Complicated Grief After Pregnancy Loss?

What It Is and What You Can Do

Losing your baby feels like part of your own body and soul has been ripped from you. And it might seem like all your happiness and hope left too. As if the pain of losing your baby wasn’t enough, many factors can make the grief after pregnancy loss worse. This sometimes results in what psychologists call “complicated grief.”

Pregnancy loss is one of the deepest griefs you can experience as a mother. The emotional impact leads to all sorts of changes in your life and your mind.

You may be unable to manage your previous day-to-day tasks.

Negative thoughts may pop into your head when you least expect them and throw you off course.

Your lifestyle and goals may have changed, and you may find yourself retreating from activities and social interactions. Friends may wonder where you’ve gone or how to help you, or your relationship with your partner may be struggling to thrive.

Grief after pregnancy loss is a normal experience—but it’s one that’s just beginning to gain more recognition and support. (New Zealand just approved legislation to allow parents three days paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage or still birth (Frost, 2021)).  

That said, every mom who loses her baby grieves in her own way.

Many feel that their bodies failed them. Some feel their womanhood has been diminished in some way (Kersting & Wagner, 2012).

And some moms find themselves pulled into a tidal wave of complicated grief.

If you are experiencing this prolonged and intensified version of grief, it can feel impossible to get your head above water. But help and support are out there—and they may be closer than you think.

What is Complicated Grief After Pregnancy Loss?

In complicated grief, you feel guilty and responsible for some aspect of what happened. Maybe you blame yourself and think you caused the pregnancy loss.

You may feel sadness, longing, anger, and anxiety the same way any grieving person would. But this type of grief hits harder and lasts longer.

After reviewing many studies of complicated grief (CG) in parents, researchers explained: “Although grief is a natural, nonpathological phenomenon, it can lead to CG, where symptoms are more disruptive, pervasive, or long-lasting than in a normal grief response” (Kersting & Wagner, 2012).

Over time, the worst feelings of grief do lessen. However, complicated grief results in these feelings persisting in ways that may interfere in your ability to do your job or have a normal social life.

Complicated grief can make it hard for you to sleep, and create a strong avoidance of reminders of your loss (Jordan & Litz, 2014).

In one study of bereaved parents, 59% experienced persistent grief in the two years following pregnancy loss  (Kersting & Wagner, 2012).

There are many factors that play into your experience of grief after pregnancy loss, some helpful and some that can hurt.

The following sections will help you recognize what may be making your grief worse and help you find the healing you need.

What Makes Grief After Pregnancy Loss Worse?

You weren’t prepared to have a baby

Maybe you were surprised with the pregnancy. You felt ambivalent about having a child and it left you with mixed feelings about the pregnancy.

Or maybe you already have kids and felt your family was complete. You weren’t ready to add another. Or perhaps there would have been a large age difference between your kids and the new baby.

Needless to say, you were in shock. 

You were trying to imagine how to fit the new baby into your already busy family life and full work schedule. And the thought of managing it all felt overwhelming.

These ambivalent feelings can make the experience of grief after pregnancy loss more intense. They can lead to more feelings of guilt or self-blame.  

You felt sick during pregnancy

If you felt sick during the pregnancy, it may have led to similar ambivalent thoughts.

Even if you planned the pregnancy and were looking forward to it, the reality turned out to be something different.

You were nauseous, achy, barely able to leave your bed. Your morning sickness bled into the afternoons and evenings, to the point you felt like you’d thrown up what you ate three weeks ago.

In dark moments of feeling sick, you may have wished you weren’t pregnant. Or even had thoughts of not wanting baby if it meant you could stop feeling sick.

After the loss, you feel guilty for wishing you weren’t pregnant.

You question whether it was the lousy energy you put out into the world that brought tragedy upon you. Self-blame circles your thoughts like a vulture, making your grief worse.

Your best friend or sister is pregnant at the same time

Having a close friend or family member pregnant at the same time can also compound your grief after pregnancy loss.

