Grieving the loss of a baby that dies in the womb is a silent form of bereavement. Whether the baby dies early in the pregnancy (miscarriage) or late in the pregnancy (stillbirth), the loss is real and painful. Finding healthy ways to grieve for an unborn baby can be a challenge, but here are some tips that should help.
A miscarriage occurs when a baby dies in the womb before the 20th week of gestation. The American Pregnancy Association reports that around 10-25 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually within the first three months of gestation. The cause of miscarriage usually cannot be determined. If you have experienced a miscarriage, there are several ways you can grieve your loss and begin the healing process.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
If you are the mother, you may find yourself crying a lot. You may feel angry at yourself or others or spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the miscarriage happened. You may also find it difficult to be around pregnant women when grieving the loss of an unborn baby.
Talk to Your Partner
Although the way your partner grieves the loss of your unborn baby may be different from the way you grieve it, it's important to remember that your partner is grieving, too. According to the American Psychological Association, you may notice that your partner is more likely to be angry or irritable, express concern over your health, and seek solace in your sex life. Understanding your partner's reactions can help you understand that your partner is grieving just as much as you are.
Miscarriage Grief Is Real
Some people don't understand the intensity of miscarriage grief. They may feel that you are grieving too intensely for someone that wasn't a "real" person. They may feel that you weren't pregnant long enough to grieve as much as you are. Here are some things you (and they) need to know about what affects the strength of miscarriage grief:
- How much you wanted the baby
- How long it took you to get pregnant
- How much support you have after the miscarriage
- How strong your bond was to your baby
- If you blame yourself for the miscarriage
- Important days, like the baby's due date or Mother's Day
- The hormonal changes that occur as your body returns to a nonpregnant state
Regardless of the amount or length of your miscarriage grief, your grief is as real as the grief you would feel from losing a friend or another loved one. Miscarriage grief can be uniquely difficult since there isn't always a body to mourn, and expecting mothers are left with ruminating thoughts about the plans they had for themselves and their child.
Grieving a Stillborn Infant
A stillbirth occurs when the child dies in the womb after 20 weeks of gestation. According to the Center for Disease Control, about 1 in every 160 pregnancies in the United States ends in stillbirth. The total number of stillbirths in the United States each year is about 24,000.
Dealing With Loss and Disbelief
Sadly, many women find out before delivery that their baby has died in utero. This means they have to endure the pain of labor knowing that, at the end, they will leave the hospital empty-handed. Also, if your child was stillborn, you may have felt him or her moving only hours or minutes before the death. This can make it hard for you to believe that your baby is gone.
There is no set length of time for grief. Grieving takes as long as it takes for the individual to recover from their unique loss. Allow yourself to grieve in whatever way feels right; no one has the right to tell you how you should do it. They may not understand what you are feeling, and it isn't your job to make them. You should prioritize taking care of yourself.
Embrace the Reminders
Stillborn children usually leave reminders of their brief lives. Many hospitals take an imprint of the stillborn baby's foot or hand or even a series of pictures for you to keep. Hospitals also encourage the parents of stillborn children to spend several hours holding and bonding with their baby. Displaying these mementos can help you accept the reality of your loss and begin the grieving process.
Preserving Your Baby's Memory
Many people have found it helpful to create tangible reminders of the baby they lost to miscarriage as a way of honoring their child, saying goodbye, and also coping with their grief. These can include:
- Giving the baby a name or using the baby's name if you had already chosen one.
- Creating a special memorial garden as a place to reflect and flowers that have meaning in the name, color, or month the flower represents.
- Writing a letter to your unborn baby.
- Choosing a poem or song to remind you of the baby.
