What to Do When Your Baby Dies

Erica Jenks Henry


  1. Evolve from being a recreational smoker to a real smoker, albeit in secret. Think about Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums while you are hiding out by the back door to the basement or driving home from a therapy appointment. Don’t concern yourself with the people who used to see you jogging by their houses as you now walk by with your cigarettes.
  2. Sing the Queen lyric “Nothing really, anyone can see, nothing really matters to me,” under your breath when you get overwhelmed. However, when you do become overwhelmed, try to talk some sense into yourself. Remember your other kids.
  3. Allow your husband to invite one of his smart, proper, wealthy doctor financial clients to visit a couple days after the baby dies, even though this seems like a very bad idea with your disastrous house and distraught family. Then ignore the chaos and listen as he tells you repeatedly, in front of his wife and your parents and siblings and your husband’s parents and siblings and a select group of friends, “Babies’ hearts just stop.” You need to hear it. It will take a long time to sink in but try to hear it as many times as you can.
  4. Avoid getting in the car for as long as possible. It’s terrible to see his missing car seat. When you do have to go somewhere, let visiting relatives take you around town.
  5. Take your third daughter out of preschool so that you don’t have to see the other horrid mothers who still have their babies.
  6. Lose a lot of weight as quickly and unhealthily as possible. There is an organic Chinese laxative green tea that is helpful. It may even be healthy, though it’s unclear.
  7. Drink a lot of coffee, and in the afternoons, switch to alcohol. Express gratefulness when friends drop off coffees.
  8. Listen to all the unbelievable, horrific tales of sudden death your friends will feel led to share. They may make the world seem like a much more ominous place, but there must be a reason your friends want to tell you. Wonder why you’ve never heard these stories of suicide and stillbirth and heart attack and tongue swallowing and pediatric cancer and overdose before.
  9. Have a friend build a chest out of maple and walnut for your baby’s blankets and clothes—walnut for the masculine sensibility and maple for the tree outside your bedroom window that you watched all fall while he was with you.
  10. Try to have sex with your husband when you think you are ovulating, even if he doesn’t feel ready for another baby and certain people have recommended waiting longer. It’s just biology. Every animal that loses a baby needs another one. If this means getting used condoms out of the garbage can, so be it.
  11. Take your older children to therapy and buy them cupcakes after each appointment. You are permitted to be attracted to the other male therapist and to imagine he finds you attractive in your tragic, unclear situation as you wait for your kids in the sitting area.
  12. Go on long early morning walks by yourself and look wistfully at the houses where you know babies have been born recently. This can also be a great time to smoke in secret. Again, don’t wonder what the people who used to watch you jogging will think now.
  13. Attempt to hide your horror when a neighbor asks exactly how your baby died. Explain the concept of SIDS without sounding too defensive—giving the words for each letter of the acronym helps. It’s like the bogeyman, but real.
  14. Don’t get too sad when your mom tells you that people in Thailand have never heard of SIDS. She probably just isn’t communicating it well. It doesn’t mean it’s a made-up concept to keep you from blaming yourself.
  15. Begin to meditate for ten minutes a day while the little ones watch TV. Allowing them to watch TV may seem to cancel out the benefits of mindfulness, but ignore that fact while you are meditating. Let that thought slip by like a cloud in the sky.
  16. Keep your house very tidy, tidier than it has ever been before. Look for things that have been lost for a very long time, things that slipped under radiators or behind boxes under the beds, things that fell behind overstuffed drawers; it’s rewarding to find them.
  17. Put up pictures of your baby all over your house, though you have never hung pictures of your fourth daughter. Respect your oldest daughter’s request not to put them up in her room because they make her too sad and scared.
  18. Hate your pet cats and fish for being alive. Treat them like the dumb animals they are.
  19. Ignore women with babies, especially when they’re trying to get you to notice how cute their babies are.
  20. Stop cooking meals. It is a huge waste of time. Nobody cares anyway.
  21. Consider having an affair, because, hey, why not? Consider who it would make sense to start a relationship with. Your former moral code is laughable.
  22. Invite the next-door neighbors over to play cards on Saturday nights. You know they watch your misery through the windows. Tell them all the crazy things you are thinking about.
  23. Watch a lot of TV with your husband at night. Often, after the show or movie you are watching ends, you will have to remember that your baby died all over again, but this will eventually stop. Many shows will make you feel pangs of longing and sadness and as though they were made purely to remind you of your son, but this is to be expected.
  24. Have your two-year-old make your bed her new, permanent sleeping place. Don’t get angry when she pees on you in the night.
  25. Plan a backpacking trip with your family, though it may be premature due to their young ages.
  26. When you think of it, give the double bird to God while you’re using the toilet.
  27. Write disturbingly depressing thank you notes to all the people who have given money to the memorial fund or made you meals or sent you gifts. It may be a sick form of expressing gratitude, but it helps combat your overwhelming anger. Write to them about the “dark, lonely road” you are walking.
  28. Take your oldest to the pediatrician to reassure her that she doesn’t have cancer and will not also suddenly die. Remind her of this every time you see her hand resting on her chest, looking for her heartbeat.