She continues to be pregnant and goes on to have a baby while you are working your way through grief.

She’s a constant reminder of where you would be in her pregnancy, and it makes you sad every time you see her growing belly.

Jealousy and hurt make it hard to be around her now.

To protect her, you may keep your feelings to yourself.  You don’t want to dampen her excitement, so you pretend you’re happy for her, but inside you’re hurting. All you can think about is how nice it would have been to have babies with your sister or friend at the same time.

Everyone around you is pregnant

You work in a place with women in their reproductive age. It seems like all the women around you are fertile since your inbox is filled with baby announcements all the time. It’s all they can talk about—pregnancy or their babies.

The conversation and growing bumps are reminders of your loss and that you don’t have a baby yet.

Not only that, but you feel left out of your peer group, too. You feel alone and isolated, but all the while you keep it all in and paste a smile on your face.

Without an outlet for your true feelings, or space to get away from the reminders, your feelings of grief only increase.

Dismissive or avoidant friends and family 

When you tell your friends and family about your loss, some may be overly optimistic.

You hear “It happens to most women. You’ll get pregnant again, don’t worry…” when all you want is some acknowledgement of the loss and hurt. You’re in desperate need of a hug. Maybe even someone to cry with.

Instead, they dismiss how you feel.  They’re overly positive and don’t want to see your pain.

You took courage to open up and tell the truth about your experience, and they seem uncomfortable with what you’re going through.  

As a result, you stop sharing. On the outside, you put on a brave face and a smile. But inside you’re keeping this big secret, festering with your grief, and sometimes it feels like you’re going to explode.

Mixed Feelings In Pregnancy Are Normal

It’s normal to feel both excited about a new baby and anxious about what it means for your life and your family.

If you’re a first-time mom, you might wonder if you’ll miss the freedoms you enjoyed before kids. What kind of mother will you be? How will you manage your work with a newborn?

Moms who already have kids might worry if they’ll be overwhelmed with adding one more or wonder how it will change the family dynamic.

Being sick or having a complicated pregnancy also brings up completely normal negative emotions that mingle with the happiness and excitement about having a baby.

Mixed feelings don’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. And they don’t have any bearing on what a good mother you’ll be. Being nervous and having mixed feelings is just the sign of you preparing for this monumental task of becoming a mother/parent.

They also have nothing to do with whether or not you lose the pregnancy. Negative thoughts do not cause pregnancy loss. They are just thoughts and they don’t have any magical power.

Your Partner Can Help You Through Grief After Pregnancy Loss

Despite whatever factors may be complicating your grief after pregnancy loss, one of the biggest supports you have is your partner.

A strong, supportive relationship can help you heal and hold onto hope. Your partner can be the listening ear you need to feel you’re not alone.

Your partner can act as an emotional buffer and relieve some of the pain you feel in grief. Researchers have documented the comforting effect of simply holding your partner’s hand through a painful experience (Coan et al., 2006), and this is the perfect time to put this comfort into action.

Couples Therapy After Pregnancy Loss

If you and your partner are going through infertility and pregnancy loss, there are some day-to-day things you can do to strengthen your relationship and help each other through. For added support and compassionate guidance, couples therapy for pregnancy loss is a great way to find understanding of each other’s grief process and find healing together.

About Dr. Irena

Dr. Irena offers online therapy for women and couples in Texas and New York City. She is certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and can support you as you weather the storm of grief after pregnancy loss. She has also helped many couples dealing with pregnancy loss find a closer and more intimate connection.

Email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation:   [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742.

References

Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032-1039. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01832.x

Frost, N. (2021). New Zealand Approves Paid Leave After Miscarriage. The New York Times. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/25/world/asia/new-zealand-miscarriage-paid-leave.html

Jordan, A. H., & Litz, B. T. (2014). Prolonged grief disorder: Diagnostic, assessment, and treatment considerations. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(3), 180-187. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036836

Kersting, A., & Wagner, B. (2012). Complicated grief after perinatal loss. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14(2), 187-194. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2012.14.2/akersting

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