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Helping Your Family Heal After Miscarriage
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Miscarriage is a Significant Loss
It is normal and natural to hurt deeply after miscarriage.
While others may imply or outright tell you that miscarriage happens too early on for you to be attached to the baby, or that miscarriage is so common it’s nothing to get upset about, or that you should focus on getting pregnant again instead of being sad about what happened, you know that miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy often feel like profound losses.
Your grief is real. Your grief is justified. And the depth of your grief has less to do with the number of weeks that you were pregnant and more to do with the attachment you felt to this developing baby or the idea of your future with a child. The more you wanted this baby, the more invested you were in your hopes and dreams for a child, the more painful your grief journey will likely be.
Love plus loss equals grief. If you wanted and loved this baby, of course you grieve. And now you must mourn.
Many Share Your Pain…
As many as half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage—many before the woman has missed a period. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15 percent. This makes miscarriage a remarkably common form of loss—one that affects about a million couples each year in the United States alone.
The term “miscarriage” covers a wide range of pregnancy loss experiences. Early miscarriage, by far the most common, is considered pregnancy loss before 12 weeks’ gestation, and late miscarriage covers the time period from 12 weeks to 19 and 7/8 weeks’ gestation. Beginning at 20 weeks, pregnancy loss is called stillbirth. Early pregnancy loss also includes molar pregnancy and ectopic pregnancy as well as blighted ovum.
The different types and stages of miscarriage can result in markedly different pregnancy-loss experiences for women. Late miscarriage, for example, may end with the mother delivering a baby in the hospital, while in early miscarriage (or ectopic pregnancy) there is often no baby to see. Still, the grief journey that follows miscarriage is shaped more by the depth of the love and attachment than it is by weeks’ gestation or clinical terminology and diagnoses.
The Time Betwixt and Between
Early pregnancy may appear as a plus sign on a home pregnancy test, but other than that, it is often invisible. With very late miscarriage and stillbirth, a baby emerges. But with most miscarriages, there is pregnancy and then no pregnancy. Oh yes, there is still love and attachment. But there will be no baby to hold and bury, no footprints to ink onto paper, no locks of hair to save, no photos to cherish.
The mystery and invisibility of miscarriage makes it unique among significant losses. Your love for this baby—or, for some couples in early pregnancy, what may be more accurately described as your desire for a baby—was very real, but having nothing tangible to hold onto can make your loss seem that much more devastating.
What’s more, the words we use to describe miscarriage only contribute to the problem. The term “miscarriage” can be understood as implying fault on the part of the mother, as if she didn’t carry the baby well enough. Similarly, “embryo” and “fetus” may be technically correct, but they don’t capture the love and loss you feel. The word “baby” may or may not seem right to you, either. Some families who experience early miscarriage feel that what they have lost is not so much a baby as a feeling of hope and possibility for a child.
So if you are feeling that your loss is not understood or recognized in our culture, or that you yourself feel unsure about what you have lost or how to talk about it, you are not alone.
Acknowledge Your Loss
Acknowledging that your heart is broken is the beginning of your healing. As you experience the pain of your loss—gently opening, acknowledging, and allowing, the suffering it will diminish. In fact, the resistance to the pain can be more painful than the pain itself. As difficult as it is, your must, slowly and in doses over time, embrace the pain of your grief. As Helen Keller said, “The only way to the other side is through.”
Express Your Grief
Grief is the thoughts and feelings you have on the inside about the death of your baby. When you express those feelings outside of yourself, that is called mourning. Mourning is talking about the miscarriage, crying, writing in a journal, making art, participating in a support group, or any activity that moves your grief from the inside to the outside. Mourning is how you heal your grief.
Be Compassionate with Yourself
The word compassion literally means “with passion.” So, self-compassion means caring for oneself “with passion.” While we hope you have excellent outside support, this article is intended to help you be kind to yourself as you confront and eventually embrace your grief over your pregnancy loss.
Many of us are hard on ourselves when we are grieving. We often have inappropriate expectations of how “well” we should be doing with our grief. We are told to “carry on,” “keep your chin up,” and “keep busy.” Actually, when we are in grief we need to slow down, turn inward, embrace our feelings of loss, and seek and accept support.
Take good care of yourself as you grieve. Nurture yourself physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
Help Each Other Heal
Miscarriage often affects many people. Everyone who knew about the pregnancy and had hopes and dreams for the baby’s future will grieve. Parents, grandparents, children, extended family members, friends, and coworkers may all be touched by this loss. Open and honest communication is the key to healing. Talk to one another about the miscarriage. Support each other. Try not to judge each other’s thoughts and feelings, but instead accept that each person’s grief will be unique.
Understand the Idea of Reconciliation
In the spiritual sense, you will not “recover” from the miscarriage. Your heart is broken and you are torn apart by this loss. You are not the same person today as you were before the miscarriage.
But you can become reconciled to your loss. As you continue to express your grief openly and honestly, you will begin to heal. The sharp pangs of sorrow will soften, and the constant painful memories will subside. You will become more interested in and hopeful about the future. You will experience more happy than sad in your days. You will begin to set new goals and work toward them. You will experience life fully again.
About the Author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School's Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Understanding Your Grief, Grief One Day at a Time, and Healing Your Grieving Heart After Miscarriage, from which this article was excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.