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This is Why We Need to Talk about Pregnancy Loss

The story of Angela Maier is horrific any way you look at it.  Over three years ago, in deep grief after experiencing three miscarriages, she poisoned both her pregnant sister-in-law and friend, causing them to lose their pregnancies.  She recently confessed to the crime stating that she couldn’t fathom watching their children grow up while hers were dead.  The two women are currently pregnant again, hence the timing of the confession, and Maier has a three-year-old child.

If we want to, we can enter into the somewhat pointless conversation of whether her punishment fits her crime.  I personally don’t feel that I have the ability to make a statement, since I know nothing about the Austrian legal system, and the only details I know about the case come from the newspaper and blogs.

What I can comment on is the disservice we do to women, compounding the depression after a loss, by sweeping conversations about miscarriage under the rug.

For a fairly common occurrence — anywhere from 15% to 50% of all pregnancies end in loss — it’s somewhat staggering how many women state that they feel alone in their grief.  It’s not just that they weren’t mentally prepared for the possibility, but with 80% of those miscarriages happening within the first three months, pregnancy loss is a very heavy, lonely loss without other people to share the burden.  When a person dies, the weight of remembrance is spread out over all the people who knew them and loved them.  But when an unborn baby dies, sometimes the only people who even knew that he or she was here were the parents.  Pregnancy loss is a death that leaves behind no objects in which to draw comfort, no memories shared with the person to turn to in your grief.

In other words, those who experience pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and neonatal death need to find a new way to mourn because the traditional methods for dealing with grief — speaking about shared memories with others, holding objects, remembering moments — are out of reach for those experiencing this form of loss.

It is our responsibility to talk about this reality as a society and to reach out to those who are experiencing this form of loss in order to ensure that they don’t feel alone in their grief.  I wrote several years ago, and I still think it’s true:

I’ve always thought it was a failure by the medical community to not prepare women better for the possibility of pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or neonatal death.  That it does women a disservice to imply that all children are born.  It’s great if your life follows that continuum: sex = baby = birth = rest of life.  But for anyone who doesn’t, I feel like it’s an extra cleaving: not only is your heart split in half from the actual event, but in addition, you were essentially promised via language choices that this could never come to be.  And suddenly, it is.  How do you trust again after that?

One only needs to look at our language and see the dearth of words that explain loss to realize that we’ve left a lot of people — men and women — walking across family building without a safety net.

For anyone currently going through a loss or who has gone through a loss in their past, I am so incredibly sorry.  The Mayo Clinic has a wonderful webpage to serve as a starting point for the mourning process.  As they state, you may move through all stages, you may move through only a few, and you may double back and go through certain stages more than once.  Every person mourns uniquely, hence why no one can give you a straightforward method for dealing with your grief.  And because grief is personal, you are going to need to find your own path through it unfortunately.  Just know there are many women out here who have gone through something similar, and many of us are here if you want a willing ear to listen to your story.

For anyone supporting someone who is going through a loss or has went through a loss in their past, take your cues from the person in mourning as to how much they want to speak about their loss.  But know that being present, asking questions, and quietly listening can go a long way to help the grieving process.  Be mindful of dates that may be difficult for them — holidays, unfulfilled due dates, anniversaries — and check in on those days.  Be less concerned with trying to find the perfect words as a response; the truth is, there are no perfect words.  But there is perfect listening; just letting the person know you are there, abiding with them, so they don’t have to carry their grief alone.

There is no excuse for what Maier is done, and I’m reluctant to even tie it to infertility because she is no more the face of loss than Nadya Suleman is the face of IVF.  I have no clue what sort of resources Maier had to process her losses.

But there is an opportunity to have a conversation that we need to have about pregnancy loss.  There is an opportunity to ask people to reach out to those who have suffered a loss rather than treat them as a pariah or dismissively expect them to swallow their grief and “move on,” with the unspoken (or sometimes spoken) message that “there’s always next time.”

Let’s stop focusing on trying again or “next time” and stay for a moment to talk about the immediate situation of pregnancy or infant loss.  In doing so, we may save other women out there from processing their grief alone.

