Helping Yourself When an Unborn Baby Dies or a Miscarriage Occurs

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 and perhaps even for the first time, may experience grief from a precious human loss. The stages of grief are bargaining, depression and acceptance.

When death is because of a stillbirth, an aborted pregnancy, through miscarriage or the result of an ectopic or tubal pregnancy, it may feel as if you have no one to talk with. Some parents and grandparents of the baby report it feels “socially unacceptable” to discuss the death after about a week or 2 of the event. While this is totally false, it makes grief more difficult. It’s as if the baby did not exist at all and that’s simply not true.

When no one knows

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 of the pregnancy or the baby’s death. How can one cope? While it is never easy to move through the stages of grief, it may help to learn as much as possible about the event, what happened, why, when and if this has happened to others.

Seek support

As with all grief, not discussing the death, keeping a stiff upper lip or avoiding using the baby’s name could be the worst things survivors can do. Rather because there is often no closure to help heal emotional scars, parents, siblings and loved ones of the baby may 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 grief. Your doctor or an advisor will be able to help you locate this person.

The physical side of grief

As you begin your journey after the baby’s death, be assured you are not alone in the ways you are experiencing grief. Many people understand emotional grief, but you may also be suffering from physical grief. It is not uncommon to feel jittery, not hungry or be unable to make even small decisions, such as what to eat or what to wear. Ask others for help. You are not going crazy. You are 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 an observer. This is nature’s way of helping parents confront the death of a baby. The reactions may last for minutes, hours, days or weeks. Crying, sobbing and wailing or some other deeply emotional release usually marks the end of the initial period of shock.

Dealing with deep grief

There is no right or wrong way to move through the shadows after a death. Yet, should the grief become too dark or if you’re having feelings of suicide or lethargy that you cannot shake, reach out for help at once. This doesn’t mean you’re inadequate or that something is wrong with you. It means you are someone who is deeply grieving. 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 will voice your emotions. Review self-help books and talk with counselors, social workers or friends.
  • Follow a ritual or a remembrance rite. You may want to light a candle or take flowers to the cemetery, and please know that it is very normal to ask for a photo to be taken of the stillborn child that can later be framed. This IS your child, as real as all the real children of the world.
  • Schedule “time outs.” These are special times for you when you can 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 are not still grieving. It simply means you’re human.
  • Name your child, if you haven’t done so before. You will find it easier to embrace memories when your baby has a name.
  • Reach out to others. Talk about the death. Use the baby’s name in conversation. When asked how many children you have, you can say, “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.
  • Create a memory box for the baby. This could include the birth and death certificate, the plastic hospital arm bracelet, perhaps even a lock of hair. The reality that your child died does not exclude that you will want to celebrate the special relationship you’ve had with the baby.

Feelings of relief or guilt, or no feelings at all

When developmental abnormality causes a miscarriage, some moms and dads may feel a sense of relief and guilt, knowing they will not have to spend a lifetime worrying about the future of a severely disabled person. Or you may 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 or specialists. You will feel better prepared if you have more information. Regardless of the reasons for the pregnancy’s termination, you may feel especially saddened by the loss of a dream that was your child.

If you do not feel the emotions of grief do not be alarmed. Feelings are feelings. They are not good or bad; they just are.

Grief's journey

After some time, say six months from the death of the 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 loved ones need to be assured they will heal, but there will always be a scar, a weakness and tenderness.

The baby was alive to you and your loved ones and always will be precious. Never fear; you will not forget this previous being. Feelings of loss have been created by feelings of love you have for your child.

About the author

Eva Shaw, Ph.D., is a noted 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. A renowned speaker, she is an in-demand lecturer at conferences and workshops.