Early Pregnancy, Stillbirth, and Newborn Loss

The loss of a child at any age can cause intense, overwhelming feelings of grief and helplessness. With pregnancy loss, the pain of what would have been is the source of our grief. Hopes, expectations, and dreams for the future go into the decision to become pregnant. As soon as we confirm our pregnancy, bonding begins. We all start the process of thinking and dreaming about all the possibilities: Will the baby be a boy or a girl? What will the baby look like? How will I manage career and parenthood? Will I be a good parent? Itís not the amount of time we spend with our child that shapes our grief, but rather the meaning we attach to his or her unlimited potential. Whether a baby is miscarried, is stillborn, or dies shortly after birth, the feelings are every bit as intense and all-consuming as those experienced by parents who lose their children at a much older age.

Unfortunately, it is common for others to misunderstand or even dismiss our grief. This is especially true in the case of miscarriage, where others may not even acknowledge our loss. With stillbirth and newborn loss, the loss is usually acknowledged, but very often is minimized. The reasons for this are many. There is often a deep-seated cultural bias against discussing death, dying, and grief, especially in America. Compounding this general problem is the fact that many people lack an understanding of the bond that forms in utero between the parents and child from the earliest news of the pregnancy. Others find themselves unable to cope with the intense distress of the grieving person. For them, it is important to "hurry things along" so the grieving parents can "get back to normal". Whatever the reasons, many parents find themselves with a lack of support during this agonizing time. Here are some important things to keep in mind that can help you cope during this difficult time.

Take Care of Yourself Physically

You have been through a lot — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Your physical health is linked to your emotional well-being. Keep your doctorís appointments, get plenty of rest, eat healthfully and moderately, refrain from using drugs and alcohol (which can exacerbate health issues and delay grief), and try to get some exercise, even if it is just a walk around the block.

Let People Know What You Want and Need

This can be difficult to do under the best of circumstances, but it can seem impossible when you are grieving. One way to begin is to think about what might be most helpful to you. Do you want company, or more time alone? Would you like help with the chores? People who care about you may want to help, but do not know how. Itís okay to ask for what you need. If you are not comfortable talking with people directly, you can write a short note or even an e-mail letting others know how you are feeling and how they can help you.

Anticipate Comments

Itís not a matter of if, but when. Someone, somewhere, will make a thoughtless comment about your loss. This can feel like a punch in the gut when it happens, especially when it comes from someone who loves us. Even friends and family who are usually supportive can unknowingly say or do things that add to our grief, intensify our pain, or add to our sense of isolation. The best thing you can do in this situation is to be honest. Take a deep breath, thank the person for their concern, and then explain how you feel. Let them know what you would like them to say or do instead. I believe that most people do, in fact, want to be loving, thoughtful, and supportive, but it is difficult for people who have not experienced this kind of loss to fully understand what you are going through. Donít worry about hurting their feelings. By sharing your feelings, you are acknowledging them and making them real. It also helps the other person get a better handle on whatís going on for you.

Find Support

You do not have to do this alone. Group and individual support is available in most communities and, if not, group forums are always available on-line. Please see my Resources page for more information.

There is no timeline for grief. Some people grieve for a few days, others a few weeks or months. Some take years. Grief comes and goes in waves. Rarely is there a formal end where the loss is forgotten and the grief stops completely. With time and patience, your grief will lessen in its intensity and you will be able to treasure the memory of your pregnancy and precious baby.

© Jill Lehman, MFT

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