  29. Write a long card to a woman your friend tells you about who also lost her fifth baby to SIDS, only weeks after you did. Don’t be surprised when that woman calls you.
  30. Try out a group therapy for the families of bereaved children, in part as a sociological experiment, and never return because it is extremely awkward to sit there making dream weavers out of cheap quality materials with equally confused strangers who ask who you lost. Only go once.
  31. Write long letters to your best friend from college who you haven’t communicated with in years, even though you could call or text or email her.
  32. Avoid your parents and siblings and all the sadness they feel for you, especially when they say, “I just wish I could take this pain from you.” It doesn’t mean anything. Tell them you’re fine.
  33. Hate yourself for all the foolish things you used to care about. The Christmas cookies you were making while he was taking a nap that day? Living in a foreign country? Your oldest daughter’s soccer tryouts? Getting in shape postpartum? It’s all stupid bullshit.
  34. Hold your kids’ hands as you walk them to school each morning and give them at least three hugs and kisses before saying goodbye. Tell them you love them over and over.
  35. Try not to hate other babies. You don’t want any bad to come to them, and if it did, you would feel terrible.
  36. After your oldest daughter does it first, begin to make jokes about how parents should keep their babies at home because it’s bragging to have them out and about. Teach your daughters to use the phrase, “baby alert.”
  37. Try not to be too dramatic when the cleaning lady pulls out a pacifier from under the radiator or you discover a wrinkly pair of extra baby pants deep in your purse, hidden there in case of a diaper blowout.
  38. Put cabbage on your breasts to help with the engorgement.
  39. Thank your husband over and over again for not blaming you, even when he tells you to stop saying that.
  40. Drink an extra lot of alcohol the night you get your period again. You really shouldn’t be getting it for another year or so.
  41. Buy a lot of tampons (Costco!) that you will hopefully not have to use because you’ll be pregnant again.
  42. Tell strangers that your baby died when it feels right to you. Like that one postal worker you see on your walks, or the coffee shop lady who asks about your kids, or the guy at Costco who comments on your cute family.
  43. Make a huge playlist of the saddest music you’ve ever heard, plus your favorite songs of all time, all of which somehow speak to the love you had for your son. Listen to the playlist constantly until the whole family begs you to play something else.
  44. Light aromatic candles around the house. Anything therapeutic is worth a shot.
  45. Buckle kids with seatbelts and into their car seats better than you used to.
  46. Talk about your son as much as possible, unless it is extraordinarily out of context to do so.
  47. Try to resume life as it was.
  48. Realize that you can’t because everything has changed. You are a different mother and wife and daughter and sister and friend than you were. Don’t be shocked when others are disappointed that you aren’t reverting to your old self.
  49. Do all the things you used to wish you could do when your life was consumed with taking care of a baby, if you can find the energy. Play guitar, do yoga, organize closets.
  50. Wear the same black dress every day unless you are working out. Somehow, this especially helps when you see other babies. It’s an old custom that makes a lot of sense.
  51. Check on your children after they go to sleep, just in case they have stopped breathing. It would help to know right away. Do this throughout the night. Pray to Jesus that He will keep them alive, even if you’ve stopped believing.
  52. Write down the adorable, painful things your youngest daughter says about her little brother. Try to explain that he won’t be coming back in a package and that you can’t go bring him home from heaven.
  53. Eat sweet potatoes in mass quantity (but not so much that you aren’t still losing weight) in order to possibly have twins if you conceive again.
  54. Try to edit some of the things you say to your kids, if possible. They don’t need to hear every single thought.
  55. Practice trying to accept all the maybe/maybe nots of life, even if it’s impossible.
  56. Appreciate how beautiful and cute your other children are, without wondering what he would have been like at their ages.
  57. Try to retain your sick sense of humor, even if that means making jokes about his death and your failure as a mother. “Yeah, he could poop on the toilet at one month old, but I couldn’t keep him from dying!” If you can’t talk about it, then you really are screwed.
  58. Put away all his clothes, safely, in a trunk, and put away all your clothes that you wore while he was alive. This will hopefully allow them to retain the smell of spit up on the shoulders. Never wear them again.
  59. Sleep with the teddy bear he was cuddling in the crib the day before he died—which happens to be the one you got when you were 3—each night. Put it on your bed during the day.
  60. Listen and close your eyes when you go into your bedroom, the room where he died, on quiet afternoons. Maybe something will happen. Maybe he’s there.
  61. Notice and count each full moon that passes. You saw two with him. Remember the one you saw on the beach in Thailand, the last night you were there, before you returned to the States and gave birth. You had no idea what you were in for back then.
  62. Realize that his memorial service was on the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year.
  63. Notice the geese flying south and then north again a couple months later.
  64. Notice the 90+-year-old man who lives on your corner who comes out with his walker and walks on the sidewalk around his house on lovely days. Wonder how he is still alive.
  65. Wonder if your son would have been left-handed or had an extra tooth like his second oldest sister.
  66. Marvel at all the hearts that keep on beating everywhere around you all the time. Think about your children’s elementary school: more than 600 hearts that keep on beating in one building with no effort.
