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Understanding grief after pregnancy loss

A grieving couple

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, highlighting the struggles faced by parents who experience the death of a child. While everyone acknowledges that the death of a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, the pain of pregnancy loss can sometimes be less understood.

Each year in the United States around 24,000 babies are stillborn and roughly a fifth of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Yet many grieving parents say that there can be a suffocating silence around their loss which can make it difficult for them to ask for support.

“What tends to compound the grief of parents struggling to come to terms with the death of an unborn baby is that while pregnancy loss is not unusual, it is poorly understood,” says Zoe Taylor in her book Pregnancy Loss: Surviving Miscarriage and Stillbirth.

“Medical professionals are frequently unable to offer an explanation, and friends and family are at a loss as to what to say. All too often this results in even more loneliness, frustration and desperation.”

Launching the first Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in 1988, President Reagan said: “National observance of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, offers us the opportunity to increase our understanding of the great tragedy involved in the deaths of unborn and newborn babies. It also enables us to consider how, as individuals and communities, we can meet the needs of bereaved parents and family members and work to prevent causes of these problems.”

Yet bereaved parents and grief support experts say there is still a silence around miscarriage that needs to be broken.

Listening, remembering and talking about someone who died is one of the best ways that a friend or family member can support someone who has been bereaved, no matter how long ago their loss.

When a mother or father is mourning the loss of a pregnancy or new-born child, it’s important to acknowledge and support them as they grieve. Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month still serves to remind us of the care that every baby-lost parent deserves and the significance of the little one that meant so very much, every day throughout the year.

Here are five tips to help you support anyone coping with grief after miscarriage or stillbirth.

1. Acknowledge their loss

With any kind of bereavement, whether it’s the death of a child or the loss of a great-grandparent, it’s better to acknowledge someone’s loss than ignore it.

If a friend has experienced pregnancy loss, it’s often better to say something and offer your support. Avoiding the subject could make them feel isolated or distressed that their grief seems too uncomfortable for people to talk about.

Although it can be difficult to know exactly what to say, remember that any awkwardness you are feeling can never compare to the heartbreaking grief they are experiencing.

“People often avoid saying ‘I’m sorry to hear…’ because it sounds clichéd,” says bereavement psychotherapist Annie Broadbent. “But it’s one of the best things to start off with when someone dies, simply because it’s true.”

2. Respect their right to grieve

Parents who have experienced pregnancy loss often feel that other people don’t understand that they are grieving. Grief is a natural reaction to deep personal loss, and yet society generally doesn’t recognize pregnancy loss as a reason to grieve.

All too often, the most hurtful comments parents hear make them feel as if they aren’t supposed to grieve. Try to avoid phrases like the following:

  • “You can get pregnant again.”
  • “Oh, that happens a lot with first-time pregnancies, it’s no big deal.”
  • “Well, it wasn’t really a baby yet.”
  • “It’s not like you lost a child.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

While these comments might be well-intentioned, it can feel like you are saying, “You shouldn’t be grieving.”

Many parents love their baby from the moment they find out they are expecting.They can already have formed a deep emotional bond with their child and be looking forward to their future as a family.

Instead of trying to ‘fix’ their grief, a simple “I’m so sorry” can go a long way. Let them know it’s okay to feel whatever they are feeling and you are there for them.

3. Attend the funeral

Some parents choose to arrange a funeral for their child after pregnancy loss. A funeral can be an important way for people to acknowledge the reality of the death and begin processing the life-changing impact of bereavement.

As long as they haven’t specified that it’s to be a private funeral, your attendance will likely be of comfort to the parents. It’s important for them to know that those around them support them and also acknowledge the loss they are going through.

You might consider buying funeral flowers or a floral tribute or donating to a charity in memory of their child. Writing a condolence card or sending a sympathy gift can also be good way to express your support for them.

4. Be patient

One of the most persistent myths about grief is the idea that it just takes time for things to get better. Time can make the pain more manageable, but for many parents who experience miscarriage or stillbirth, there will always be a part of them that is grieving.

Whether it’s been a week, a month or a year, don’t expect someone who is grieving to be “over it”, just because a certain amount of time has elapsed. Grief is rarely that simple and it can take years before deep emotions are understood and worked through.

It might be a long time before your friend or relative feels able to return to normal life – going back to work, socializing with friends again and finding things that give them joy. It could be a long time before they’re open to socializing again, but be patient and keep inviting them to events and gatherings.

5. Keep in touch

With any kind of grief, it can be months, even years before the person feels the true extent of their loss. While offers of support might be plentiful in the first few days and weeks, it can be later on, when the funeral has happened and the sympathy flowers have faded, that grief really starts to take its toll.

If you’re supporting someone coping with grief after pregnancy loss, try to keep in touch in the long term. Keep offering help and visiting them. You might that they need practical help, with things such as grocery shopping and household chores.

Most importantly, keep letting them know that they can talk to you about their feelings and about their baby. It might be months or years before they take you up on that offer, but knowing you’re there can make all the difference.

Find out more about supporting a friend after pregnancy loss, or contact First Candle for expert support and advice.