Maternal Mental Health

MMHM: What Losing my Son Taught Me About Grief, Depression, and Therapy by Caroline Jefferson

I’ll never forget the moment my nurse told me, “I’m sorry Caroline. Your son doesn’t have a heartbeat anymore. We tried to save him but there’s nothing else we can do. Again, I am so sorry.”

I was 39 weeks pregnant with my son, Joshua. Yes, you read that right. 39 weeks. I was 3 days away from my due date when God called my precious angel home. My husband and I were devastated. We cried in each other’s arms after we heard the news but, in that moment, I had no idea how my life was about to change. Nurses talked to me about how my body would change in the coming weeks, but no one prepared me for the emotional aftermath of delivering a stillborn baby so late in my pregnancy.

I didn’t remember much after delivering him, only that I wish my husband and I had more time to hold him and say goodbye. We took pictures and held him a few times, but I’ll always want one more moment. One more moment to tell him I love him, one more moment to thank him for becoming my precious angel. Just one more moment.

The grief that I felt after losing my son sent me into a deep depression. There were many days where I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t get out the bed. Other days were great and I laughed from sun up to sun down. The pain I felt was pretty constant, and although I expected to be sad and have days where I really missed Joshua, some emotions really caught me off guard. These were some of the things I wasn’t prepared for when I lost my son:

  • The sadness from not bringing my son home. When I found out I was pregnant, it was one of the happiest days of my life. God chose ME to bring life into this world, and that was a gift I was extremely grateful for. Naturally, when I found out that he died, it was the worst day of my life. I felt like God changed his mind and that He rejected me from being a mom.
  • Planning the rest of my life without him in it. The day I found out we were having a boy, we picked his name together, but I went the extra mile and planned the rest of his life in my head. I dreamed of him taking his first steps, dropping him off at his first day of school, taking pictures before his senior prom, sending him off to college, and dancing with him at his wedding. Knowing that I had to re-plan the rest of my life without him in it was devastating. All those dreams I had for Joshua weren’t coming true, and that was a hard truth to live with.
  • Feeling isolated even with a strong support system. Listen, my support system is so strong and so amazing and so encouraging. I literally don’t know how I would have made it through without them. There were a lot of times, though, where I felt isolated in my grief even with them surrounding me with love. It wasn’t caused by anything they did, but I just felt a pain that was unique from anyone else and many times I felt like others just couldn’t understand my grief.
  • I had a desire to be with my son in Heaven more than alive. Okay, follow me with this one. During those first few months after Joshua died, I was so desperate to spend another moment with him. I wasn’t actively trying to kill myself, but if God so happened to call me home to be with my son, I would be at peace with that.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come. I realize that I still have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with depression and grief, but I’ve learned to be grateful for the journey and find purpose within my pain. It took a lot of prayer and therapy to overcome these feelings, but I’m glad I chose to start seeing a therapist to help me with my mental health.

I never used a therapist prior to losing my son. I believed in praying through my pain, partly because I adopted that way of thinking while growing up in the church, and because I hadn’t experienced anything that traumatic in my life before where my faith was truly tested. I know I needed help but people around me always reminded me of how strong I was. Initially, I thought I could use that strength to deal with this grief and depression by myself. What I didn’t realize was that the longer I waited to seek professional help, the worse I was getting.

To my surprise, going to a therapist wasn’t as easy as I thought. I assumed it would be as simple as googling a therapist, making an appointment, showing up, and instantly feeling better. Little did I know, it required intentional positive thinking and a shift in behavior that I wasn’t ready for. I hope that what I learned from therapy will help another mom. My prayer is that whether you’re coping with child loss, post-partum depression, or any type of mental health challenges, that these secrets add some value to your therapy experience.

  • Don’t give up if you aren’t comfortable with your first (or second, or third) therapist. My very first therapist appointment was a total nightmare. After I told her about losing my son, she started crying before I did! Perhaps I said something that was a trigger for her, but whatever she was going through put her in a position to be unhelpful to me.

After that, I met with four different therapists and two grief counselors before I found the right
person for me. She and I connected almost instantly, and I credit a lot of my healing to the work we’ve done together. Had I given up after that first session, I wouldn’t have found this much peace 5 years later.

  • If you want therapy to work, you have to do the work. Before I started therapy, I thought I would be sitting on a couch telling the doctor all about my life and my grief, then I’d feel better after I left. I didn’t expect homework and I REALLY didn’t anticipate having to do any work through the process. I just assumed that talking about my problems the way people do on TV would be enough to make me feel better.

Initially, I was reluctant to do what my therapist told me to do (like go for a walk when I was
feeling anxious, write down my feelings when I felt a panic attack coming, start doing yoga in the morning, etc.) and wondered why I wasn’t feeling better. My therapist asked me, “How effective would a student in grad school be if they never did their homework or prepared for class? Training your mind and body to handle grief and trauma is no different; you won’t pass the class if all you do is show up for the lecture.”

  • Know what you want to get out of your therapy sessions. Do you need to uncover some root issues that are causing you pain? Do you need help with finding holistic ways to manage your depression without medication? What goals do you have for your overall mental health? Ask yourself these questions and be prepared to share your answers with your therapist during your first few sessions.

For me, I wanted to get through the winter holidays and not be so depressed that I isolate
myself from friends and family. I also needed help with being more sensitive to the feelings of those around me when it came to their own grief of my son. I encourage you to make your
needs clear to your therapist so that y’all are on the same page as early as possible.

I also suggest setting goals and milestones with your therapist so that you can look back and see the progress you’re making. Important to note: if you don’t know what you need from your therapist, that’s perfectly fine too. Just knowing that you need to talk to someone is a big step and the right therapist can help you figure out exactly what you need.

  • Give yourself time to go to therapy. When I started going to therapy, I used to feel extremely guilty about taking off work for two hours every single week. So, I started scheduling the earliest appointment possible on Monday mornings. That meant waking up at 4:30 am, fighting rush hour traffic on I-285, and making it to my therapist’s office by 7:30 (usually without my morning coffee), just to be at work by 9:30.

I was struggling to get through those mornings and, if I’m being honest, I was doing a disservice to myself. I was sleepy at my appointments and I wasn’t really focused. Afterwards, I’d rush to work (still without my morning coffee) and I never really gave myself time to process what I talked about with my therapist. I decided to move my appointments to the afternoon at 2:30 pm.

By doing that, I was able to work a half day, go get lunch before my appointment, talk to my
therapist with a clear head, then sit at Starbucks for a while after the appointment to reflect on what we talked about. It’s important to allow your feelings to emerge and to give yourself time to internalize what you discussed with your therapist. If you take notes during your session, read over them. If you don’t write during the therapy session, consider writing what you learned and how you feel immediately after.

“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.”-Unknown

Caroline Jefferson is the Editor and Community Manager of Parents of an Angel, which is an online community for grieving moms and dads. The biggest lesson she’s learned after losing her son was that there’s no playbook to help her navigate through this new life without her son. She had to figure out so many things along the way. Sometimes she got it right, and sometimes she failed miserably. She has battled with feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, isolation, worthlessness, and suicide. Today, she’s committed to sharing her story to encourage, inspire, and uplift other grieving parents.

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