Miscarriage Grief: How To Grieve the Loss of Your Unborn Child

By Eva Shaw, Ph.D.

Reading about grief and knowing what to expect provides a measure of control in a situation that may feel out of control. When an unborn baby dies or a miscarriage occurs, you or your loved ones will be faced with tremendous choices. Though everyone’s grief looks different, the general stages of grief are denial, depression and acceptance.

When death is because of a stillbirth, aborted pregnancy, miscarriage or the result of an ectopic or tubal pregnancy, it may feel as if nobody understands what you’re going through. Some parents and grandparents report that it feels “socially unacceptable” to discuss the death after a week or two, but that's a little like pretending the baby never existed and that your grief isn't real. You deserve support and community as you heal.

Types of miscarriage grief

Dealing with the grief of an unborn child or stillborn baby takes courage. There may or may not be a funeral. You may not receive any sympathy calls or condolence cards. Sometimes friends and neighbors may not even know about the pregnancy or the baby’s death. How can one cope? While it’s never easy to move through the stages of grief, it may help to learn as much as possible about the event, what happened, why it happened and if it's happened to others.

Physical symptoms of grief

As you begin your healing journey after the baby’s death, be assured that you’re not alone in the ways you are experiencing grief. Many people understand emotional grief, but you may also experience physical grief. It’s not uncommon to feel jittery, avoid meals or be unable to make even small decisions, such as what to eat or wear. Ask others for help. You’re not going crazy. You’re grieving.

Many parents say they feel as if they’re functioning in a fog during the first weeks after their baby’s death. At the wake or funeral, they report feeling like strangers to their families or perhaps like distant observers. The reactions may last for minutes, hours, days or weeks. Crying, sobbing, wailing or another deeply emotional release usually marks the end of the initial period of shock. All of this is normal and temporary.

Deep grief

There's no right or wrong way to move through the shadows after a death. But if you’re having feelings of suicide or lethargy that you can’t shake, reach out for help as soon as possible. This doesn’t mean you’re inadequate or that something is wrong with you. It just means you are deeply grieving and need support. Here are some suggestions to help you and your loved ones after an unborn baby’s death:

Learn as much as possible about the event. There may be no reasons why, but by asking, you’ll give voice to your emotions. Review self-help books and talk with your medical team, counselor or friends.

Follow a ritual or a remembrance rite. You may want to light a candle or take flowers to the cemetery. Please know that it’s very normal to ask for a photo to be taken of a stillborn child that can later be framed. This is your child, as real as all the real children of the world.

Schedule timeouts. Set aside a moment to laugh, watch a silly movie and act like a kid. You may find it helpful to walk, cycle or putter in the garden. This doesn’t mean you aren’t still grieving. It simply means you’re human.

Name your child, if you haven’t already done so. You may find it easier to embrace memories when your baby has a name.

Reach out to others. Talk about the death. Use your baby’s name in conversation. When asked how many children you have, you can say something like, “I had three. Our sweet baby Leslie died at birth.” This may shock people. What you will be doing is affirming that you still have this child in your heart and memories.

Call our Compassion Helpline®When you choose a Dignity Memorial provider for your baby's service, you have access to our 24-hour Compassion Helpline for up to 13 months. This service allows you and your family to speak with professionals trained in grief counseling any time day or night. (Services provided by Charles Nechtem Associates Inc.)

Feelings of relief or guilt, or no feelings at all

When developmental abnormality causes a miscarriage, some parents may feel both relief and guilt, knowing they won't have to worry about the future of a child with profound additional needs. You might also feel sadness for creating a child who was imperfect and worry that the next conception may also result in an unborn baby’s death. If this is heavy on your heart, talk with your medical providers. You’ll feel better prepared if you have more information.

Regardless of the reasons for a pregnancy’s end, you may feel especially saddened by the loss of a dream that was your child.

And there’s no need to worry if you don’t feel grief. Feelings are feelings. They aren’t good or bad; they just are.

Ways to honor and memorialize your baby

You may be comforted by honoring and memorializing your baby. Grief is very personal, and your journey will be unique. Remembering your baby can help you move through your grief and heal. You can maintain a connection with your baby by choosing to reflect and remember. Some miscarriage memorial ideas include:

  • Plan a miscarriage memorial ceremony. Having a funeral can provide much-needed closure as you honor your baby. You can opt to have an intimate ceremony to say your goodbyes with the support of your loving family.
  • Have a cemetery memorialization. You may want to memorialize your baby with a cemetery burial and headstone. If you choose cremation, you can still have a cemetery memorial.
  • Create a memory box for the baby. This could include the birth and death certificates, the plastic hospital arm bracelet, perhaps even a lock of hair.
  • Customize memorial jewelry. Necklaces, bracelets, rings and keychains can all be customized with birthstones and engravings.
  • Journal your feelings. Penning your thoughts can help you express difficult feelings and, ultimately, help you heal.
  • Get a special blanket or stuffed animal. Physically holding something that represents your baby may provide you with comfort for years to come.
  • Plant a tree or garden. A living tribute, such as a flower garden or tree, can offer a lasting memorial that also brings beauty to the landscape.
  • Build something by which to remember your baby. Using your hands to build a memorial—a birdhouse, a decorative garden arch, a rock garden—can be a creative way to honor your child.

Grief’s journey

After some time, say six months from the death of your baby, you may be ready to talk and read more about grief. By understanding what you and others in your family have been through, you will be better able to grow from the experience. Be gentle with yourself. It’s natural to feel depressed and often tired. Even though you feel more terrible, perhaps, than you thought possible, you are on grief’s journey.

The death of a baby has been compared to having surgery. Moms and dads, siblings and other loved ones need to be assured they will heal, but there will always be a scar. The baby was alive to you and your loved ones and always will be precious. Never fear; you will not forget this precious being. Feelings of loss have been created by feelings of love.

As with all grief, not discussing the death, keeping a stiff upper lip or avoiding using the baby’s name could cause more pain. Because there is often no closure to help heal emotional scars, parents, siblings and loved ones of a baby may especially want to talk with a counselor or join a support group. Find a counselor or support group leader who has had experience with your special kind of grief. Your doctor or another trusted advisor may be able to help you locate someone.

Eva Shaw, Ph.D., is an authority on death, grief and recovery. The author of What to Do When a Loved One Dies: a Practical and Compassionate Guide to Dealing With Death on Life’s Terms, she has appeared as a guest expert on scores of panels, programs and national shows.