Surviving the Loss of your Baby: Coping after a Stillbirth

From the moment pregnancy is confirmed, expectant parents normally start to bond with the unborn child. When this precious baby turns out not to be viable, dreams, fantasies and plans for the future are shattered. As an expectant mother or parent, the birth of your child is a time of joy and celebration.

In spite of the advanced medical knowledge and precaution, stillbirths still happen. The Canadian National infant mortality rate (number of deaths of children less than one year of age) is approximate 5% per per 1,000 live births. The infant mortality rate in British Columbia is approximate 4.1% (Statistics Canada: Infant Mortality Rate). When the tragedy of stillbirth occurs, the pain is devastating and profound for the parents and their extended families.

The loss of your baby may trigger some of the following questions, blame on yourself or on others:

  • Why my baby and not others’?
  • Did I do something wrong? Should I have noticed that something was not right earlier? Perhaps I could have done something to save my child?
  • I wasn¡¦t very ready to be a mother, perhaps this has caused the stillbirth?
  • I am not a good mother, I am bad and I caused the death of my child ( especially in cases when the expectant mother has been struggling with various medical issues during pregnancy)
  • Did my preference for one sex cause this baby to die?
  • How can I go one with my life?
  • My baby would have survived if I took care of myself better or if I have listened to others’ advices, etc

While asking these questions are quite normal, parents can feel a strong sense of guilt, blame in addition to pain and heartbrokenness. It may seem as though nothing anyone does will help to ease the suffering of the parents. Sometimes it seems that none of the gestures of love and comforting words by others may not lessen the family’s pain of the tragedy.

How short a time this baby lived may not matter regarding the feelings of loss. It is, after all, a child you would be holding and feeding right after birth, a lifelong relationship you could treasure, and a dream you have lost. Although you may recover physically from a stillbirth, the emotional recovery can take a much longer time. People differ a lot in their psychological recoveries – some can come to acceptance and start moving on in a few months, whereas others may take much longer.

The normal cycle of grief including the 5 stages suggested by Kubler-Ross are:

  • Denial / Shock – “No. this isn’t happening to me! Everything will be ok. I just need to keep praying. It is just a nightmare, this is not really happening… etc”
  • Anger – “God, Why me? It’s not fair! Why didn’t the doctor save my child? Sure the doctors could have or should have done something. They shouldn’t have let my child die. NO! NO! How can this happen?”
  • Bargaining – “I’ll do anything to have my baby back. God, please listen to my prayers. I wish I had taken better care of myself. Perhaps if I did_____ or didn’t _______, my child would still be with me. I should have gone to the doctor earlier; I should have felt something was not right, etc. Please bring my child back and I will make sure I will be a good person.”
  • Depression – “There is no meaning in life anymore. Why bother with anything? I can’t move on anymore . . . I don’t think I can survive with this. Even if I would be pregnant again, the next child would not be the same… Nothing matters… I just want my child back! What’s the point?”
  • Acceptance (Also Integrating & Making sense of your loss) – “Yes, I have lost a child. It’s very sad and painful. I will miss him and I will think of him sometimes. But it’s going to be OK. I can still go on with life.”

Some people may mistake moving on and acceptance as “forgetting”. When someone comes to acceptance of a painful truth, it means that this tragic event/fact will be integrated with one’s life. The loss of your child becomes part of you. It is something that as time goes by, you may still remember the loss but the frequency of remembering becomes less often. You may still feel sad about it when you remember your child years after but it will no longer be as devastating. This will become part of your memory that you can look back at and honor.

