October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. According to the American Pregnancy Association, it has been estimated that 10-25% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage. Yet there has been a cultural taboo over talking about miscarriage, leading many women and men to suffer in silence, feeling that no one else understands what they are going through. Because of this cultural misunderstanding of pregnancy loss, you may be surprised by the depth of your feelings. While it may take weeks to several months to recover from the physical effects of a pregnancy loss, the emotional sequelae can last much longer. Additionally, it is not unusual for the most intense emotions to occur several months after the loss, at a time when most of the social supports that were in place immediately following the loss have waned.
Grieving the Loss
It is normal to experience a grief reaction following a pregnancy loss. Studies have shown that the more psychologically attached a person is to the pregnancy and developing baby, the more intense the grief response can be, regardless of how far along the pregnancy was. Perhaps it is for this reason that couples that struggled with infertility prior to their loss are at a higher risk of complicated grief.
If you have achieved pregnancy through fertility treatments, you have likely begun to bond with your potential baby before the baby is even conceived. If you underwent IVF, you have your first ‘baby pictures’ to pin up to the refrigerator at 3 or 5 days post egg retrieval. It is not unusual to experience a strong grief reaction even when the loss is early. It is normal to experience anger, despondence, self-blame, guilt, listlessness, and anxiety as you cope with the reality of your loss. But, for some people, the grief is more intense and longer lasting. One study demonstrated that women who have suffered from a miscarriage are 5 times more likely to develop depression than women who have not had a miscarriage. The good news is that usually, with time, the emotions start to diminish. Supportive therapy has also been demonstrated to help shorten the amount of time it takes to get to a point of more neutral emotions.
Ideas to Help the Grieving Process
Much has been written about useful coping techniques for both complicated and uncomplicated grief. What works for one person may not be right for another, so it is important to reflect on what the loss meant to you and what would be most helpful for you to move forward.
Many people find it emotionally helpful to memorialize and validate the loss. This can take a variety of forms that range from private to more public. Ideas include: arranging a short memorial service with close friends/family, writing a letter to the lost baby discussing the love you have for the child and the hopes and dreams you had, planting a tree, making a donation to a charity in the baby’s honor, releasing helium balloons, or creating a photo album or scrap book with ultrasound pictures, cards, and other mementos. In addition to memorializing the baby, it is important to make a concerted effort towards self-care. When people are immersed in grief, they often forget to take care of themselves. Getting exercise, taking the time to eat a nutritious meal, getting the right amount of sleep, and allowing yourself to engage in pleasurable activities can go a long way towards healing.
If you have experienced pregnancy loss, it is common to feel lost and alone. You may feel that no one else understands quite what you are going through. There are a number of resources available to you. The March of Dimes has compiled information to help people through the bereavement process. This link will take to you an order form to request a free copy of their materials on healing from pregnancy/infant loss, including information on how to memorialize the loss and how to deal with friends and family as your grieve.
An excellent book on this topic is: “A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss – Guidance and Support for You and Your Family” by Ingrid Kohn and Perry-Lynn Moffitt.
Dr. Ryan Blazei is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Cary, NC. She is a member of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and counsels on infertility and family building options. Dr. Blazei can be reached at Ryan.W.Blazei@gmail.com (919) 720-1452 www.RyanWBlazeiPhD.com. She also facilitates a free drop-in support group on the second Wednesday of every month from 7pm-8pm in the lobby of Carolina Conceptions. All are welcome to attend.