BYU grad Sam Thorup posts about her son Tristan on Facebook on Tuesdays. Thorup’s page is full of photos of dark-haired baby Tristan smiling and comments from friends and family sharing their favorite memories of Tristan.
For Thorup, these photos and messages are a powerful way of remembering her son. Tristan died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, known as SIDS, in May 2016. Tristan was 5 weeks and 1 day old.
“I had no idea what SIDS was when Tristan passed away,” Thorup said. “Losing a child is one of the most difficult experiences imaginable. I felt grief, anger, depression and really every emotion imaginable.”
Every year, thousands of families lose infants to SIDS or other complications. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 3,500 babies die unexpectedly each year. Forty-two percent of these unexpected infant deaths are caused by SIDS. An estimated 11,300 U.S. infants die on the day they are born, according to a report from Save the Children, and thousands more during their first year of life.
Learning to live with grief after the loss of an infant is daunting, and friends and family of those who have lost an infant may feel at a loss to know the best way to support them.
“It takes courage to reach out,” Thorup said. “But knowing what to say is hard. They just need to hear that you’re there, you’re sorry and that you aren’t going to judge them or try to change the grief they are dealing with.”
School of Family Life professor Martie Heaton said some statements family or friends make to individuals who have lost a child can do more harm than good. Heaton urged students to listen, not comfort or fix the situation for others.
“When people say it’s a part of God’s plan or that their child is in a better place, that is something that doesn’t give comfort,” Heaton said. “It is so difficult to bear. Just listen with your heart with gentle acceptance, regardless of what they are feeling.”
Friends and family members seeking to support those who have recently lost an infant should listen, express love, avoid judgment and offer practical help such as providing meals or running errands.
For Thorup, learning to work through feelings of anger at the loss of her child has taken time. Thorup attributes much of her relationship with God now to the many difficult emotions she has worked to overcome as she finds peace with Tristan’s passing. Learning to find joy in her memories with Tristan has become a powerful source of healing for Thorup.
“After months of grieving, I had to learn to stop using my sadness as proof that I loved my son,” Thorup said. “I had to stop having pride in feeling angry and sad about his passing, but I was scared if I let go of those feelings maybe it would mean I didn’t care the way I should.”
Thorup now remembers Tristan with happiness, posting about him on “Tuesdays for Tristan” on Facebook and sharing her favorite memories with family and friends.
Some of Thorup’s favorite memories with Tristan include celebrating her husband’s birthday with a surprise Star Wars themed birthday lunch, complete with a Yoda outfit for Tristan. Sam and her husband, who would prefer to go unnamed, treasure the memories of hours spent cuddling Tristan and laugh about the faces he would make.
While Thorup loves to treasure these memories of Tristan, there are still days when it’s difficult to remember his loss. Resources like a support group, energy work and meeting with a grief counselor have helped Thorup.
“There’s a lot of people who feel a lot of shame about going to a counselor,” Thorup said. “I definitely did, and I was stubborn about it for months. But then I finally did. Counseling may not be for everyone, but they are a friend that can listen and help. For me it was a good way to identify what I was feeling and find peace with those emotions.”
Thorup said she hopes other couples experiencing the loss of an infant understand that different emotions are a part of the process of grieving and that resources can be a source of help.
“I think a lot of times people don’t give themselves permission to feel what they are feeling,” Thorup said. “My favorite mantra we had during the first year was, ‘Come what may, and feel it.’ Even if what you’re feeling is ‘Hey, I’m OK today,’ let yourself feel that. The other advice I would give is to utilize your resources and not bury them.”
Friends and family have been a great resource to the Thorup family after the loss of Tristan. Expressing support and love while listening without judgment is often the best way to serve others learning to live with grief.
“The best thing you can do is tell them you love them, and that you are there to listen, no matter what they may be experiencing as they grieve,” Thorup said.