BREASTFEEDING THROUGH GRIEF
After the birth of my second child my father passed away unexpectedly. I remember speaking to him the day prior to his heart surgery and he was anxious. That was the last time we spoke as he suffered complications during the surgery and died soon after in the recovery room.
The days, weeks and months were passed in a blur of tears and sorrow. My dad was the go-to dad and the fixer dad. You had a problem ? He always was there trying to fix it. He loved his grandchildren fiercely and would help out in anyway he could during their early years.
Most importantly he was an advocate for breastfeeding which was so unusual for a man of his generation. My dad was breastfed into his toddler years. He felt a sense of pride that his grandchildren were being breastfed not only for health benefits but for their cognitive development.
I was fortunate that he spent some time with her holding her lovingly after her birth. Before his life support machine was turned off, I laid her beside him. She was so fretful that day and soon as I placed her down beside her granddad she relaxed. I hope her little presence gave him comfort and peace before he died. I hope he was able to say goodbye to her.
Many well-intentioned people and health professionals advised against breastfeeding. Many reasons were given, such as that my supply would diminish with the shock of my father’s death. This reduced supply would cause weight loss in my baby and my milk would be lacking in any nutritive value.
They informed me ‘my mental health would be affected’. I would become ‘dehydrated by the tears I was shedding’. My physical health would suffer as ‘my body was using too much energy coping with breastfeeding and a traumatic event’. It was endless! I was ‘passing my sadness to my baby as she could sense it’. I was at risk of feeling inadequate and having a sense of failure, which could cause depression in itself.
However, in reality breastfeeding helped me through my overwhelming sense of loss and sadness. The hours I spent feeding were the most peaceful I felt during the day. It encouraged mindfulness, focus and rest. Time slowed; just my baby and me. This was restorative to my physical and mental self. Feeding my newborn so frequently in the early weeks ensured I stopped and rested. I fed her everywhere and anywhere. In the church during the ceremony and in the temple special prayers were chanted for my father’s spirit. I fed and my family tended to me with offerings of food and help. They sat offered words of sympathy or stories of my dad. I remember crying and laughing while I was feeding, tears splashing on my baby. It kept my dad close in spirit
Frequent breastfeeding day and night ensured my supply was kept robust. My breast kept functioning producing the milk and changing its composition to suit her growing needs. It did not shut down and she continued to grow and thrive.
I did feel my loss more acutely at night feeds, as these were the quiet times with no distractions. As I co-slept with my baby overnight I was able to feed and sleep which helped my fatigue.
As I breastfed her I was looked after by my fantastic husband. I remember I drank gallons of water to ensure I kept hydrated. I was surrounded and supported which helped with continuing to breastfeed.
I now know that it is thought that breastfeeding protects mother’s mental health. It reduces the risk of depression and reduces the symptoms in women that are diagnosed with depression. Breastfeeding turns off the hyperactive stress response and thus reduces inflammation. High levels of inflammation increases the risk of depression (Kathleen Kendall -Tackett IBCLC).
Breastfeeding hormones oxytocin and prolactin can reduce anxiety and have antidepressant effects. Oxytocin ‘the Love hormone’ induces a state of calm.
My memory was one of sorrow but also a sense of calm in the chaos. Breastfeeding kept my mind, body and soul at peace during this time.