For Baby Loss Week UK, we’re exploring the mental health effects of the loss of a child and how therapy can be a stepping stone along this often unexpected path.
The death of a baby is an unimaginable loss. In the early stages, it might feel as if you will never get through it and that you are drowning in grief.
Whether you have lost your baby through sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), illness, accident, stillbirth, miscarriage, termination for medical reasons or another kind of bereavement, the idea of life going on after your baby is gone can feel inconceivable. You might not know how to talk to people about what you are going through or find that when you do, they just don’t know what to say. And as grief has no real timeline, you might still find yourself hit hard by sadness years or even decades down the line.
Baby loss can affect your life in many different ways. Here are a few issues that you might experience:
While it is often a good idea to take as much time off work as possible after a loss, this isn’t possible for everyone. And eventually, most people will have to return to their jobs and everyday life. Yet how can you possibly be expected to go on after what has happened? How can you commute, do housework, pay the bills or manage life’s hundred other daily tasks when your heart has been shattered to pieces?
It’s true that bereaved parents can respond to the return to ‘everyday life’ in different ways. For some, going back to the routine of a job can be a comforting distraction, a way of focusing on something other than their pain. For others, it can be a huge strain to have to put on a professional, competent face after your life has changed forever. And if you were in the role of stay-at-home parent, then it can be a big wrench when your partner returns to work and you are left in an empty home filled with memories.
Added to this, there are other people’s reactions. Many people are just not good at dealing with grief, so you may find that when you’re most in need of comfort, certain friends, neighbours and colleagues might treat you as if you have something contagious. They may avoid making eye contact, try to make small talk as if nothing has happened, or visibly panic if you express your pain.
Whilst they might not know how best to show their concern or may be worried that they will upset you by bringing up your loss, it’s important that you can express however you feel. If they’re unable to provide support, try instead to lean on the people who are able to hold a space for your pain and take your comfort from them. It can also help to connect with support groups that understand, such as Tommy’s, The Lullaby Trust or Sands. Here is a useful list of baby loss support resources and groups.
There is also the difficult issue of dealing with social and family events, especially those gatherings where there might be babies and children present. Or how do you deal with your nephew’s first birthday? Your niece’s christening? The baby shower at work? And how should you react when a friend announces a pregnancy and all you can feel is devastated?
There are no right or wrong answers for any of this. Some people might take comfort from attending celebrations or being around small children, while for others, it can feel unbearable. But remember, you have an absolute right to set healthy boundaries and opt out of events that you aren’t ready for. You have a right to say ‘No, not right now, not this time’. There is no obligation for you to put yourself into situations that might bring you pain, your only obligation is to be kind to yourself for as long as you need to.
Miscarriage is a massive loss, yet sadly, one that still isn’t fully recognised in our society. So if you have lost your baby in this way then you might not have got the recognition, rituals or support that you needed.
Often, there are no funerals or memorial sites for a child that has passed away through miscarriage. Also, people around you might not know how to properly acknowledge this kind of bereavement. You might find that your loss is minimised by others (or that you’ve done this yourself) — especially if it occurred earlier on in the pregnancy — or there is an expectation that you will simply ‘move on’ and get over it. Also, some couples choose to keep miscarriages private, for lots of different reasons. This means that they can spend years carrying a hidden grief without getting the support they might need.
If you feel that the loss of your baby by miscarriage wasn’t properly acknowledged for any reason, then it might help to have a goodbye ceremony, alone or with loved ones. It doesn’t matter if your loss was several decades ago, there is no time limit on this. And while there is also no right or wrong way to go about it, planting a tree or flowers, lighting a candle at home or in a place of worship, or simply naming your baby (if you never got a chance to do so) can all be ways to process your grief.
Miscarriage is a very real loss. You deserve the time and space to feel that, as much and as often as you need.
People react to bereavement in very different ways and sometimes, this can cause distance between grieving parents. So you might find that your partner is dealing with the loss very differently to you, perhaps leaving you feeling isolated or abandoned.
For instance, one of you may want to bury your grief — maybe by staying busy at work or avoiding conversations about it — while the other might want to express their emotions as much as possible. One of you might be comforted by having photos or keepsakes of your baby around, while the other might find this unbearably painful. One of you might want to at some point try for another baby, while the other might not feel ready (and in some cases, may never feel ready).
