The loss of a baby, whether early on in the pregnancy or right at birth, can be emotionally devastating and is a complex grief not always understood by others.
Around one in five pregnancies results in miscarriage (ending before 20 weeks), and one in six babies a day in Australia are stillborn (from 20 weeks up until birth). Although the occurrence is common, the exact causes are not well understood. Roughly 40% of stillbirths are unexplained, however possible contributing factors include congenital abnormalities, spontaneous pre-term (birth before 37 weeks), infection, and maternal conditions.
How do I know what is normal?
Without a clear explanation however, this can complicate the grieving process. You may try to blame yourself, wondering whether it was something you did, or didn’t do. It is normal to shift between a range of emotions including shock, anger, resentment, guilt, sadness, or denial following the loss. This can be influenced by a number of factors, such as how long you were trying to conceive, whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned, how old you are, how you conceived (e.g. IV, via a surrogate), how many times you’ve had a miscarriage, and how much support you are getting from loved ones. However, try to remember that in most cases, there was nothing that you could have done to prevent it.
There may be times when you feel you can get on with life, and other times when you are overwhelmed by sadness – this is okay! Despite the common themes around grief and loss, each experience is unique – there is no right or wrong way of moving forward. Remember that you have the right to grieve as much, or as little as you need to.
You might find some of the suggestions below helpful in your recovery process.
Gain support from friends, family, or professionals
It’s important to have someone to talk to, whether it be with your loved ones, or a therapist. Your friends and family may want to comfort and support you, but not know the best way to do so. Some may avoid a conversation around the loss, thinking that bringing it up will upset you. Others may say things to minimise your loss, not realising that their comments can feel dismissive or hurtful. Let them know what support you need, and how much you want to share about the experience. Talking about what happened can be difficult, but it can help with the isolation and loneliness, particularly if others around you are having babies. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, try writing it down instead.
You might prefer to share your feelings and experience with others who have been through and can understand this type of loss. Support groups can offer a safe space for you to discuss what the pregnancy meant to you, or what your hopes and plans were for your baby and family.
There are many programs in Australia providing support to families and friends who have experienced the loss of a baby including:
Allow yourself to mourn
Having an outlet to express your grief is important. By suppressing your thoughts and feelings, mourning symptoms such as irritability, low mood, and poor sleep can become chronic. This can end up interfering with your relationships and functioning for a long time after your loss, sometimes without you even realising it was related to the pregnancy.
These days, hospitals may have services where you can attend a ceremony to mourn the loss of your baby. Sometimes parents will organise their own ceremony to celebrate the short time they have had with their child. Parents will often name their baby and find other ways to celebrate their child’s life.
Acknowledging the loss of your baby
Just because you never got the chance to spend time with your baby, it doesn’t mean that the loss wasn’t real. Some parents may find that doing something formal to acknowledge their baby can help, and it is also a great way to honour their pregnancy. For example:
- having a memorial service
- naming your baby whether you knew their gender or not
- choosing a keepsake e.g. an ornament or jewellery
- making something e.g. a quilt or scrapbook
- saying goodbye e.g write a letter, release balloons, or light some candles
- having a special day each year set aside to remember
Taking time off work
It’s okay to ask your workplace for personal or bereavement leave. You may be emotionally and physically exhausted – taking a break from your usual routine can help, and also gives you a chance to come to terms with what’s happened.
If, after a few months you find that you are still struggling to cope with everyday life, or feel that you are not getting the support that you need from friends and family, seeing a therapist can help.
Author: Katherine Vuong, B Beh Sc (Hons), MAPS.