17 comments

1 Pepper { 10.20.13 at 7:44 am }

This is so, so true and well said. I feel like infertility prepared me less for loss, while also scaring me more. By the time we got to the first round of IVF, I was so solely focused on getting pregnant that I really believed that was all I had to do to have a healthy baby. Because that was the obstacle and I was focused on the ways in which to overcome that obstacle. And then I got pregnant and we celebrated and I refused Diet Coke and secretly touched my belly… for 2 days until we were told something was wrong. I lost the baby and it knocked me down. I had never thought about the possibility because the getting pregnant had been so hard. And then round 2 came and it was all I thought about. I didn’t want to tell a single person, even when my doctors said all was well, for fear of a jinx. I didn’t want to order a crib or have a shower planned because I was sure it would end horribly.

It didn’t and I have a fantastic toddler now. But I think ultimately I was uninformed and living between a dream land and a nightmare scenario. Maybe if this was more out in the open, it wouldn’t all be so mysterious and that would be better for all of us.

2 April { 10.20.13 at 8:50 am }

When I lost my babies, it was if a knife was ripped through my heart. It has been years and I still cry for what never was and what never will be. Watching others have children of their own is painful and serves as a constant reminder of what isn’t here in my own life.

Sometimes I’ll see a child who is close in age to what one of mine would have been and it hurts sharply, almost like it just happened. For us, there will probably never be a next time. We will most likely never have a child that is ours to raise together. For this reason I rarely share about our losses because it makes others want to tell me about how I can just try again and the reality is that we can’t just try again.

Pregnancy loss is so taboo and just not spoken of in society. It’s why people like me quietly hold in our grief and think about what is gone in private.

3 V { 10.20.13 at 12:20 pm }

The problem is women are expected to deal with the loss quietly and ultimately suck it up. To be honest, and I say this as a woman who is pro-choice, we are told that the fetus isn’t really a baby, so it’s hard to be grieving the loss of a “child”, when you are essentially being told it’s not really. There is also the discomfort of death in general and all of these things combine the make the experience a very lonely one.

4 Augusta { 10.20.13 at 2:54 pm }

I like this post, especially the idea that if pregnancy loss is common, why should women be suffering alone. Whereas I agree that there is a better outlined script for dealing with the loss of someone who lived (outside the womb), I think there is a great discomfort with grief in general. Because there is a great discomfort with pesky, messy little things called emotions…especially if those are not Joy or Happiness. Grief isn’t over quickly, it’s not neatly tucked away after a prescribed period of time and it often makes others feel powerless when faced with their loved one’s grief. I think it would help if we kept in mind that grief is more a process than a state, that one will go through grief instead of being pulled out of it.
I do agree that the fact that pregnancy loss is often invisible makes it all the more difficult for women to grieve their loss. And I think that this is the reason so many of us blog, to be visible to someone, somewhere.
Thanks very much for writing this piece. And also for the great things you have done for this community.

5 Valery Valentina { 10.20.13 at 3:55 pm }

Sometimes I wonder if grief isn’t lonely by its very nature…

Thank you for this post. and previous commenters for your comments.

6 Pepper { 10.20.13 at 7:42 pm }

Valery, I agree with you. I actually was relieved when I was grieving initially that no one else knew because I preferred it that way. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s sadness except mine and my husband’s.

It is tough now, though, because I can talk about it without crying, and sometimes I want to because it is relevant – and then people seem to feel I am wallowing or just feel awkward in general, like shouldn’t we just focus on happy things?

And then I go on to grieve, again, alone.

So basically, I think you’re right.

7 persnickety { 10.20.13 at 9:32 pm }

It is tough. I think there is the perception that it wasn’t yet a real baby causes people to underestimate the amount of grief that occurs. I also think that the lack of ability to be public around it means that people aren’t as sensitive on the issue- if your parents/siblings/partner/relative dies it is clear that there is some grieving, and there is a funeral. People are careful about touching on certain subjects around you. But because a miscarriage is not broadcast as much, and because it is “not a real baby” (not my idea, this is actually what has been said to me) you are not given that space. Pregnant friends still think it is perfectly acceptable to discuss the issues in front of you- in a way they would not discuss other sensitive issues if it was a similar loss. If your friend has just been left at the altar, do you talk about your amazing wedding plans?
I have severely limited my contact with certain members of my family as a result of this- my father thought that an appropriate distraction from my 2nd miscarriage was to learn about how my sister is having issues getting her newborn to sleep. not a good topic. So while I would not wish to poison someone simply for being pregnant when I am not, I can kind of see where the mindset comes from.

