During pregnancy, expectant parents are hopeful as they look forward to welcoming a child. But 10% to 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (defined as loss up to the 20th week of pregnancy) or stillbirth (loss after the 20th week). For parents who experience perinatal loss, grief can be overwhelming.
Pregnancy loss is particularly difficult to navigate because it often occurs without warning. In addition, it can sometimes be hard to identify a cause. Yet, many people shy away from discussing these losses, uncertain how to grieve or provide support.
“Parents who experience a perinatal loss need time to mourn,” says Joy Sterrett, RN, a perinatal bereavement coordinator and labor and delivery nurse at Henry Ford Health. “Parents can also find ways to honor their baby and let others know ways they can provide support.”
What To Expect After A Pregnancy Loss
According to Sterrett, perinatal losses can impact parents and families emotionally and physically:
After a pregnancy loss, parents experience the stages of grief common for anyone losing a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “When a baby dies, parents grieve the hopes and dreams they had for their child,” says Sterrett. “They are left to think about what may have been.”
Perinatal losses are also difficult for those who have experienced infertility challenges. Miscarriage or stillbirth also touches siblings, adoptive parents and parents using a surrogate.
It’s normal to experience physical symptoms during the grieving process. After a pregnancy loss, women experience fluctuating hormone levels, cramping, bleeding and fatigue. The severity of physical symptoms may vary, depending upon when the loss occurred during pregnancy.
Grief can also cause fatigue, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, loss of appetite and digestive problems.
Coping With A Pregnancy Loss
“There’s no set timetable for grieving the loss after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Each person’s journey is different,” says Sterrett. “While the sadness from losing a baby will not go away, it often becomes easier to bear over time.”
To ease the pain of perinatal loss, she recommends that parents try these strategies:
- Give yourself permission to mourn: Take time to grieve and discuss your feelings. Some people find comfort in journaling or blogging about their experiences. Others turn to activities like walking or gardening to find relief.
- Find ways to honor your baby: Plant a flower or tree in honor of your baby. Include your baby in holiday traditions by creating a keepsake, such as an ornament with their name. Hold a fundraiser and donate proceeds to a local neonatal intensive care unit or charity.
- Help siblings grieve and recover: By sharing your feelings with your children, you permit them to do the same. Before your children return to school, let teachers and counselors know how to respond to your child when discussing the loss.
- Plan ways to manage unexpected waves of emotion: Grief can surface anytime. Anticipate situations that may trigger sadness and make an “escape plan.” For example, if the sound of a crying baby upsets you while grocery shopping, leave and return at another time.
- Let family and friends know how they can help: Be clear about ways family and friends can support you. Set boundaries to allow yourself and your family to mourn. Let others know if you’re not ready to attend events or celebrations.
- Practice self-care: Take time for self-care. Try to eat nutrient-rich meals. Stick to your nightly sleep routine to get the rest you need. Set aside time to do meditation or relaxation exercises.
How To Find Support After A Pregnancy Loss
Your healthcare team can help you navigate the challenges of losing an infant. Sterrett provides parents with grief resources and memory bags to honor their baby. She offers books, teddy bears and blankets to comfort siblings.
Many parents benefit from counseling. Individual, couples or family therapy can help individuals who feel “stuck” in their grief and have difficulty managing daily routines.
Many local hospitals offer support groups for parents experiencing a loss. You can also join virtual support groups. Sterrett also recommends checking out these online resources:
If your sadness leads you to consider hurting yourself or somebody else, seek emergency assistance immediately:
- Call 911 or 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Go to the closest hospital emergency room where a physician can examine you and refer you for appropriate care
- Tell emergency services or medical personnel if you have a gun or other weapons in your home
How To Support Someone Who Has Experienced A Miscarriage
When a loved one or friend experiences a perinatal loss, many people are uncertain how to help. Sterrett offers these recommendations for providing support:
- Acknowledge the loss: Let parents know you recognize their loss. Call the baby by name if one was given.
- Listen: Give parents free rein to talk about their loss. Many parents don’t want advice; they just need a sounding board as they work through their grief.
- Offer help: Ask if you can bring groceries or a meal. Pick up their kids from school or sporting events.
- Honor their baby: Send cards and gifts to honor their infant for holidays and birthdays. Donate to a local charity in memory of the baby.
- Avoid hurtful comments: It can be hard to know what to say when people are grieving. Some people offer well-intentioned words that are more hurtful than helpful. Avoid statements such as: “At least you were early in your pregnancy,” or “At least you have other children.”
Reviewed by Joy Sterrett, a labor/delivery nurse and perinatal bereavement coordinator at Henry Ford Jackson Hospital.