Bringing home a rainbow baby – a healthy baby after the previous loss of a child – is a joyful but difficult time for the parents. Rainbow mamas and papas deal with a lot in those first few weeks and months. I know this from personal experience, unfortunately. I lost my little girl, Lucy, after two months in the NICU. Less than 10 months later, we were bringing home her baby brother. It was beautiful and exciting and terrifying, as it is for all new parents, but some of that – especially the fear – was magnified. In addition, we were struggling to deal with our grief for Lucy and a lot of other complicated feelings. We felt guilt that Lucy never came home with us and wouldn’t get to grow up knowing how much we loved her, sorrow that our son would never know his sister the way we knew her, and terror that somehow we would forget her, OR that we would live so much in her memory that we would neglect William. None of it really makes sense, but these are some of the things that go through your head.
So what can you do to help the new parents of a rainbow baby?
You might have seen lists of ways to help new parents. Those are a really good place to start, because those all still apply to parents of a rainbow baby.
Schedule your visits. Don’t be early, don’t be late, and for Heaven’s sake, don’t just drop in. We’re trying to get the hang of things, learn the baby’s schedule, learn how to feed, and trying to get some sleep in wherever possible. We’d like to see you, but not while the baby is napping. And if your rainbow mama is like me and many other new moms, she might have her shirt off during much of the day while she and baby learn to nurse. Nobody wants to see that.
For now, keep visits short. We’re exhausted. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has ever had children, but labor and delivery take a lot out of mom, and taking care of mom and baby takes a lot out of dad. And the chaotic mix of emotions accompanying the birth of a new baby after the loss of a baby would take a lot out of anyone. I spent a huge amount of time the first few weeks of William’s life a sobbing mess. I was happy, and sad, and relieved, and guilty, and a thousand other things. No matter how close we are, the only person I want to share that with is my husband. I enjoyed company, but I could only keep on my company face for so long at that point before I melted down.
Help us spend more time with our new baby. Those first few weeks of a baby’s life can never be repeated, and if I could, I would spend them just staring into my baby’s eyes. I would never ask for any help, but if you’d care to bring us an easy meal (in disposable pans and dishes!), that would be lovely. If you’re visiting, you might say “I’ll just do some dishes for you, if you don’t mind.” Don’t ask, because I’ll just say no. I might say no anyway, but I will definitely appreciate the offer. Same goes for other chores like mowing the lawn.
Do not come anywhere near me or my baby if you are sick, have been sick recently, or have been around sick people recently. I love you, really, but if you just came from your job as a kindergarten teacher and hopped the cross-town bus, I’d really rather you kept your germ-infested self at a distance. I know, that sounds incredibly harsh, but consider this: we’re heading into flu, whooping cough, and RSV season. Any of these can be devastating to a newborn. Any of them can potentially be deadly to a newborn, in fact. I am not about to risk another baby because I let somebody visit who shouldn’t have. And I don’t necessarily know your situation, so please think before you visit. I will 100% freak out if my new baby gets sick. You know why? Because my Lucy died from an infection. I don’t know if I could handle the stress of having another sick child right now. Please be understanding of this particular craziness.
Along the same lines, wash your hands when you visit. As I mentioned, this is the season for some bad infectious diseases, and they can be picked up almost anywhere. Washing hands is the number one best way to prevent their spread. Please don’t make me ask you to wash your hands, because I hate feeling like an obnoxious nag. I would love it if you would wash up as soon as you come in, and certainly before holding the baby. Please also avoid kissing the baby’s face. Their little immune systems are so delicate at this point, and like I said, I will lose it if my baby gets sick.
In general, respect boundaries. Every set of new parents will have different comfort levels, and the boundaries of rainbow parents might be different than you expect from new parents. They might have very strict guidelines for hospital visits. They might not want to be visited by young children for a while, or they may not want any visitors at all for the first couple of weeks. They may need more time to themselves to figure out how they work as a family. If they’re like me, they need time to figure out how to parent a living and a nonliving child, and to sort out their feelings for their new baby. They will very likely be more anxious than normal about the health and safety of the baby. Be patient with them. They are this way because they know the incredible pain of losing a child, and can’t bear the thought of it ever happening again.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the child or children who cannot be with their parents and siblings, and don’t be afraid of any tears that result from such talk. Say “Lucy would have been such a good big sister. I’m sure you’re missing her terribly right now. Know that I’m here for you.” I might very well cry, but I will be so grateful.
The most important thing you can do to help rainbow parents is to understand. Understand that they might be a little crazy about their baby’s safety. Understand that they might not want company all the time, and don’t take it personally. Understand if they get tears in their eyes as they smile at their baby. Understand that this baby, loved powerfully though it may be, can never take the place of the child who was lost. Rainbow babies don’t “fix” their parents’ sorrow at having lost a child, but they bring new joy. If the rainbow parents you know are anything like me, they want to share that joy with all their friends and family, just . . . carefully. Because we know how fragile life can be.