By Lindsay Blair, Certified Miscarriage, Bereavement & Birth Doula, and Fertility Coach
I felt my whole world shift the moment I first heard the doctor say, “I’m sorry, there’s no longer a heartbeat.” In one instant, one sentence, I went from expecting a baby to suddenly “un-expecting” one. It felt like those words sliced me in half, and my life now existed in two distinct parts: life before pregnancy loss and now this unknown life after. I had no idea how these two parts of myself could ever be made whole again. While pregnancy loss is relatively common, with around 1 in 4 pregnancies ending in miscarriage, no one can ever really prepare for the deeply personal, complicated, and often isolating emotions that follow as a grieving parent.
Psychologist Martha Diamond says, “While the medical experience might vary, [the grief experienced] depends on the meaning of the pregnancy to that person.” If you have experienced pregnancy loss, you are deserving of emotional support, no matter how long your pregnancy was, or how intensely your loss affected you.
If you are navigating life after pregnancy loss, here are 5 ways to support yourself:
1. Acknowledge the loss and feel your feelings
We have to feel in order to heal. Any major loss we experience, especially an unexpected one, can be traumatic. When we experience trauma, our brain responds in a wise and amazing way: it helps us disconnect from our pain both physically and emotionally so we can do what we need to survive. If chased by a bear, our brain can activate a stress response while the danger is imminent and “turn off” the stress response when the threat has passed and we are safe. With pregnancy loss, reestablishing our sense of safety isn’t nearly as straightforward because the danger occurred within our own body. It’s easy to get “stuck” in the survival-mode of avoiding our feelings and our pain long after our traumatic experience. Allowing ourselves to truly feel our feelings after the loss of a pregnancy lays the groundwork for reestablishing a sense of safety and builds the foundation we need for healing.
While the primary loss may be the loss of the pregnancy and baby, there are many secondary losses that are just as deserving of acknowledgement and grief. Every loss matters. The loss of moments, memories, dreams, choices, money, sense of control, timelines, and innocence—they all matter. Spend some time to truly acknowledge your losses and give yourself permission to grieve them all for as long as you need.
There is no right or wrong way to handle feelings of loss. Give yourself permission to feel a range of emotions. You may be sad, angry, disappointed, or devastated. You may be in shock, feel numb, or even relieved that it’s over. You may feel hopeless, lonely, hurt, left out, helpless, jealous, or anything else. Try not to judge your feelings, compare them to someone else’s feelings, or change them to what you think you “should” be feeling. Whatever you’re feeling is valid, so give yourself permission to feel deeply. Your feelings, no matter how strong they are, will not last forever. They will pass, and sometimes the act of giving them permission to be fully acknowledged and felt just as they are can be the catalyst needed to help you to move through them and begin the healing process.
2. Prioritize your self-care and allow others to care for you, too
When grieving, we may find it more difficult to do even simple things. Grief and loss lower our ability to function at our best, so give yourself grace. You’re doing the best you can. It may be helpful to write yourself notes, set up alerts or reminders in your phone, or ask close friends and loved ones to help you remember to stay hydrated, eat nutritious foods, take care of your personal hygiene, and ensure that your work and personal responsibilities are taken care of.
If you choose to share about your loss, people may say something like, “Do you need anything? Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” People genuinely want to help, but they often have no idea how. So tell them! Create a few specific suggestions and share the list when they ask if there’s anything they can do. This will give them confidence to know they are supporting you in a way that you need, and their support will be genuinely helpful for you—a win-win. Some ideas could be: picking up groceries or dropping off dinner, taking your dog for a walk, watering your plants, texting updates to other friends or family members, packing away or returning baby items or maternity clothes, unsubscribing you from pregnancy- or baby-related apps and emails, getting you out of the house to do something normal and fun, or driving over to your place to just sit and cry with you. Communicating your needs in a specific, honest, and direct way is one of the biggest ways you can support yourself and allow others to support you.
It’s equally important to acknowledge the physical impacts of your loss. As a birth and bereavement doula, I am passionate about normalizing the reality that a birth can happen in any trimester of pregnancy. Bleeding, painful contractions, dilation of the cervix and the passage of a fetus can accompany even early pregnancy losses. Beginning in early pregnancy, there are physical and hormonal changes that happen in the body. When a pregnancy ends (whether naturally, medically, or surgically), there is a physical recovery period that’s needed, not unlike any other postpartum recovery period, as the body adjusts back to a pre-pregnancy state. Take the time needed to physically rest, heal, and recover after a pregnancy, and follow up with your OBGYN or healthcare provider for aftercare. Gentle movement like walking or yoga can be beneficial both physically and emotionally. With time, you may find more strenuous exercises like running or kickboxing to be more cathartic (just be sure to talk to your doctor and be medically cleared before resuming any physical activity after your loss).
