Dana Dewedoff-Carney has a beautiful family. On paper, she's a mom of three. But in her heart, she has five children. She's had two miscarriages, one last year at five weeks, and another this past summer.
"I lost our son in June. I was 14 weeks pregnant, but he had passed away at 12," she tells Motherly, explaining that she and her husband had already named their boy Benjamin.
He never got a chance to live in this world, but he is changing it. His mama is the force behind Project Benjamin, a photo series that is going viral and changing the way people talk about pregnancy and infant loss.
Dewedoff-Carney started Rise for Women, a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to empowering women and connecting them with the resources they need to thrive. Rise for Women was born out of a painful time for Dewedoff-Carney. She was a single mom of three, and she was struggling, although from the outside she looked fine.
After launching Rise for Women Dewedoff-Carney created the hashtag #StruggleDoesNotHaveALook, which took on a whole new meaning this year after she and her now husband lost their babies. She came up with another hashtag, #TheyMatterToo, to remember them, and invited other moms to join in a photo session.
Each mother had her portrait taken with a chalkboard bearing a phase that someone told her after her miscarriage.
In Dewedoff-Carney's case, a doctor who perhaps meant to be kind told her the baby she lost "was the wrong baby." Other women in the photo series were told they could always adopt, or that they should be happy with the children they already have. Dewedoff-Carney says sometimes people don't realize how much their words cut those suffering a loss.
"I know people are not saying these things to be malicious and hurt us, but if they could just be a support and say, 'I am so sorry for your loss, I'm here for you,' that is so helpful," she explains.
Experts agree. Jessica McCormack is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice at The Self Care Path in Burr Ridge, Illinois. She says parents who've suffered a pregnancy loss don't need people to try to offer solutions or minimize their grief, but just to validate it.
"You aren't trying to fix their emotions, you are simply stating, 'I hear you, that was so hard for you, this really sucks right now.' No need to fix, no need to tell someone it will be okay. It's a time to just give a hug and tell them it's okay to feel how they feel. This often creates comfort just by knowing someone is there for you," she tells Motherly, adding that it is totally normal for parents to struggle after a loss.
"It's a completely normal experience to have a bunch of grief, sadness, depression, anxiety, shame, guilt and jealousy of others with healthy successful pregnancies," McCormack explains.
For Dewedoff-Carney, that's exactly what Project Benjamin is all about. She says too often conversations about the feelings one has after a miscarriage or infant death are happening behind closed doors or in private Facebook groups. She hopes her photo series will help people realize they're not alone, and that the woman down the street (or on Instagram) who seems to have it all may be suffering herself.
By having a very public conversation about pregnancy loss, Dewedoff-Carney and her fellow moms are hoping more people will understand what they're going through, and not try to minimize it.
Ashlyn Biedebach is a Registered Nurse and founder of By The Brook Birth Doula. She says "when a woman suffers a loss, at any gestational age, it is truly a loss, not just of a baby, but of hope and an idea of the future."
Biedebach suggests if parents who've suffered a loss encounter loved ones who don't seem to be recognizing their baby, they try to give them some grace, but that doesn't mean you have to pretend it didn't happen.
"Well-meaning family members may intentionally choose to move past painful experiences, even if you are still deep in the grief of the loss of your baby. Bringing up your loss in a gentle way, or having an intentional conversation with those who are moving on can help, but also talking with a counselor, too."
As a therapist, McCormack agrees. "Since it's roughly 1 in 4 women that have a pregnancy that ends in miscarriage, women need support," she tells Motherly, recommending that women who've had a loss talk to their OB-GYN or family physician and ask if there are any support groups in their community.
If your doctor doesn't refer you to a support group you can find a therapist yourself. McCormack suggests women simply search the psychologytoday.com therapist directory by entering their zip code along with the keywords "miscarriage" and "fertility." The therapy doesn't have to be just for mom, either. Sometimes dads need to talk, too.
"I also encourage couples to go to therapy after something like this, as men tend to feel lost and uncertain as to how to process their own feelings while supporting their partner," says McCormack.
Both McCormack and Biedebach agree that talking about this kind of loss, whether in person or over social media, is important. Biedebach says, for some parents, honoring their baby through a social media post is their way of remembering and recognizing their importance. McCormack notes that a social media post can also be a good way to invite a larger quantity of people to support you in your time of need.
"It also reduces the stigma by bringing to light that it is completely normal for women to experience something like this," she explains.
That's Dewedoff-Carney's goal, and while she can't travel the county photographing mothers herself, she's inviting anyone to join the conversation by taking their own photo, sharing their story and using the hashtags #StruggleDoesNotHaveALook and #TheyMatterToo. Since her photos went viral, women have been commenting and sharing their stories publicly, and it's brought Dewedoff-Carney to tears.
"They're naming the children that they lost," she explains. "They're doing that, they're speaking their truth, and they're letting it out."