Finding Comfort in Community: Navigating Pregnancy & Infant Loss
October is a time of year where the seasons change, temperatures start to dip, and we transition into fall - a season so different than the one before. Perfectly fitting that October is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, a time for open conversation and exploring the range of emotions that the loss of a pregnancy or child leaves in our lives.
This blog is meant to serve as a guide for anyone trying to navigate the grief that comes with the loss of a pregnancy or child. Anyone who has been through it knows that processing these heavy emotions takes time, patience and support from their loved ones and community.
Treat the following sections like chapters in a book: feel free to skip to the ones that feel most appropriate for your situation or simply read the blog straight through.
- Why Disclose Pregnancies Earlier
- Acknowledging Grief and Loss
- Honoring What We’ve Lost
- Determining What We Need
- Connecting with Community
- What Recovery May Look Like
- Sharing Our Stories
Why Disclose Pregnancies Earlier?
Pregnancies, whether they end in a loss or joyous announcements, usually begin in silence. Traditionally, we are encouraged not to share our good news for over three months, in case we are the 1 in 4 who experience the loss of a pregnancy.
While this advice is meant to protect those who are pregnant from having to then share bad news, it often has an unintended side effect: isolation.
Laura Malcom, Founder of Give InKind, who suffered through the full-term loss of her daughter, encourages all of us to help normalize both pregnancy announcements and loss in a healthier way - by telling our family and friends earlier.
“I'd like to move towards a society that talks about things more so that actions can also be taken to support people throughout their journeys," Laura says.
By letting our trusted friends and family in on our news sooner, we also set ourselves up for more support - should anything go wrong.
While this approach isn't for everyone, it can be a real gift to have that community support and love at the ready, whether the pregnancy ends suddenly or continues as planned.
Words Matter: Miscarriage vs Pregnancy Loss
Until recently, pregnancy loss was traditionally described as a "miscarriage," and unfortunately, that language is still widely used in the medical community and around the globe.
Thankfully, there is a push to change the words surrounding fertility and pregnancy, from the likes of companies like Peanut and more. (Check out their #RenamingRevolution Glossary here.)
So why the switch from "miscarriage" to "pregnancy loss?" Miscarriage implies fault. That you "mis-carried" your baby. And we all know that pregnancy loss isn't your fault. Hearing that you've "miscarried" can pour salt on the wound. Words can truly hurt.
Moving away from this term and acknowledging it for what it is: the loss of a pregnancy - doesn't remove the pain of the experience, but simply validates what has happened in terms that don't blame or shame the person going through it.
When should you tell people you're pregnant?
Acknowledging Grief and Loss
Grief and loss are both personal and universal.
The statistics show just how common pregnancy and infant loss are: 1 in 4 will experience a pregnancy loss and 1 in 100 will experience infant loss. Those statistics represent just how often grief and loss touch each one of us.
As humans, as much as we want to help, relating to someone who has experienced a loss is not something we tend to handle very well. We fumble through sentiments that are meant to be helpful but often turn out to be hurtful.
We don’t know what to say, so we say nothing, the silence wounding even deeper. Or we say things that are well-intentioned but land like a bomb, exploding in the heart space. We don’t necessarily have the tools. Most of us don’t even really understand the grief process and it scares us terribly.
We often worry that we’ll say the wrong things, and it brings up our own concerns and vulnerabilities about what might happen to us.
Honoring What We've Lost
Honoring what we've lost begins with feeling the feelings and simply acknowledging there was a loss. This is often the hardest part.
Here's what I shared about my own pregnancy losses with Candace Wohl of Our MisConceptions:
“One of the hardest pieces that I had to face was my own response to the loss. Since it wasn’t really a baby, why all the upset? Intellectually, I believed then and believe now that these little clumps of cells that are barely embryos are not babies. Politically, I also agree they are not babies and not people. Morally, for me, they are not babies.
What explained then, the flood of tears and the feeling that I had in fact lost something? What I knew is that I was trying very hard to find something, a successful pregnancy to build a family and the two times that I did find pregnancy, in a moment, they were gone.
They were monumental losses despite the fact that they were tiny enough to fit on the head of a pin. They were losses of hope, of dreams, of heritage and of continuation of life and family. Do any of us who are trying to become pregnant not see these microscopic dividing cells as our babies even when intellectually we know that they are not babies?”
No matter your beliefs around conception, we can all agree that early pregnancy losses are often very confusing to process. Sometimes, we haven't even seen a heart beating on that ultrasound monitor before we lose our baby.
It doesn't make the hurt any less, or the loss any less significant.
Determining What We Need
This is about staying connected with yourself, even when it’s really painful to do so.
Distractions, becoming over-busy, numbing, binging or restricting (whether it's TV, food, shopping or another activity)...all these things serve a purpose, which is to avoid the pain.
It's okay to use those tools when you need to, and your need to distract or numb these difficult feelings is beyond normal. But when you feel ready, you’ll take a deep breath and feel your feelings. And I'll be the first to admit that it hurts. It hurts a lot.
Consider what tools you’ve used before that have helped with pain or loss. (Even while knowing that the pain of pregnancy or infant loss may eclipse all other pain previously felt.)