  67. Get the Conor Oberst lyric, “I’m blessed with a heart that doesn’t stop” stuck in your head. Think about how it’s a blessing and a curse.
  68. Prepare yourself for those days when acquaintances will ask how your new baby is doing, like when you call up the pediatric dentist to schedule the girls’ six month checkup or when you bump into a friend you hadn’t seen since the month before he was born on your walk one morning. It’s inevitable.
  69. Remember how you thought he was a unicorn—a boy with blue eyes after those four brown-eyed girls. Worry that you are just an extreme sexist for loving him so damn much.
  70. Try to accept that suffering is part of human life, if not all of human life. Hope that this experience will make joy fuller, if there is any joy left to be had.
  71. Move on without answers, without regret.
  72. Notice the exquisite joy that your daughters give you one or two times a day, in fleeting moments. They are perfect.
  73. Remember how enlightened you felt in the days before he died, inexplicably peaceful, as though you could handle anything life offered. But not this.
  74. Surprise yourself by appreciating the perennials reappearing in the garden. You may even feel the desire to weed a little.
  75. Create new boundaries in friendships, especially those in which you were always the caretaker in the past. You can’t do that right now, even if your friends and family want everything to go back to how it was.
  76. Recognize that the first year is hell and a slowly clearing fog.
  77. Have a friend tell you, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.” It’s great advice. Winston Churchill?
  78. Control your horror when your kids suggest dying so they can be with the baby, especially when their ideas get specific, like having Daddy shoot everyone with his grandfather’s old rifle.
  79. Don’t accidentally mention to your in-laws all the disturbing things the kids say.
  80. Count the weeks that have passed since he died, and the months since he was born. Every day of the month has some significance with regard to his life. For example, he would be ten months old today!
  81. Receive letters, emails, and cards from friends and family you haven’t heard from in years. Notice—on the cards your friends send—how good Rumi is at expressing eloquent things about loss and death. Is Rumi cheesy?
  82. Try not to act defensive or get too sad when the therapist or school social worker suggests you are talking about your baby too much at home, especially on the various weekly and monthly anniversaries of his life and death. She’s a liar.
  83. Recognize the police officer who took your son from your arms in your bedroom that horrible night. Spot him in his patrol car one day, and then begin to stalk his route and kind of fall in love with him for coming back a few days after the death to tell you it was the worst night of his life too.
  84. Notice all the baby dolls your 2-year-old leaves around the house in disturbing, lifeless positions.
  85. Avoid the attic, where you left most of his things. Don’t look through the clothes you had for him that he never got to wear.
  86. Learn the names of all the trees that live in your neighborhood, trees you never even knew existed—bald cypress, Northern catalpa, black locust, Kentucky coffee, Ohio buckeye, sycamore, linden. Just the names will give you a shot of pleasure. Notice when they flower in the spring and the various ways they seed. Don’t think about next fall when you will have to watch the leaves fall off the trees like you did last year.
  87. Buy a lot of new trees of various sorts to plant in your backyard. Worry that you have planted too many too close together, but remind yourself that nothing matters, least of all, the appearance of your backyard.
  88. On your walks, notice how families with new babies and messy backyards seem to go hand in hand. Hate the fact that your house and yard are tidy now.
  89. Have a doctor friend explain to you how they think SIDS really works, though this will make you unable to sleep for a few days and will take you back under the waves of shame and guilt.
  90. Savor each time your second daughter says something about how he’s always with you over the coming months. Remember how that was the very first thing she said to you on the night he died. Hold that in your heart. It’s incredible wisdom from a child.
  91. When you wish he had never been born, that the past year never even happened, remember how your oldest daughter said, “He’s still the best gift I’ve ever gotten.” It’s true.
  92. Do not let yourself believe that he died because you were too busy with too many children. There are so many lies you will want to believe.
  93. Have your incredible best friend send you packages, including one with a book called “Instructions,” by Neil Gaiman. It doesn’t make sense, but it helps. There’s something about the random senselessness of life that helps.
  94. Don’t stop. At first it will be one minute to the next, then it will be day by day, week by week, month by month. Time will pass.
  95. Comfort your family when they need it. Notice when your daughters are overly upset about things that normally don’t bother them. They just miss him.
  96. Try to avoid talking about him too much at bedtime, even when you pray for the girls before they sleep. It makes sleep so difficult.
  97. Vow to never avoid a bereaved or sick friend ever again. You know now how important it is to just have people show up, even if they say stuff that doesn’t make sense.
  98. Don’t watch your few videos of him. Save those for the coming decades.
  99. Try not to wish that time would go faster so that you would not be so unbearably sad. Each day is important, and each day your precious daughters are getting older. As sad as the days are, you will miss these girls someday.
  100. Never forget a moment. Write down every single thing you can remember.


Erica Jenks Henry has published fiction in Maudlin House, New World Writing, and Zone 3 (forthcoming), nonfiction in the Reader’s Write section of The Sun, and hybrid work in Thimble Literary Magazine. With a Master’s in Public Health, she has worked with the Chicago Housing Authority and in Honduras.