At whatever stage a parent loses a baby, it is often a very painful experience for both mother and father. Sometimes parents try to rush through or even skip the important grieving process because they want to avoid those painful emotions.
It is important that the parent allows him or herself to grieve the loss of the child and reaches out for support to family and friends, who can hopefully provide compassionate and non-judgmental support.
It’s important to acknowledge that the woman’s partner is also grieving. Often the focus of support is on the woman and the partner feels under pressure to hide his feelings in an attempt to protect his wife. So friends and family need to make sure both are receiving emotional support.
Couples can at times drift apart following the loss of a child as their coping strategies may look very different. Men can seem to be “moving forward” much sooner and as though “nothing happened” and that can trigger feelings of isolation and resentment for the woman. It is important to respect each other’s way of coping and keep open and honest communication to support each other through this difficult time.
Ways to Cope
Some parents find that spiritual, religious or symbolic rituals can help with coming to terms with the death of a child.
Writing can also be very therapeutic and parents are at times encouraged in counselling sessions to write a goodbye letter to the baby.
Creating a “memory box” with keepsakes from the pregnancy and baby’s life can be helpful as the parents have a physical go-to when they want to remember the life that was lost.
If the child died in sudden and traumatic circumstances, which is often the case, I would highly recommend speaking to a professional. A compassionate counsellor can help make sense of some of these experiences and support the healing process so that the grief doesn’t become more complex, prolonged or turn into clinical depression.
The Grieving Process
Grieving parents can at times be very hurt to find that their closest friends and family members who had been initially supportive, expect them to “move on” and “get over it” after a few months after the loss. Grief is not a linear process and it is therefore important to continue checking in with the bereaved parents and not make the loss a taboo subject.
It is not unusual for a parent and relatives to pin their hopes on a future pregnancy and new child to heal the loss. Or, if the couple has other children, to say “at least you have another child”. And while that can be helpful for some couples, trying to be positive and asking the grieving mother or father to be hopeful or grateful, can in fact have the opposite effect and make the person feel invalidated and misunderstood.
It’s not easy to provide emotional support to a bereaved parent and unfortunately I have heard stories of lost friendships, acquaintances that cross the road to the other side to avoid the “awkward subject” and the work colleagues who think that by completely avoiding the topic they are being supportive.
My advice to friends and family is this: feel your discomfort, sadness or awkwardness and still ask that grieving mother: “How are you? How are you really?” and “I am here if you need to talk”.
Some parents who, for whatever reason, have had to make the very painful decision to terminate a pregnancy, may experience feelings of guilt and shame in addition to loss. This can make it even harder to come to terms with the death of the unborn baby and makes the parent less likely to seek support from others.
Many parents can be comforted in their grief by having a ‘memory box’ that could include pictures of the baby (baby’s feet resting on the parent’s hand for example) or the blanket used to wrap baby after delivery.
I have heard moving stories of severely premature babies taking their last breath in the mother’s arms and how those memories bring both a profound sadness and yet deep connection to the life that was lost. Those memories, although painful, can become treasured moments in the long run.
When it comes how long to wait before trying to get pregnant again, it will really depend on the woman’s situation. From a psychological and emotional point of view I would recommend waiting a few months to have some space to grieve and adjust to daily life.
This period of mourning might help with subsequent pregnancies so that the next child is cherished for who she is rather than as an “emotional substitute” for the child who died.
For couples under pressure to conceive soon after the pregnancy loss due to fertility issues, it makes it even more important to seek and receive support from loved ones and speak to a professional counsellor.
If the couple are emotionally stable (as opposed to very bereft) and feel as though they have “come to terms” with the pregnancy loss, they may choose to focus their energy on becoming pregnant once more. As long as the Obstetrician is in agreement there is no need to delay pregnancy.
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About the Writer
Silvia Wetherell, Co-Founder of MumRadar, works as a counsellor and psychotherapist in an obstetric setting and has a special interest in maternal mental health. Originally from Portugal, she spent ten years in England and is now based in Singapore with her husband and two young children. Silvia is also a Postpartum Support International Coordinator and Co-founder of the support group Mindful Mums.
Silvia has the loudest laugh, loves swimming in the ocean and snuggling on the sofa with her two cats, Jaffa and Freddie.