Here are some examples:
- Talking to a friend
- Taking a walk
- Artistic expression (think: writing, painting, singing)
- Screaming into a pillow
- Physical exercise
- Support groups
- Physical touch (like massage, hugs from friends, cuddling with your partner)
Take a moment to really ask yourself: What do I need right now?
Give yourself permission to ask yourself that question and feel it deep inside. This is the time to do what you need to do, truly. No one gets to judge how you process this pain.
Connecting with Community
Talking to others about our experiences, losses, and triumphs, really letting people in - can help reduce the often helpless feeling that we’re alone.
“A woman miscarries and keeps her pain to herself because she’s sure no one would relate. Someone close to her miscarries and assumes the same thing.”
The author goes on to talk about shame and guilt. So many of us feel that we’ve somehow failed when we experience a loss! We may feel that we've failed ourselves, our partners (if we have one), our family, the baby or embryo that was supposed to be safe with us.
Speaking to others who have also experienced this is like accepting a warm hug or noticing a bright smile. It's that feeling of "Oh, you get it."
Connecting with people who have experienced the kind of loss you have and are having feelings that are similar to yours can be deeply healing. No one truly knows how another feels since we are all individuals, but there are some common threads that run through many experiences, including grief and loss.
There is something about sitting with a group of people (even virtually) who have had similar losses and seeing them nod their heads as you’re talking. They can relate, they hear you. They see you. They understand the immense pain that you’re in.
Want to connect with others who understand?
Never been to a support group? Nervous about the idea? Ask someone to attend with you!
Decide to go just for a few minutes, if that's all you can manage. Pregnancy and infant loss is a hurt that feels bottomless - it can be an ideal time to try something different and outside your comfort zone.
What Recovery from Loss Looks Like
Recovery does not mean amnesia.
You will never forget the baby you expected and wanted to have in your life.
There is no disrespect here about "forgetting" or moving on.
Just know that being able to live a full life despite a devastating loss is possible.
It doesn't mean you won't ever feel sad, or even be brought to your knees in heartbreak. But it does mean that you can go on to live a fulfilling life, having taken the steps to process your losses.
Only when you’re ready.
How to Begin to Heal
One recovery tool many people utilize is the Grief Recovery Method. Personally, this is what worked well for me. So well, in fact, that I became a certified Grief Recovery Specialist, determined to help others who were suffering.
Grief Recovery Specialist Stephen Moeller speaks about the grief surrounding pregnancy loss, saying “This is simply another example of people trying to deal with an emotionally devastating event with an intellectual answer. While these parents never had the opportunity to establish a face-to-face relationship, they still had created an emotional bond with their unborn child. Most had already formed dreams and expectations for a future with this child that, due to the miscarriage, will never come to fruition.”
Laura Malcolm’s beautiful words also resonate: “If I have learned anything through my own experiences and then through [my organization] Give InKind, it's that we all grieve so differently...the most beautiful thing we can do for one another is just show up, listen, and offer support.”
When Pain Multiplies: Recurrent Losses
If you've experienced recurrent pregnancy loss (meaning more than one loss), the hurt, anxiety and guilt can multiply. One loss is hard enough, but two? Three? More? Devastating.
RMA of Connecticut Reproductive Endocrinologist Dr. Josh Hurwitz and OB/GYN Dr. Shieva Ghofrany explored what we know about recurrent pregnancy loss in this blog, if you're in a place to learn more about possible causes and treatment options.
Sharing Our Stories
There are so many reasons to share our stories. Let’s start with the most important one.
It comes back to this: grief and loss are personal. And they are also universal.
Unearthing the details, feelings and events that happened is powerful. It confirms to your heart and mind, connecting them, that something happened. Something seismic, enormous, of great magnitude, happened here.
You honor yourself and the child you lost by acknowledging that they mattered. That truth can live on in our memories and they will always be part of us.
Maybe I’m out here suffering from my own experience, feeling alone, feeling shame and pain - too numb or scared or exhausted to do anything at all. And then I read your story and am instantly soothed, if just a little bit. I finally feel like I am not alone. That is so healing.
All of us. Universal. We.
We are 1 in 4. We are people who identify all different ways. We may have missed a menstrual cycle, only to get one a few days later and realize we had a "missed miscarriage" or we may have experienced the loss of a baby born still. And we are everyone in between.
We are warriors, all of us who have suffered through pregnancy loss and infant loss.
Though it may be incredibly painful and take time to heal - we are still here.
Looking for support or tools to help navigate loss?
About Lisa Rosenthal
Lisa has over thirty years of experience in the fertility field. After her personal infertility journey, she felt dissatisfied with the lack of comprehensive services available to support her. She was determined to help others undergoing fertility treatment. Lisa has been with RMACT for eleven years and serves as Patient Advocate and the Strategic Content Lead.
Lisa is the teacher and founder of Fertile Yoga, a program designed to support men and women on their quest for their families through gentle movement and meditation.
Lisa’s true passion is supporting patients getting into treatment, being able to stay in treatment and staying whole and complete throughout the process. Lisa is also a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, which is helpful in her work with fertility patients.
Her experience also includes working with RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association and The American Fertility Association (now Path2Parenthood), where she was Educational Coordinator, Conference Director and Assistant Executive Director.