The Unthinkable: breaking the silence of losing your baby
* This blog posts talks candidly about losing your baby and includes facts and statistics on this subject and maybe a trigger for you to experience again your own loss. I make no apology for breaking the silence, but I do feel sensitive to everyone’s needs. If this is you, you may want to avoid reading it.*
When you first see those two pink lines on the pregnancy test your life is indelibly changed forever. You are a mum – not you are going to be a mum – you ARE one already. Whether it was planned, or mistaken, or wanted or not, this little baby has already planted itself inside your womb, heart and head.
Even before symptoms might start to show, you cannot unthink it. It is like a spot in the corner of your eye that no matter what you do you can’t quite seem to stop noticing it.
You tell your partner and share the surprise, joy, shock, terror, fear, anxiety, love – well, you know, there are no hard and fast rules about what you should feel. While universal it is still as unique as you are.
And yet, the harsh reality is that some of these seeds won’t get further than being seedlings. However much we try to protect ourselves from this idea, sadly the loss of a baby during pregnancy, birth or shortly after, is a horrible horrible thing that is not going to disappear and is frankly far more common than we might realize.
The Miscarriage Association believes that one in every 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage , with 1 in 100 ectopic. Although a closer look at these statistics indicate that many of these pregnancies won’t have even been detected by a pregnancy test so once you get a positive test, this statistic drops to about 1 in 7.  SANDS (the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity) report that 1 in every 216 birth is a stillbirth , and that 1 in 370 babies die within 4 weeks of birth . (These figures are based on UK statistics from 2013.)
These are statistics that govern us throughout our pregnancies and are why we scrutinize them so much – blood tests to check vitamin deficiencies or signs in our urine that something isn’t right; at least 2 scans (at 12 and 20 weeks) to check the baby is growing and developing properly; regular appointments with Midwives and GPs every few weeks, and a rapid response by those health professionals if anything seems amiss.
We seem so ready to do everything in our power to use medical advances to ensure every baby survives, but yet when the unthinkable happens – when you lose your baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death – we are suffocated by silence.
Our entire pregnancy culture has become fixated on keeping new pregnancies nearly entirely secret for the first 12 weeks, until our first dating scan to confirm there IS a pregnancy and to estimate the “due date” (at this stage of gestation the foetus size is very standard, regardless of the differences in our bodies due to nature and nurture, and so it is the best time to predict due date), and statistics show that around 85% of miscarriages occur in the first 12 weeks .
Even if we get past the “dangerous” time, and announce the wonderful news, babies sometimes don’t make it. There is a multitude of reasons from congenital abnormalities, maternal health complications, problems in labour and birth and sorry to say, sometimes even medical negligence (although thankfully this is extremely rare). And many times we just don’t know. We have no warning or experience any outwards signs that there is a problem and then bang. The unthinkable has happened.
We then have to go through the pain (physical and emotional) of birthing that baby, naming them, announcing their death to the world, making funeral arrangements and mourn their loss, while the rest of the world expects us to just switch back to normal and get on with our lives. But how can this even happen after losing your baby?
But you had those two pink lines, you felt your baby inside you, you imagined your future life as the mother you now are…and yet you are having to face that life without your baby.
People try to sympathise but often end up saying things that just make it a million times worse (it wasn’t meant to be, there must have been something wrong with it, it is nature’s way, you’ll have another baby, at least you can get pregnant). NO! Stop these platitudes and just come right out and say it:
“This is so shit! Wow, fuck, I can’t imagine the pain you must be going through. Let me know how I can help you.”
That would be a really good start.
Even the language we use tends to skirt around the subject of losing your baby and not actually acknowledge what has happened. If you are going through IVF, you don;t even get to call your loss a miscarriage, it just is a “failed attempt” at IVF.
We can’t bear to think about this, that it happens, as an antenatal teacher dealing with many parents just suffering the normal everyday anxieties and fear around pregnancy and birth, introducing the thought that babies sometimes die is unthinkable in the context of a class. Even I am scared to mention it properly and it took a great deal of strength to write this blog.
