Common responses in the wake of perinatal bereavement:
Grief can affect emotional, social, physical, spiritual/religious and mental wellbeing. Grief is not a set of finite stages, instead it comes and goes over a lifetime, reducing in intensity over several months or years but re-emerging at particular times or milestones. It involves varied, complex and sometimes conflicting emotions that may come up suddenly and unexpectedly.
Couples may cope and express their feelings very differently, which can cause friction. However, contrary to some popular beliefs, most parents stay together in the wake of a bereavement and many benefit from couples grief counselling.
If parents, other family members or friends are struggling with complex responses in the wake of the loss, feeling unsupported or feel unable to cope, they are encouraged to see a health professional or a counsellor who specialises in perinatal loss.
The information below includes some of parents’ common reactions, which may occur as a result of any pregnancy, baby or child loss. Many parents experience some, but not all, of these and no two people experience grief in exactly the same way or cope with it in exactly the same way.
Disrupted sleep and appetite; headaches; body tension or aches and pains; stomach pain or upset; nausea, flare of pre-existing chronic health issues, still feeling pregnant, feeling empty.
Shock, disbelief – many people report numbness and emptiness that lasts for a while after learning that their baby has died. They may also experience a sense of detachment from reality.
Guilt – feeling guilty that they didn’t prevent the loss, that they should have done something differently, or as if their body/bodies have let them down
Anger, blame or sense of injustice – parents may blame themselves or others. They may be angry with others, that life isn’t fair, or feel anger towards spiritual or religious beliefs that they believe have let them down.
- Worry they may struggle to get pregnant again and/or significant anxiety during subsequent pregnancies
- Deep sadness about the baby’s absence and grieving a future that no longer exists
- Fears or anxiety about the future, about their own or loved ones’ health or safety
- Jealousy about other people’s pregnancies
- Overwhelmed with daily life
- Thoughts about dying/wanting to die
- Thoughts such as: “I wish I never had to wake up again”
- Intrusive thoughts or images about the safety or wellbeing of themselves or other loved ones
- Spiralling thoughts along the lines of “what if…” that seem unrelenting and out of control
Common social responses:
- Feeling distant, isolated from other family and friends, feeling abandoned
- Experiencing other people as insensitive or unsupportive, or feeling let down or disappointed by others’ difficulty in dealing with grief
- Changes in family dynamics or relationships. Parents may notice behavioural changes in their other children, or tensions with other family members, such as their own parents.
- Feelings of not fitting in or being repeatedly misunderstood
- Losing interest in social activities or thinking they are trivial
- Stress about returning to work or financial issues, disinterest in work
- Lacking motivation to leave the house or see other people
In the months and years after their loss, parents may experience painful reminders from expected and unexpected sources, including:
- Pregnancies and births among family or friends
- Deciding what to do with the contents of their baby’s room, if it was already set up
- Special dates, such as the child’s birthday, estimated due date or death anniversary
- Significant occasions such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or holidays
- Any major life change such as moving house, or the loss of another loved one
- When their child was due to reach certain milestones, such as walking or starting school
- Dealing with questions such as ‘how many children do you have?
- Dealing with being excessively vigilant or protective with their other children
- Feeling anxiety and fear during subsequent pregnancies or when subsequent babies are asleep or sick
- Having to visit a hospital or other locations associated with the loss
Suggestions for grieving parents
- Find ways to create an ongoing bond or connection with the child who died. This may include regular rituals and acknowledging birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones. This allows for healing and honours a parent’s continuing connection with their baby.
- Talk to a doctor or other healthcare professionals about possible medical causes for the baby’s death
- Provide feedback to the medical team if there are unresolved issues
- Seek support from family and friends if they are able to provide it
- Seek counselling, peer support, support groups, or online groups
- Remember that grief is an individual experience and different people grieve in different ways. If significant relationships are suffering, seek counselling together – https://rednosegriefandloss.org.au/support/article/advice-to-parents-about-relationships-a-summary