8 kateanon { 10.20.13 at 10:57 pm }

I think it’s definitely something overlooked in society and the IF world (doctors in general). Even with my second miscarriage, which took years to get to, I was told it would happen again, it was God’s plan etc.
My mother told me things like this after my first miscarriage, and I never told her about # 2 or 3. We’re expected to get back on the horse, and keep trying.
Years later, as my sister is in her first trimester, I pray that she doesn’t experience the same loss, because I know it’s such a lonely grief, and I wish to spare her that pain.

9 kateanon { 10.20.13 at 10:58 pm }

Also, like persnickety, while I could never do what this woman did, I can see how you could start down that road. Grief, envy, and pain make people do horrible things sometimes.

10 luna { 10.21.13 at 1:45 am }

so true! thanks mel.

11 JB { 10.21.13 at 9:08 am }

“When a person dies, the weight of remembrance is spread out over all the people who knew them and loved them. But when an unborn baby dies, sometimes the only people who even knew that he or she was here were the parents. Pregnancy loss is a death that leaves behind no objects in which to draw comfort, no memories shared with the person to turn to in your grief.”

Yes. This brings tears to my eyes, and my loss was almost two years ago and I have an 8 month old now. I felt so utterly and entirely alone. No one understood why I was grieving for someone I never knew, never held in my arms. No one felt the same way, no one felt the same loss. No one else felt the need to grieve.

I bought a Christmas ornament that year with an M on it, for our Malachi. Last year I hid it in the back of the tree because I thought people would feel I was silly for remembering Malachi when I was only pregnant for 7 weeks. I think that M will be front and center this year.

I still feel embarrassed at times for grieving his loss. That’s not right. Women shouldn’t have to hide that and so often, just like infertility, we do hide those things.

12 cindysn { 10.21.13 at 9:31 am }

Nothing can prepare you for the loss of your child and many of us suffer in silence since most people do not know how to deal with it. Its a pain that you would not want your worst enemy to go through. Its just so sad that that women would be so selfish to do that to another mother knowing the pain she went through herself.

13 Battynurse { 10.21.13 at 1:14 pm }

So well said.

14 Emma { 10.21.13 at 2:23 pm }

So very well said!

I had a feeling that the baby we lost would NOT be a take home baby. I had SO MANY people tell me “Oh! You heard the heart beat you’re fine!” Nope. We lost the baby four days later at 8w4d and I didn’t know until I went in for my 12 week appointment. Even I was surprised at how hard I took it. I didn’t know anyone who had gone though one so it was very, very lonely.

And getting pregnant after my miscarriage? Another lonely time because I felt I had to “suck it up” and be as happy as everyone else was for me. That pregnancy was a mixed bag of emotions with anxiety winning the majority of the time.

I was diagnosed with PPD after my son was born and it was another lonely time because perinatal mood disorders are another very taboo subject.

I do think people don’t know what to say. Most of them have never seen the baby you’re grieving. But it is so, so important to be there and CHECK IN with the parents who are grieving. I’m most appreciateive of the friends who simply emailed me to say they were thinking of me.

And I’m so thankful I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and started sharing my blog within the ALI community. Reading other blogs and getting to share my own experiences has helped validate my feelings when no one else I knew seemed to get it or wanted to sweep these subjects under the rug for me.

15 Stinky { 10.22.13 at 2:26 am }

was just thinking along similar lines today, about how the placatory things people say are often not based in that ‘now’ but in the ‘future’ (‘next time’, or ‘this too will pass’, having had conversations on this with people in similar situations about that particular phrase). I needed people to be there in my ‘now’ and looking ahead was not that helpful. For me, anyway

16 April { 10.22.13 at 11:06 am }

Thank you for this post. I am going through my second miscarriage now, the first was earlier this year. When the first one happened, one of the hardest times for me was at what would have been the 3 month mark of my lost pregnancy. That was when I was hearing about all the other people who were pregnant, including 2 of my friends. While I was sad that I didn’t have a chance to share happy news, and look forward to ultrasounds etc, I was so happy for my friends. I did go through a second round of grieving at that point. In some weird twist of fate, I found out I was pregnant the second time on what would have been my due date with the first pregnancy. But it also didn’t work out. Now I know when I’ll need some extra support from my friends and family with this second miscarriage. These past few weeks have been very focused on going to doctors appointments, getting healthy again etc. But I know I will grieve again in a few weeks with it comes to what would have been 3 months. I would never wish this pain on anyone.

17 PNG { 10.23.13 at 1:35 pm }

What a tragedy. Thank you for your perfect post on the issue.

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