A few weeks back, I wrote about stillbirth This week I wanted to delve a little bit deeper into what emotions and coping looks like following this devastating loss.
While there is certainly some overlap with the feelings and strategies that I wrote about in my pieces on miscarriage , there are aspects specific to losses that occur later in pregnancy that I wanted to highlight.
- Because losing your baby to stillbirth generally involves going through the process of an induced labor and delivery, you will experience much of the same physical and hormonal changes that would have occurred if you had delivered a live child. This includes pain and uterine cramping, vaginal bleeding, hormonal shifts, and the production of milk. Your body may also continue to look pregnant for a bit after the birth just as it would with the birth of a live child.
- These experiences can be especially traumatic as they are a constant reminder of the tragic loss you experienced. As such, it is normal for some women to feel intense anger, dissociation, or distrust of their physical bodies.
- It is very common to feel a range of emotions including shock and despair. Many women also describe feeling disconnected, dissociated and numb. Some people will experience more anger.
- Many of my clients who have experienced later pregnancy losses have described a sense of disbelief, especially during the process of labor.
- It is also common to experience guilt or shame, and to find that you are blaming yourself.
Coping and Grieving
- Shore up your supports as soon as you can. If you have anytime between learning of your loss and delivery, try and connect with a few people who will be able to support you through this process, both logistically and emotionally. If possible, enlist your partner to help with this process. I have had some clients find it extraordinary helpful to connect with a bereavement doula. Amazingly there are doulas specifically trained in working with stillbirth(https://stillbirthday.com/find-doula/).
- As I mentioned in last week’s article (LINK) there are a lot of decisions and logistics that occur following a stillbirth. It is essential that you give yourself the time you need to make these choices, and to grieve and cope however you need. While it is entirely your decision to go through testing to see if the reason for the stillbirth can be determined, many of my clients have found that getting some answers can be a helpful in processing and understanding the loss. However, it is important to know that it takes a while to get test results and that wait time can be very difficult. Additionally, there are many occasions where no clear reason for the loss can be determined an it’s important to be emotionally prepared for that.
- As discussed last week, you have the right to spend time with your baby following delivery. Many clients find it helpful to dress or bathe the baby, or have photos taken. There are organizations that can help connect you with volunteer photographers.
- It can be helpful to plan some type of memorial, or engage in some sort of ritual surrounding the loss. This can be whatever feels comfortable for you- what’s important is that you have the space to acknowledge and concretize the loss. I’ve had clients plan funeral services, make memory books, and release balloons in honor of their lost baby.
- Telling others about the loss can be especially challenging after a stillbirth as it is likely that more people, including those you may not be close with, knew about the pregnancy. It can be helpful to enlist support from others in helping you navigate this process. For example, if you have a supportive co-worker or boss, designate him or her to handle this process at work for you. Or have a friend or family member whose job it is to inform others.
- You may have the experience of close friends and family who prove unable to give you the support you need. This is often the result of their own difficulty tolerating the profound sadness around the loss – perhaps because of their own history with loss, or perhaps because it makes them too uncomfortable. It is not your job to make it easier for them- your job is to take care of you. This may mean setting some boundaries with those you love as you work through this process.
- If you have other children it may be helpful to seek some guidance in navigating how to speak to them about the loss. If they are school age, consider speaking with their school counselor and teachers, or with a therapist who works with bereaved children. The Sands organization also has some great suggestions
- Anticipating potential triggers is especially important so that you can plan for how you will care for yourself. Common triggers include your due date, the anniversary of the loss, and holidays. You may also find that spending time with others who are pregnant, who are due around when you were supposed to have your baby, or who have new babies in the home can be especially hard. It’s OK to take space from these situations and to prioritize your own self-care and healing.
- It is not unusual to find that your relationship is strained following a stillbirth. You and your partner had different experiences of the pregnancy, the loss, and physical and emotional adjustment that follows. You may also have different needs and different ways of coping. As best you can, try to support each other in your different needs- which may at times mean coping and grieving together, and finding ways to cope and grieve apart. I’ve worked with several families who have found it helpful to connect with other couples who have experienced similar losses. There are many excellent support groups out there that can help facilitate this.
The information above is by no means a complete list of what to anticipate following a stillbirth. My hope is that by providing information and voicing that which we often deem unspeakable, we can begin to take the burden off grieving families who are often tasked with handling other people’s discomfort and inexperience with loss. To further support this mission, I’ve included links to some additional resources that may be helpful.