Grief with a newborn: Navigating the most unthinkable path

Bella Brennan

Bella Brennan

Bella is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience in women’s publishing and digital media. In her spare time, she loves making up dances to the Wiggles with her two little girls, swimming in the ocean and trying to sneak away from her family for a cheeky nap.
Updated on Jul 09, 2024 · 12 mins read
Grief with a newborn: Navigating the most unthinkable path

When you google ‘grief + newborn’, the algorithm serves you content around miscarriage and infant loss. What it fails to understand is that the person on the other side of the screen is actually trying to find resources about how to deal with the earth-shattering loss of a loved one, while caring for a newborn baby.

Last year, when my second baby Matilda was six weeks old my beautiful big brother Tim passed away. He was just 37 years old. Just days before every inch of colour was drained from our lives, I naively said to my partner: ‘So far, this second baby thing hasn’t been too bad, has it?’ Tilly was a chilled newborn who slotted into our dynamic with ease. But it was still early days and she hadn’t yet ‘woken up’ from that peaceful newborn slumber that fools you into thinking you’ve got the easiest baby in the world. I was also recovering from a C-section and had a very active toddler to look after.

Then on the evening of Sunday, November 7, everything changed. It was like two catastrophic bombs went off — my big brother was gone… but my precious little baby still needed her mummy.

There are barely any resources out there on trying to grieve a loved one while looking after a newborn, so I hope by sharing my story, I can help any other mamas walking the same horrendous path. I am by no means an expert on this topic. This isn’t a guide or a manual, simply just an account of one of the hardest periods of my life.

Do whatever you need to do to look after yourself 

For me and my mental health, this was to stop breastfeeding. Tilly initially started strong out of the gates but became fussy on my boob literally the day after my brother died. Perhaps her Spidey senses could tell that I was grieving and broken and she reacted to this huge shift. Who knows but our babies are very intuitive and feed off our energy.

Having already tried to ‘push through’ breast refusal with my first daughter and knowing the damage it had on my mental health, there was no way I was going to do that again — especially while in the depths of my grief.

I gave Tilly two days to see if it was just a rough patch but sadly, no dice. Without a second thought, we put her on the bottle and didn’t look back. The silver lining of her being a bottle-fed baby meant other people could help with feeds while I could rest, sob or run around and deal with all the deathmin (that’s death admin for those not in the grief lingo loop — and boy oh boy, is there a lot of it!).

You might have conflicting feelings about your baby… and that’s OK

I remember one of my friends texted me asking for a photo of Tilly and I hadn’t taken any new snaps of my baby girl in days. I was running on fumes and hadn’t stopped to enjoy my baby and soak her in. I looked forward to when she was napping because it meant I could lock myself in a dark room, away from my terrifying new reality and rest with her, hoping that when I woke up I’d somehow get my old life back.

I felt so guilty that I wasn’t showing up for my baby and giving her the same love and attention her older sister had gotten (which included taking a million photos of her every waking moment. First kids, am I right?). I also felt like a pretty lousy and absent parent and partner but first and foremost, I needed to honour my grief and my brother. As one of my beautiful best friends reminded me at the time, my girls won’t remember anything from this time but my love for them remains the same.

Tilly is also a painful reminder of how much time has passed since we lost Tim. Every milestone she reaches hurts just that little bit more because my brother — who was the world’s most adoring uncle — should be here to see his niece grow up.

But on the flip side, my baby has been the very best medicine. She got me out of bed, she made me leave the house (even if it was just to walk down the street, cry, chuck a U-ie, and come back home). She brings me so much joy and gives me purpose.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this experience, it’s that grief and happiness can co-exist. On the same day, I might be over the moon that Tilly had just started to smile before I see something that reminds me of my brother and fall to the floor in a heap.

Tim never got to meet Matilda, something that will haunt me forever (cheers, lockdown)… but I see flickers of him as a baby in her. They share the same chubby cheeks, rosebud lips and grumpy frown. It’s weird how the universe works.

(L-R) Tim as a baby and Tilly. I’m not saying they’re twins but there’s definitely a strong family resemblance.

You can’t do All Of The Things

This is a controversial one but I actually put exercise on the back burner. I just couldn’t fit it in on top of grief (which is a full-time job in itself), looking after two little girls, returning to work and trying to be a good partner/friend/daughter/sibling.

Of course, I know the benefits that exercise has on our mental health but I honestly just couldn’t make space for it on top of everything else going on. I knew I’d return to it eventually, as I’ve always loved moving my body and thrive off those post-workout endorphins.

I know this won’t be the case for everyone and many people swear by the power of exercise to help them with their grief, but us grieving mamas have A LOT on our plates. So it’s OK if you need to shuffle things around and re-prioritise some stuff.

I’m pleased to say, one year on and I’ve just started back up again. I’m taking it very slowly and very gently but I’m already feeling stronger. Having fallen so far off the exercise wagon, I knew one thing about my return-to-exercise plan: I needed to outsource my workouts to a professional who could guide me and tell me what to do. Shout-out to my amazing brother-in-law and personal trainer extraordinaire Sam, aka @movewell_au, who has been incredible at helping me get strong again.

