There are few events as painful as losing a baby. All of the exciting feelings and happy expectations about pregnancy come to a screeching halt, and instead of celebrating a life, you are grieving over a death.
When most people think of pregnancy loss, the first thought is of miscarriage. But miscarriage is only one type of loss. Ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, and neonatal death are in the same category and equally devastating. Unfortunately, pregnancy loss is a common event; about 1 in 5 women will suffer pregnancy loss. Painfully, some women go through labor that ends with the delivery of a stillborn baby or a disabled or sickly baby who dies days later. Even an early miscarriage can cause distress. When a woman loses a baby at any stage, there is profound sadness, loss, and a sense of failure. It can cause you to lose faith in your body and its ability to function properly. Many women are overwhelmed by concerns that they did something wrong or somehow caused the loss. You can spend countless hours replaying your every move, wondering whether it was the bag of groceries you carried, or the argument you had, or that flight of stairs you took, a trip or fall, or stress – but none of these has been proven to cause miscarriage.
Tamisha, a legal secretary from Long Beach, California, had what would be called a textbook pregnancy. She ate well, she exercised, and she and her husband were happily expecting the arrival of their firstborn. But four hours after the birth of her baby girl, the baby died as a result of some internal malformation that was not detected by ultrasound. “We were utterly and completely devastated,” she says. At the hospital, the doctors and nurses avoided her, ignored her questions, or gave evasive answers. They said things like, “Don’t worry; you’ll get over it,” or “Your young; you’ll have another baby.” Considering that a hospital staff consists of medically trained individuals, it’s surprising how many women felt this type of response only worsened their grief. “From the beginning it was like, this is something not to be discussed,” Tamisha, now a mother of two, says. So many women would have preferred answers instead of silence. If you have suffered a loss, you may have received similar treatment at the hospital.
With no real answers to fill the gaping void that now existed, Tamisha and her husband left the hospital with empty hands and empty hearts. Well-meaning friends and loved ones got rid of all the baby stuff that was in the house before she got home. “People acted like my baby didn’t exist. My husband didn’t want to talk about it. Nobody talked about it. People avoided eye contact with me. And when I tried to talk about it, people quickly changed the subject or left the room,” she says.
Her grief was intensified by isolation as friends, family, and even her husband withdrew. “It was like, nobody really called me because they didn’t know what to say. My friends with babies avoided me because they thought being around their babies would upset me. If there was anything where a baby might be around – a family dinner, baby shower, graduation party — I usually wasn’t invited. Instead of helping, it just made me feel all alone in my mourning,” she says. “They didn’t understand that I didn’t want to forget. I didn’t want to get over it. I wanted to feel, and hurt, and grieve, and miss my baby.”
Inevitably someone will make an insensitive comment. Someone may say that because you never “really knew” your baby, it is not that bad. Or that it is better this way – meaning a child dies before you come to know her personality or really gotten to know her. These people are utterly ignorant!! We mothers know that we form an amazing bond in utero that makes the baby an active, breathing human to us. We sisters know our baby’s personality way before it is born – from the way it kicks at 2 am to the foods it makes us crave. But when you lose a baby late in your pregnancy, or shortly after delivery, you are the only one who experienced this connection. Even your husband or partner may not get it.
If you suffered a pregnancy loss there are some things you should know:
- No matter what well-meaning nurses, family members, and friends say, you will not feel better in a couple of days, weeks, or maybe even months. You’re hurt may continue for years. True healing only occurs after the slow and necessary progression through four different stages of grief and mourning.
- Consider a service or Memorial that can give you closure. Countless women said having a funeral or memorial service made the loss real.
- Understand that grieving for a child is very different from grieving for the loss of a parent or grandparent. When you grieve for an older person, you grieve for the past, but with a child, you grieve for the future. Be open to understanding that some healing strategies that you or others use may not necessarily work for you. This type of loss is unique. It is also important to know that healing does not mean forgetting. You will never forget your precious baby and successful grieving ensures that there’s always a place in your heart for him or her.
- You do not have to carry this burden alone. No doubt you have a number of loved ones who would love to be there for you but just don’t know how. They are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Tell them honestly what they could do to help. Do not say, for example, “I am fine,” when you are not fine. By allowing others to share your pain and help you out, you will be comforted and they will feel less helpless and awkward.
- Do not feel as if you cannot make choices for yourself at this time. It is true this is probably not the best time to make rash decisions about your job and moving out of state, but you can and should be involved with decisions related to the death of your baby. If there are decisions regarding naming the baby, seeing the baby, arranging a memorial or other service, or taking care of things you bought for the nursery, be involved in these choices. Well-meaning people may try to shield you from these things as if they are protecting you. But until the loss is real, the grieving cannot begin. And instead of just painful thoughts, you can also have comforting memories of the kind and loving acts you did for your baby.
- It is probably true that you will be hurt, angry, or jealous if you are around mothers who have young babies. You may feel resentment and secretly wish ill on others. These are very real feelings for a person in the throes of grief. You are not a horrible person for thinking such thoughts. Be willing to forgive yourself knowing that these feelings will eventually go away.
- Prepare yourself for a changed relationship with a spouse or partner. In some instances, these types of traumatic experiences can make two people closer but sometimes there is resentment, anger, or blame secretly or openly brewing. If you see this is happening to you, do not ignore it or assume it will get better with time. Find a grief counselor or a support group with other couples who have had a similar loss.
Excerpted from The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005) by Kimberly Seals Allers