October is recognized as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month (amongst other things). This month has a special place in my heart as a mother who lost a child during pregnancy in 2021, so I wanted to make sure this month's blog was a special one. I asked my friend and fellow therapist, Amy Swart, MSW, LICSW, PMH-C, and owner of Nurture Women's Therapy in Alexandria, MN to share her professional knowledge about the experience that too many women go through with pregnancy and infant loss. Amy is my trusted source for questions related to perinatal mental health and I feel truly grateful that she was willing to write for the blog this month.
Losing a baby is often described as a devastating experience. From the moment you find out you are pregnant, you already create space in your heart for your baby. You begin traveling down an exciting, expected path to parenthood. However, when your baby dies, all these expectations are violated and your world is turned upside down. Now you are on a path to a different journey, and this one has a terrifying terrain.
Instead of becoming a parent to a healthy baby, you are becoming a parent to a baby who has died.
Instead of being filled with joy and pride, you are filled with grief and longing.
Instead of adjusting to life with your baby, you are adjusting to life WITHOUT your baby.
When I started my practice, Nurture Women’s Therapy, in 2021, I was excited to be able to focus my efforts on supporting women. More particularly, I was able to specialize in two areas, perinatal mental health and healing from trauma. It was not long before I realized that these two specialties overlap and I found myself frequently working with mothers and their partners who have lost their babies. As we observe October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, we remember those who have lost babies through avenues such as miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, termination for medical reasons (TFMR), or abortion. While I cannot speak to everyone’s experience with loss, here are some observations and themes I have encountered while supporting parents.
The loss of a baby creates pain on so many levels. There is the loss of your sweet, precious child. This may feel senseless and unfair. A baby’s death often entails a depth of grief and mourning that may feel shocking in intensity. In addition, you lose the future you had begun imagining for yourself and your family the moment you see the positive pregnancy test. You may lose a sense of innocence when you become aware that bad things happen and can happen to your family. Loneliness and anger can creep in if you feel alone in this experience if others’ discomfort leads them to not bring it up and/or you watch others gradually go back to their “normal” lives while you continue to deal with such intense pain. At times it may feel unbearable and you may question if you will never feel happy again.
One thing that must be remembered is the fact that losing a baby is traumatic. So, not only are parents experiencing the intense grief of losing their baby, but symptoms of trauma can occur in the early months and persist for even years if not treated. When we experience trauma, our brain is not able to take in information, process it, and file it away the way we typically would. The trauma can essentially become “stuck,” which can lead to trauma-related symptoms such as images or sounds repeatedly popping in your mind, intense emotional and physical reactions when reminded of trauma, and numbness. In cases such as these, being stuck in the trauma of the experience can prevent the grieving process from unfolding. Parents may feel as if they are continually reliving sights, sounds, and sensations felt during the loss of their baby as opposed to remembering it, much like a broken record
playing on repeat.
Here is where a therapy involving a brain-based, trauma-focused approach can be helpful. I often use EMDR to help parents heal from the trauma of their experience, which allows them to move past the repetition of the images and sounds related to the loss of their baby and proceed with grieving in an unobstructed way. Treating the traumatic element of losing a baby can assist a parent in getting to a place where, while there may still be a long road of grieving and healing ahead, the trauma no longer is putting up a roadblock in this journey.
The process of grieving is unique to each parent. Throw timelines or a methodical list of “stages” out the window. Grief is often described like waves in the ocean; it ebbs and flows, vacillating between calmer waves rolling on shore to feeling as if you are taken out by a tsunami. It’s important to remember that as you are grieving, you are healing, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Furthermore, this healing is not “undone” if grief is triggered, discussed, or you are hit with an intense wave that you thought was in the past.
Mourning is the process of grieving plus the task of coming to terms with your baby’s death. It is an active process that hurts, and may hurt deeply, but allows a parent to move forward. The key word here is forward. You are not moving on, which brings up images of forgetting or leaving your baby behind. Rather, you are still your baby’s parent, you are still honoring them, and you are moving forward with learning how to be a different kind of parent to your baby in a way you would never have expected or chosen. Sometimes this looks like memorials, rituals on important dates, talking about your baby, or remembering them in your own heart. There is no “should” or “shouldn’t” with this. I often tell parents that whatever way they are choosing to grieve and honor their baby is the right answer.
I’ve had conversations with mothers who have felt concerned that if they are not hurting intensely about their baby, they are somehow forgetting them or leaving them behind. To answer this, I use the analogy of a new romantic relationship. When a person is newly in love, they often feel a high intensity of emotions regarding that person. Remember those butterflies that you felt every time they walked into the room or your phone pinged with a text message from them? However, with time, the intensity of those emotions often decreases. This is not because you do not love them anymore; rather, your love and connection to them has matured. They have a stable place in your heart that is not dictated by the ups and downs of emotions. In the same way, the emotions early in the grieving process are intense. They may be suffocating. However, as healing unfolds, grief may feel softer and the pain becomes less intense. You’re able to think about your baby without being swept away by grief and, with time, may feel a sense of peace. A decrease in emotional intensity does not signify forgetting or a lack of importance in your life; rather, it is an indication that your relationship with your baby has grown, adjusted, and they too hold a stable, special place in your heart.
So what does healing look like? With time, grief may become softer, more reflective. While waves of grief can still appear, they become smaller and less frequent. Intense grief mellows into bittersweet and peaceful feelings. You become more able to let go of what might have been and instead accept what is. And while the death of your baby will always remain a pivotal part of your life, it does not dominate your life. You will always be your baby’s parent. You can love and honor them in a way that feels right to you. You may find that you are settling into a new normal and feel like yourself again, though indelibly you are changed for the better. Living in remembrance of your baby allows grief and heartache
to transform into a celebration of your baby’s life.
If you have lost a baby, you are not alone, and you are not unseen. As you heal, you reorient yourself to a life without your beloved baby. With time, you may come to terms with your baby’s absence and re-engage in a life that is satisfying, while always keeping your baby in your heart. Lean on your supports and trust that you will feel better some day. Trauma-trained perinatal therapists are available for support as well, and while the therapeutic process is hard, it is also beautiful and healing. During this month, and all the months of the year, remember this: You matter, your baby matters, and life can have peace and hope again.
- Amy Swart, MSW, LICSW, PMH-C
To the parents who have experienced these unthinkable experiences, my heart is with you. Nothing about these experiences make sense. I cannot encourage strongly enough that everyone finds a community of people who can get it. Whether that is individual support or a group, you are not alone in your new life and journey. Connection with others helps.
- Brooke Halliday, MA, LPCC