The field of maternal mental health encompasses the many stages of becoming a parent… family planning, conception, pregnancy, delivery, and the postpartum period. Sadly, according to womenshealth.gov, as many as 10 to 15 percent of confirmed pregnancies are lost. As October comes to a close, I wanted to take a few minutes to acknowledge Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month.
When an adult passes away, the family grieves the past— the memories that they had with that person. But when a baby passes away, the grief is for the future. When parents first discover they are expecting a new baby (whether it was a planned or unplanned pregnancy), they immediately shift mentally into planning their future around the new baby. What month will I be due? How long will I take off of work for maternity leave? We’ll have to rethink our holiday plans… Where will we put the crib? Practical plans start to form around the logistics of adding a child to the family. And then these thoughts also drift farther into the future as dreams start to form for the child’s future. The sudden end of a pregnancy ignites the grief process over those lost plans, hopes and dreams.
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month was first declared by President Ronald Reagan on October 25, 1988.
On that day he said:
“When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them. This month recognizes the loss so many parents experience across the United States and around the world. It is also meant to inform and provide resources for parents who have lost children due to miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, stillbirths, birth defects, SIDS, and other causes.
Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim the month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.”
For you parents who are at various points in grieving the loss of a pregnancy or child, I encourage you to take time for your own self care and to extend extra grace to yourself and your spouse. You have a right to grieve as much as anyone who has suffered any other type of loss.
I often hear clients describe that grief changes shape over time— that it doesn’t ever completely go away, but it may change size or intensity. In general, many people find that the size of the grief decreases as they heal, but can also spike up again— especially around triggers like the anniversary of the loss, seasons of the year that remind you of the pregnancy, and seeing babies or other women who are pregnant.
Here are a couple of points to consider as you cope with grief of a pregnancy or infant loss:
- Maintain some routine. There may be some days that you just can’t get out of bed. But as much as possible, try to maintain some basic self care such as getting enough sleep, eating some nutritious food, and getting a little exercise (a walk outside, even for just 5 minutes, is good for you both physically and emotionally).
- Open up to your people. You don’t have to share every emotion and detail of your experience with every person you come in contact with. But it is important that you have some close people that you can share with. Not everyone will know what to say, and they might say something unsupportive in their attempts to be helpful. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt when they are truly trying to help. No one has the right words to make everything okay in this situation.
- Consider a support group of other parents who “get it.” Try searching your local hospitals to see if they have groups for bereaved parents. You can also Google “online support groups for pregnancy loss” to find virtual options.
- Do something in remembrance of your baby. This looks different for every family and situation… it might include some type of ceremony or funeral, putting together a box of important items like ultrasound pictures and things that remind you of the baby, a special piece of jewelry with the baby’s name or birthstone.
When you grieve the loss of a pregnancy or baby, your goal is not to get back to your “normal” life before the loss. You will never forget, you will never be exactly the same. Instead, this baby will become part of your family’s story. Your goal is to make meaning of your experience and incorporate it into who you are as you move forward in your changed world.