I have been thinking about death of loved ones, unborn loves and was moved to explore this unique loss that women experience viscerally and most often privately. I realized almost immediately how uniquely personal the relationship is between a women and her yet to be born child. I then began to understand how intimate the death of the unborn child must be. As I looked further into this gender specific loss I sensed a need to make this type of ‘private’ death more understood and honored by all of us.
I identified three distinct deaths of a yet to be born loved one; abortion; miscarriage; and infertility. The first two are a death of an unborn, yet physical body. The third is the loss of the dream, the urge, the bodily desire of birthing a child. Here are some statistics I discovered as I was doing research for this piece.
In Canada in 2004 there were 337,072 births along with the births were 96,815 abortions and 55,280 miscarriages. These numbers surprised me. I had no idea about this mostly private world of women and their in the body deaths. Two hundred and sixty four abortions each day in Canada, one hundred and fifty one miscarriages seemed significant to me.
I am not making a judgment here. I am recognizing that no matter what the cause of unborn deaths is, they are in fact a death and a loss to the woman and those close to her. It is another type of death wrapped in silence and taboo.
The unborn baby was birthed in the body of the woman and also died inside her, a very private affair. This invisible, unseen birth and death brings with it a different type of grief and bereavement particularly for the mothers. An example – the woman is dealing with not only the effects of conception but also the grief of the loss of her unborn child.
A second unique issue is the lack of a body and a funeral. In the case of a death of a loved one we have lots of structure and process to mark the life and the death of the one who died. Most often with a miscarriage there is not a noticeable body nor is there a formal funeral or ceremony. As a result people are uncertain how to respond and what to say. Often they choose to stay silent and the woman who has suffered the loss of her child is bound to grieve alone or perhaps only with her partner.
In the case of a miscarriage the grief is complicated for many reasons unique to this type of loss. Here are some of losses common to miscarriage:
The loss of the opportunity to be a mother
The loss of trust in her body
The loss of a full and joyous pregnancy
The loss of the unborn child
There are very real feeling that arise – shame, guilt, and embarrassment some of unique ones. These feelings and emotions are complicated by the fact that the woman’s body is going through significant hormonal changes on top of the emotional impact of the loss.
The woman may feel she has let her partner down. She may be feeling the pain of not knowing the sex of the child, or seeing its body. The mother may be confused about why she feels so much grief about a child she has never seen.
Coupled with these issues is the lack of answers and the inability to understand why. The medical system is often unable to provide answers to the miscarriage. When they do speak to the woman it can often be in medically insensitive language that can sound like; the pregnancy terminated; or the tissue was passed. Often times they may refer to the miscarriage as a minor medical occurrence.
Women can feel pressured by others and often times by themselves, to try again quickly, often not taking the time to allow the grief from their miscarriage to pass. This can have consequences such as partnership stress and/or post-natal depression. Women are often looking for answers to ‘why’ and, although there are reasons, they do not usually find out what they are. Miscarriage grief is not so much about finding the answer they yearn for, as learning how to live without one.
There are also no pictures and few memories that we can hold dear as we remember the unborn loved one. Unlike other deaths the woman’s relationship with her child was ‘internal’ and short. Others may not understand the depth of love that the mother had for her child and minimize the loss.
Then there is the long list of ‘what if’s’ many women go through. What if I had more rest and not worked so hard? What if I had eaten more nutritional food? What if I were in better physical shape before I got pregnant?
In the case of abortion, though there is a degree of choice involved, women may still suffer grief. Similar to miscarriage it is difficult to talk about especially given it was a considered choice. Women may be afraid to talk about it, may feel great shame about their abortion, and may not even realize how it is affecting them. Many women are afraid to talk about their abortion to their doctor or counselor. Some women state that they are “okay” or that “it was the best decision they could have made for that time in their life.” All this outward behavior may be masking a deeper sense of grief.
Women struggling with abortion related grief might experience some or all of these symptoms:
1) A general sense of depression and anxiety
2) A numbing of emotions and feelings
3) A non-specific feeling of loss
4) Anger and resentment
5) Sudden and unexplained periods of crying
6) A change in relationship with partner
7) A lack of desire for, or an inability to sleep
8) Addictive tendencies for food, alcohol or drugs
Be aware of these signals, pay attention to them and ask for support if you are experiencing several of these symptoms. Getting help and support from a therapist or hospice worker would be a great step to take if you recognize some of these signs.
In the case of infertility it is challenging for others to ‘really’ understand the grief a woman may be going through. Pro-creation is a basic and primal function common in human beings. It is normal to have strong feelings about sex, pregnancy and birth. Many women have an innate mothering instinct that sometimes can be beyond reason and control. Even the thought of having a child is like a birth of sorts. It is a natural part of living and no shame or embarrassment should be attached to how we feel after the loss of a baby at whatever stage it occurs.
For women who are infertile and have tried fertility processes and are still unable to conceive the grief can be deep and consuming. Many of the signs and symptoms of grief explained above apply here too. Others, friends and family, may have difficulty relating to the loss and the depth of her grief. Some women have always desperately wanted to experience pregnancy and childbirth. For them the grieving process may be intense and prolonged.
Even if the woman chooses adoption the issue of infertility and its associated grief do not go away. The door is never fully closed on the grief or loss inherent in infertility. When her adoptive child reaches childbearing age, the issue may come up again. When grandchildren are born, she may look at the child and wonder, “Whom does this child look like? Certainly not me!”
No matter which of these three private and ‘invisible’ deaths a woman experiences her grief is real and needs to be expressed, received, and honored. So go ahead and talk about it. You can be proud of your pregnancies, no matter how “successful” they were. A hurt heart is a sign of your capacity to love deeply!
One thing that can really help women through this ‘private grief’ is to know other women who have been through the same thing. There is no reason for you to be alone in your grief.