Here are some of the normal experiences, questions and emotions you may be experiencing after losing a child through stillbirth:

  • You may want to put away all the baby clothes, crib, baby bottles, etc – anything may remind you of the death of your baby
  • You may want to move on as soon as possible and not be reminded of your loss
  • You may want to get pregnant as soon as possible to forget about this ordeal and have another child
  • Feel a deep sense of pain, loss and sadness
  • Ask many questions regarding the stillbirth, such as
    • The medical reasons behind stillbirth
    • Existential questions about life & death
    • Questioning God¡¦s justice and your faith
    • Asking “Why” all the time
    • Asking “What Doctors, your family, or you could have done?” to save the child or prevent the stillbirths from happening.
  • Feel not understood by others as some people don’t know how to respond to your loss
  • Feel minimized and angry if your relatives, friends or families may say to you, “It’s ok, you are young, you can be pregnant again. You will have another baby.”
  • Feel sad, depressed, and angry when seeing other mothers going through their full pregnancies
  • Feel a sense of injustice when seeing other mothers carrying through their pregnancies
  • Feel isolated and alone as other people do not know how to talk with you about the topic of stillbirth
  • Feel physically paralyzed or emotionally numb at times
  • Feel worried about future pregnancies
  • Wonder what happened to your stillborn baby / child
  • Blame yourself and wonder if you have done something wrong to “make” the stillbirth happen
  • Avoid interacting with other pregnant women and newborn children as it can be a painful reminder.
  • Experience sadness around the supposed due date or anniversary of the miscarried date.

Most often, women feel isolated and alone after having a stillbirth. Even though our society is very technologically advanced, there is still somehow a stigma about openly talking about deaths and mourning losses. There is often pressure for individuals to be strong and not to cry openly. Grieving can be a lonely process for some women, especially those whose husbands find it hard to grasp the concept of stillbirth.

Here are some of the ways to cope with stillbirth:

  • Give yourself time to rest physically and recover emotionally
  • Don’t force yourself to be a superwoman and expect to feel better immediately
  • If you could, allow yourself time to sit in your nursery, touch your baby’s crib and grieve for the loss of your baby
  • Allow yourself time to feel sad, grieve and mourn the loss of your child
  • Acknowledge to yourself that this is a loss and it is sad to lose something or someone so dear
  • Give your child a name
  • Acknowledge to yourself that you may never fully know “why” it happened to you
  • Buy something (baby clothes, etc) for your child to remember and honor his or her short life.
  • Light a candle, say a prayer or have some sort of ritual to say goodbye
  • Journal your feelings
  • Write a letter to your baby / child to tell him or her how sad it is that you will never get to know him or her

If this is not your first child:

  • You may feel anxious of losing your other child or children
  • You may be overly protective of your other children
  • You may not feel motivated to care for your other children and consumed in your grief totally
  • You may be angry towards others when they pay attention to your living children than your loss or your deceased baby
  • You may feel angry and confused when you see others playing with your living children or seeing your children feel happy
  • Go onto online forums and share your experiences with other women who had similar experiences.

Although for some parents it is very hard to hold their deceased baby or they may feel that they just want to get “rid of it” as soon as possible, it can actually be very helpful for parents to see, hold and touch their dead baby. Collecting the tangible items and making this experience more concrete & real will help you to grieve your losses.

Preparing your self for a stillbirth – If you know ahead of time that you may experience a stillbirth or lose your child:

  • Say “Hi” or “Hello” to your baby, introduce yourself to your baby as mommy & daddy, greet your baby in his or her name, talk to your baby before you have to let him or her go.
  • Say “Goodbye” to your baby, kiss your baby, and tell your baby that you will miss him/her, etc.
  • Ask doctors or nurses if they would let you bathe your baby.
  • Take pictures of your baby and pictures of you holding your baby.
  • Take a lock of hair if possible, the blanket your baby is wrapped in, footprints or handprints, the hospital bracelets, etc

The tragic experience of a stillbirth may affect you deeply psychologically & physically. Further, it is not uncommon that the grief process may also affect your relationship with your family and your spouse. Every individual has different coping mechanism and coping timing when a crisis occurs. How differently you and your spouse may cope with this experience may affect your marriage in many ways. Should you experience a great sense of sadness and continue to feel depressed for a long period of time, please consult your family doctor. Seeking professional individual & couple counselling or joining a support group may also facilitate your grief process.