No matter when your loss happens, whether it’s an early miscarriage, stillbirth or otherwise, the hormonal changes that occur as pregnancy ends can have a huge effect on emotional health. It can be difficult to determine if what you’re feeling is “normal” sadness, or if you could be suffering from postpartum depression. It’s helpful for you and your loved ones to know the signs and to reach out to your doctor if you think you may be experiencing depression or another postpartum mood disorder. Working with a mental health professional to process life’s challenges can be incredibly helpful, especially if you are struggling with sadness, shame, anxiety, guilt, or anger after your loss. It’s one more way to care for yourself and heal after pregnancy loss.
3. Build your support system
I’ll say it again: everyone grieves differently. The type and amount of support you need is unique to your experience. Some may have all the support they need in a partner, friendships, or family relationships. Others may need more support than those people can give. The experience of pregnancy loss can feel isolating and lonely, but know you are not alone. It can be validating and healing to connect with others who have experienced pregnancy loss. You can find a local support group, or find support online in Facebook groups, various social media accounts, and even with professional coaches who specialize in supporting those who have experienced pregnancy loss. What matters most is finding the support system that is best for you, because going through this with others makes the burden much lighter.
4. Expect there will be bumps along the road to healing
The road to healing can be a bumpy one. You may experience medical complications, additional procedures, mood swings, changes in family planning goals, varying thoughts about future pregnancies, changes in your relationships, or other challenges in the weeks, months, and even years following pregnancy loss. One day you may almost feel like your old self again, only to be blindsided the next day by a wave of unexpected grief. These reminders or “triggers” may happen when someone announces a pregnancy, at the doctor’s office, or if someone says something insensitive or seems to have “moved on” from or even forgotten about your loss.
Though often well-meaning, someone will likely say something hurtful at one point or another, like “it just wasn’t meant to be” or “at least you know you can get pregnant.” People often say these things because they have a deep need to “fix” whatever seems broken. But grief isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed, and these comments can really sting. Hearing them can feel isolating, invalidating, and painful.
You can also expect to have more support in the early days after your loss. The weeks and months after a loss can sometimes be even harder than the initial days because the cards and flowers stop coming, the phone calls and texts to check in become less frequent, and the responsibilities start piling back up, just when the loss really starts to sink in. If not addressed, these experiences can negatively impact your relationships and lead to additional challenges.
Give yourself lots of grace while you heal and navigate the complexities of life, and if you can, try to extend a little grace to others around you, especially those who genuinely love and want to support you. You have lost an entire lifetime of memories and experiences with a child you loved, and the majority of people around us don’t fully grasp that. It may be helpful to explain to your loved ones why certain comments feel more hurtful than helpful, and help them learn more about the reality of pregnancy loss and the grief that accompanies it.
Hold onto your support system and continue adding to it as needed. Sometimes just expecting there will be some bumps helps to make them a little easier to endure when they do inevitably happen. Someday, you will look back and see how far you’ve come and how much you’ve healed.
5. Create meaning and purpose by finding ways to integrate your loss into your life
Part of the grieving process is coming to terms with the permanent way your loss has impacted your life. We never really “move on” from our loss, but we can move forward with our loss, and even find meaning and purpose. Finding meaning doesn’t mean finding a “reason” to explain why the loss of a baby happened to you. But you can choose to find meaning or purpose in your life after loss as an expression of your grief and an extension of your love for your baby.
You may choose to have a memorial service, light a candle, or plant a tree. You may donate to an organization with a cause that’s meaningful to you, create a memory box, or write a letter to your baby. You may find meaning in purchasing artwork for your home, a special piece of jewelry, or even by getting a tattoo. You may find purpose in supporting others who have experienced pregnancy loss by starting a blog, writing a book, leading a peer support group, or even becoming a grief counselor or bereavement doula. It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is that you do, or if you do multiple things or none of them. Your journey is unique to you, and you can integrate your loss into your life in whatever ways feel right for you. You have nothing to prove to yourself, your baby, or to anyone else.