If you feel that your relationship is struggling under the weight of grief, then you might want to consider couples therapy. Seeing a therapist can help to bring you and your partner closer together by resolving conflicts and repairing bonds. The presence of a neutral, non-judgmental, caring professional in the room can help to build bridges where there might currently be distance and divide.
There is an idea in our society that grief is a linear, predictable, step-by-step process with clear stages. For instance, that you go through a first four stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) then eventually arrive on the other side at a comfortable place called ‘acceptance’.
But it is not this way for everyone, especially when you lose a child. The truth is that grief is non-linear and takes as long as it takes. There is no time limit on how you should feel, nor any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel at certain times. For many parents, their loss is not something that they will ever fully ‘accept’, but with time they can find a way to live with it. And eventually, their grief can feel less fierce and overwhelming. It is not so much that their grief gets smaller — it can be just as big as the day when they first lost their child. But they have found a way to grow around their grief, creating a new life around it.
Yet some people can also become blocked or stuck in the grieving process when they lose their baby. When this happens, grief stops being a healing process and becomes a painful place of limbo instead. For instance, you could become stuck in denial, or in emotions like anger or despair. Or you might blame yourself and become so locked into feelings of guilt that you aren’t able to fully grieve at all. This can especially be the case with the sudden death of a baby, for instance through miscarriage or SIDS. The persistent thought that ‘If only I had rested more’ or ‘If only I had checked on my baby one more time’ can be a huge torment, blocking people from feeling other parts of grief like anger or sadness.
We’re hardwired to protect children and if this was not possible, then your mind may be searching for what you could have done to prevent it happening. This is your mind’s way of trying to make sense of the events and stop them happening again, even if it was all out of your control. However, feeling powerless and accepting that there was nothing you could have done can feel more difficult than blaming yourself. And, if feelings of guilt are strong enough, then you might not ‘allow’ yourself to heal, instead ‘choosing’ to stay stuck as a way of punishing yourself.
All of this is known as traumatic or complicated grief and essentially means feelings of extreme loss that don’t ease off after time. Signs can include:
· Intense sorrow that doesn’t go away
· Difficulty accepting your loss
· Obsessive thinking about your loss
· Difficulty taking joy in happy memories of your baby
· Withdrawing from loved ones
· Feeling detached, numb or depressed
· Feeling angry or bitter
· Feeling intensely guilty
· Feeling that life no longer has meaning
· Feeling traumatised or triggered by reminders of your loss
· Suicidal thoughts or a wish that you had passed away along with your baby
In the words of Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, author of Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief: ‘Traumatic death provokes traumatic grief. And traumatic death refers to any sudden and unexpected death…and the death of a child at any age and from any cause. When someone we love dies traumatically, we feel frighteningly uprooted, markedly insecure, and our ability to trust in the world feels gravely threatened…’
Complicated grief can make everything feel unsafe and uncertain, sometimes keeping us locked into a threat response. After all, if the worst can happen once, then why not a second time? How can you possibly let yourself feel safe again? Is it even safe to feel safe? Instead, you might find yourself hypervigilant to the ‘next bad thing’, expecting it to appear at any moment. This might especially be the case if you have other children.
Complicated grief is being stuck in severe suffering rather than moving through the healing process. If you are experiencing this, then you might benefit from trying therapy.
Nobody can wave a magic wand to make this terrible loss alright. But what a good psychotherapist or psychologist can do is help you to cope with the intense devastation you are going through. For instance, they can work with you to safely process overwhelming feelings of shock, grief, sadness, guilt and anger, so that eventually, they become more manageable. And if you are locked in complicated or traumatic grief — for instance, because your loss was sudden — then they can help you to process this at your own pace. If the natural grieving process has become blocked, trauma therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) can help work through the blockage so that the healing process can continue.
A therapist can also help you work out ways to deal with persistent or obsessive thoughts, including self-blame or going over events again and again. And if you feel that you didn’t get a proper chance to say goodbye to your baby, they can help you to explore ways to do this, whenever you are ready. Also, if you have other children who have been affected by the bereavement, then it might be worth getting support for them too, either individually or through family therapy.
Of course, there is no real endpoint to a loss. When a child passes away, your life changes forever. But there is also hope — for healing, for learning to live with what has happened and finding a way to continue with life. For realising that you are not to blame. These things are all more than possible for you, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Please don’t suffer alone or in silence.
If you are dealing with the loss of a child, then a compassionate MTA psychologist or psychotherapist can help. Why not connect to us today for an in-person, video or live chat appointment?
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