Creating an Online Memorial
Many people choose to create an online memorial in honor of their baby and assist in the grieving process, as it allows you to share your grief with others. Some online memorial sites are specifically designed to help those grieving the loss of an unborn baby. If you are concerned that a website may ever have technical failures or disappear, you can create your own website/webpage for your online memorial at sites such as Weebly.com, Wix.com, Webs.com, or dozens of other design-your-own websites. Some helpful online memorial sites include:
Hold a Funeral
Depending on what stage of pregnancy you were in when you lost your baby, you may choose to have a funeral. The most important thing is that you do what feels right for you. You can be as involved as you'd like to be. Just make sure you let your wishes be known. There is no right or wrong here. If you'd like to help dress your baby, that's fine. If you don't, that's fine, too. A funeral is for you to help with the grieving process. Choose a headstone with a loving inscription to commemorate the baby's passing. Visit the gravesite if you feel up to it and decorate it with flowers, toys, letters, and other offerings.
Whether on-site, online, group, or individual, it is important that you seek support to help you through grieving the loss of your unborn baby. There are many groups that have local chapters:
Compassionate Friends has 660 chapters throughout the U.S., with each chapter offering free support to parents and other family members who have lost a child for any reason. They also offer online live chat sessions for those who aren't near or can't attend a chapter meeting. See their websites for times.
- Bereaved Parents USA is another support organization with chapters throughout the U.S. The website has resources to read, and Bereaved Parents has an annual conference for family members who have lost a child.
- If you are looking for an individual therapist, Psychology Today has a therapist locator to help you find a professional in your area specialized in dealing with grief. You can also look on your insurance company's website for therapists who are covered by your insurance.
- After Talk is a website where you can keep a private journal, read resources, ask questions of a professional, create a memorial, start a blog you can share with others, and read others' blogs.
Helping Siblings Grieving a Miscarriage
If you and your partner have other children, you can expect to face their questions about why they don't have a baby brother or sister as promised. Answer their inquiries as honestly as possible. Know that your children may grieve the loss of your unborn baby as well, and that it may look different from your grieving. Some resources available to help grieving siblings include:
Explaining Miscarriage to a Child
Explaining miscarriage to a child is not an easy task, but allowing them a better understanding of what happened to their sibling can assist with their grieving process. Being honest with your child about your baby's death can be difficult, but it may help them gain a sense of closure. Some ways to explain this difficult situation are:
- "The baby didn't grow fully, and was very small."
- "I had the baby, but he wasn't breathing."
- "The baby wasn't growing big and strong."
How to Help a Friend Who Is Grieving a Miscarriage
It may be difficult to find the right words to express support for a friend who is grieving the loss of their child. In fact, it can feel like there are no right things to say. You may find yourself in a challenging situation where you want to show your support, but aren't sure how to do it. There are ways that you can provide comfort.
Express Condolences and Validate Their Feelings
Let your friend know that you are deeply sorry for the loss that they are experiencing. If they are able to share their emotions with you at that time, listen to them and validate their feelings. This isn't an easy situation for either of you, but it can help to try to provide as much empathy and support as possible.
Ask Them What They Need
One way to know what your loved one is looking for in terms of support is to simply ask them what they need at this time. If they are so overwhelmed when you ask, you can make suggestions, like helping out with the laundry, making arrangements, babysitting their other children or cooking meals for their family. Be aware that they may tell you all they need at that point is time and space to grieve the loss of their unborn child in private. Don't be offended by this request; they are trying to cope with a great loss. Whatever they say they need, try your best to support them in a way that's helpful and comforting.
Checking in with your loved one can be as simple as asking, "How are you doing?" and saying, "I'm thinking about you." If your friend has asked for space during their period of grieving, but you still want to check in occasionally, tell them that you still want to text them to see how they are. Let them know that they aren't obligated to reply to your messages. It's often said that it's the thought that counts, and knowing that you are thinking about them and care about their health can make them feel supported.
Surviving the Loss of an Unborn Baby
Losing a baby before it even has a chance to draw breath seems unfair. Sadness, shock, anger, and devastation are all natural responses. You may find that it helps to acknowledge the grief by talking about it to people who can understand what you are feeling. It also helps to engage in meaningful rituals to celebrate your baby's life in your womb. If the pain of losing your unborn baby seems overwhelming, you should always seek out your physician or a mental health professional for guidance and support.