People will comment on your ‘post-baby body’ and it will be hard not to shout at them

Here’s something I never knew about grief: it is an extremely physical, full-body experience. In those early days, you’ll shake, you’ll lose your appetite and even when you try to eat, you won’t be able to keep food down. You won’t be able to sleep, your stomach will be an anxious knot of butterflies 24-7 and you’ll sob so much your ribs ache and your eyes puff beyond recognition (sad girl hack: frozen peas are your best friend).

So when some people commented that I’d ‘bounced back’ (let’s put this phrase in the bin) so quickly after having Tilly, I wanted to scream. My grief-induced weight loss was the result of tragedy and was done in an accidental and unsafe way. My frail, fragile body is living proof of my heartbreak. It’s not breaking news but we must stop the commentary on women’s bodies — before, during, or after pregnancy. It’s just not on.

Speaking to a professional was one of the best decisions I ever made

In my 34 years, I’d never spoken to a psychologist but I knew in the aftermath of Tim’s death, it was a no-brainer. It took at least 10 phone calls to find someone who was available but once I found someone, we spoke via FaceTime once a week (a godsend if you have a young baby, saves you having to haul arse out of the door and drive somewhere). Then every two weeks, then monthly. Eventually, I reached a point of ‘stabilisation’ (lols, I’ll never get over what happened but therapy is an expensive privilege and I’d maxed out my 20 sessions that you can claim through Medicare) and my psych said I can always return if I need a tune-up session.

For me, speaking to someone removed from my immediate world in those early days really helped. While I was blown away by the love and support I received, people’s lives move on — rightfully so — and it’s not their job to be your therapist. She gave me practical coping strategies to deal with my grief and helped me process what had happened.

Heading outside (in my ugg boots) for some Vit D on the face after a long day of grieving and attempting to parent.

I said a resounding YES to offers of help

Mothers-in-law tend to get a bad wrap but not mine. She has been such a huge help with the girls. Every Wednesday for months, my older daughter Edie would go over to her house for the day which meant I could just take it easy at home with Tilly.

We also put Edie into daycare for a few extra days, too. This meant I could properly grieve and process what had happened without an energiser toddler demanding snacks and trips to the park.

Oh, and my amazing partner was the most incredible pillar of support and strength, looking after our little family throughout this time. I don’t know what I would have done without him. I didn’t have the bandwidth to carry any of the mental load that comes with having kids. I remember at Tilly’s six-week check-up, the GP advised she needed a hip scan as she was showing signs of hip dysplasia. She handed me the referral and I couldn’t even fathom the simple process of making the booking and taking her there, so I passed the referral straight to my partner to take care of. Grief makes even the simplest of tasks overwhelming, scary even.

I became acutely aware of my own mortality and wanted to make some big changes

Becoming a parent and holding a helpless newborn baby in your hands is perhaps the biggest reminder of just how finite our time is. Suddenly, you become aware of your own mortality and feel like time with your children is already running out. You won’t get to be with your baby forever.

But having a newborn while witnessing the death of your own sibling amplifies this on a whole other level. It’s the circle of life playing out right before you.

I was obviously on maternity leave when all of this happened and knew right away I couldn’t return to my old job. I had loved the work and the people with a deep passion but I had been there for a decade and needed to sink my teeth into something new. I had no idea what I was going to do next but I just knew I needed to do something which was more aligned with my life stage and headspace.

Losing someone you love deeply makes you view the world through an entirely different lens. American actress Beanie Feldstein calls this newfound perspective ‘grief goggles.’

“It’s like all of a sudden a pair of glasses were strapped to my face. And I can’t take them off. Ever,” she wrote in 2019 in a powerful essay for InStyle after suddenly losing her older brother Jordan to a blood clot in 2017. He was just 40 years old.

“And these glasses make me see the world differently than I did before. The colours bleed together more vividly. But they are somehow more than they ever were before. More visceral. More vibrant. More present. Simultaneously more awe inspiring and more aching. Sometimes I can push the glasses to the end of my nose so I can peer over them to see the world the way I used to see. But I can only see over or around to my old perspective. I can never see it totally as it was ever again.”

My grief goggles don’t let me get my knickers in a knot over the trivial sh-t. My sister and I joke that there’s no point washing our vegetables anymore or flossing our teeth. You won’t catch me running for public transport (what a stupid thing to stress about), wasting time with people who don’t lift me up or doing work I don’t believe in. My definition of success? Having a loving family unit and my girls growing up to be proud of their mum.

A snoozing Tilly rests peacefully in my arms at Tim’s wake.

Grief is an all-consuming beast, especially in those initial months. While it never leaves you, a year on I can truly say I have found solace by focusing on the small, wonderful things in my life — like the way Tilly shakes her hips when she hears music, or how Edie insists we paint our nails in matching colours, and most recently, when my niece Gracie took her first steps right in front me.

Every morning, when my little family and I are all snuggled up together in bed I pinch myself at how lucky I am. I am living my life in honour of my brother and trying to be the best mummy I can be. I know that’s what Tim would have wanted.

If this story has raised any issues for you, contact Griefline on 1300 845 745 or Lifeline on 13 11 14

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