grief over the death of a child.
Charlie was a full-term stillbirth, which means that he died before he was born, but in the second half of the pregnancy. “This was obviously a huge emotional point in our lives and it really changed me in a lot of ways,” Sarah said. “One of the ways I dealt with the grief was to blog about my experiences, to share some of the odd foibles of our culture regarding death and infant death and how people talk to folks who are grieving. Writing really gave me an outlet for processing it.”
Initially, Sarah’s blog took the form of what she calls “cathartic venting,” sharing stories from her daily life about the particular forms grieving the loss of an infant can take, as well as providing information and help for grieving parents. In this way, writing became not just a vital source of emotional support, but a way for her to feel less alone.
“Writing has been a voice for me,” she said. “I used it as a way to express what I wished people would do or say, things like saying Charlie’s name, or asking about his personality.” She added that cultivating Charlie’s memory through creativity gives her the chance to nurture him by sharing his story, which is a crucial act for grieving mothers.
Eventually, Sarah discovered that while parents need grief resources, their friends and extended family are in desperate need of help as well, as they often don’t know how to communicate or relate to this type of loss.
Her current project, Stillbirth Friend, focuses on providing this type of support, showing people how to help loved ones who have lost children.
Sarah shared that even simply knowing how to talk about and remember the child can be an amazing source of comfort.
“One of the hardest things for me is the silence that happens around Charlie—everything from people not mentioning him to the awkward pause if I answer honestly when people ask me how many children I have. I use my blog to create a resource using first-hand experience, talking about things like helpful things to say or do, or information about stillbirth, or the resulting mental health effects that pregnancy and infant loss can have on parents,” she said.
It's worth mentioning that Sarah is not just a client, but one of my oldest friends. Her use of writing to educate and create awareness has made a huge impact on how I communicate with my friends who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy or a child.
On one hand, I’ve never been pregnant, which also means I have never been a parent. On the other, though, I still want to be able to support the people I care about, even if I cannot fully empathize.
Stillbirth Friend has helped me to understand that grief is not one-size-fits-all. It will look different for each individual and each person they grieve for. In particular, Sarah’s writing helps readers to understand the power of words in helping parents to cope with loss and honor their children’s lives.
Last year, Sarah and her husband, Calvin, welcomed the arrival of their second child, Jesse. One look at Sarah’s Facebook reveals that Jesse is growing up not just with the knowledge that he has an older brother, but a clear understanding of how much Charlie is loved and continues to impact their family every day.
Photos abound of Jesse with Pookie, a weighted teddy bear Sarah's family has used to represent Charlie throughout their grief journey. Sarah is also an advocate of using children’s books about infant loss as a way to educate children about their siblings.
“Jesse’s birth has helped me grow through the deep sadness and more toward a wistful sadness much of the time, and this means I stand with more distance to the intensity, and can be more structured and rational in my writing rather than reactive and emotional,” Sarah said.
While pregnancy and infant loss have been the particular focus of Sarah’s writing, she is quick to emphasize what we’ve explored in our posts this month: writing is an empowering tool for overcoming mental health struggles of all kinds.
Sarah finds that the act of creating something provides an outlet for complex emotions and helps her to feel as if she has accomplished something by taking steps toward not just her own wellness, but the wellness of readers.
“Writing really helps me clear my head and be more creative, which in turn makes me write more!” she said. “Added to that, I feel like my blog helps people understand where I am, mentally and in my grief, which means that the world might be a slightly better place that is less likely to frustrate me.”
If you are struggling to write about difficult topics that are sensitive for your own mental health, Sarah also offer advice for taking on this process.
“Start by writing whatever is easiest to write. Some of the blog posts I wrote right after Charlie died were about sewing projects and were total distraction writing. But as I was writing, my topics drifted to deeper and deeper issues. So, you don’t have to feel like you immediately need to deal with the biggest elephant in the room. Start wherever it’s most comfortable and work into what you need to say.”
To learn more about Sarah’s story and discover how to help families struggling with pregnancy or infant loss, visit www.stillbirthfriend.com or follow Stillbirth Friend on Facebook.
What about you? Has our Mental Health Awareness Month exploration encouraged you to write about your own experiences? If you’re ready to get started, my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook is a great jumping off point. This free book contains dozens of writing prompts, worksheets, templates, tips, and more so you can begin expressing your ideas.
Click here to download a copy.