I have heard midwives talk about “unfavourable outcomes” – again we can’t even bring ourselves to say the words: this baby died.
So how do you cope with the loss of your baby? Where do you even start? What should you expect to happen? Much of this will depend on the stage of loss that you have experienced.
DON'T say this to someone who has had a Miscarriage (but say THIS instead)
A guide to different stages of loss and what to expect
Early miscarriage – loss up to 13 weeks gestation. This is usually picked up on the first dating scan.
You may find the signs of a miscarriage are physical, but sometimes the baby dies and the body takes some time to realise this and so how you birth your baby may be up to nature, with some medication to get things going or surgically. There is more information about this here.
Late miscarriage – loss between 14-23 weeks gestation. Again you might birth your baby naturally or through a medical induction depending on your circumstances. Find out more here. Up to 24 weeks your baby is not considered a person and so no birth or death certificate is issued, and you are free to make whatever funeral arrangements you wish and there are not restrictions on how or where you do this.
Stillbirth – loss after 24 weeks gestation, before the baby is born. This cut-off point of 24 weeks is when the baby is considered “viable” and could potentially survive once born. You would birth your baby either naturally or through medical induction of labour, or in certain circumstances, you may be offered a caesarean section.
After 24 weeks your baby will be issued with birth and death certificates and has to be buried or cremated legally. You are also entitled to your full maternity package.
Neonatal death – loss within the first 28 days of life. This could be something you are expecting due to known health concerns of your baby, or unexpectedly occurring after birth. Your baby would be cared for in a Neonatal unit which has different levels of care depending on the needs of your baby. Find out more here.
How do I even start to cope?
No-one can really tell you how to cope with losing your baby and every situation will be different. Understanding what to expect physically is a good start as you may have to go through labour and birth. Acknowledging the loss to yourself is an important first step and allowing yourself and your partner the time and space to grieve is paramount. This can be hard with early miscarriage as you may not have told any of the people who might have supported you, but perhaps now is a good time to draw on support from those people and be honest about what you are going through?
There is no shame in being bereaved. You wouldn’t shy away from talking about the loss of anyone else in your life so why shy away from the loss of a child?
Accept that your loss is huge! It is not just the losing your baby, but the loss of a whole new way of existing – as a parent. I said at the start of this article that you never stop being a parent from the moment those two pink lines show up on the test and I think it is so hard to explain to people – explain to yourself – that you are STILL that parent, just one that does not have a living baby. Yes, it is complicated. But that doesn’t change it.
Here are a few ways in which you might try to cope with losing your baby.
- Take it one moment at a time.
- Then take it one day at a time.
- Be gentle to yourself and give yourself time to heal – physically and emotionally
- Be gentle to your partner – they might experience their grief in a different way to you but that doesn’t make it any less painful
- Accept any and all support from anyone who offers it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for more support if you need it. People don’t say no if you ask for help.
- Don’t waste your energy with people who say or do the wrong thing.
- Don’t rush into any major life-changing decisions for a year or so, like moving house, changing job, etc.
- Give your body and mind time to heal and recover before thinking about another pregnancy.
- Accept and welcome the times you might start to feel happy again and enjoy life. It doesn’t mean that your baby didn’t matter or that you no longer care.
And yes, it is shit. Really fucking shit.
Jeez, who can imagine what it feels like after losing your baby? Whether it is in early miscarriage or a neonatal death, this loss must be unbearable. When we start to break the silence about losing babies suddenly our friends and family start to admit that they too have experienced it (particularly with miscarriage). I am all too connected with a variety of people close to me who have experienced all types of baby loss and it is horrible for all of them.
But if this happens to you, you are not alone. There are places to find information and support and advice (see the links below). There are groups you can join to seek support anonymously or face-to-face. Birthzang runs a support group for mums specifically to provide a safe place for mums to share their experiences of parenthood be they great or horrific.
You will be the only person who can navigate through the stages of grief you may feel, but please try not to be completely silent. Please tell just one person if nothing else so they can help you through this horrible time.
And if you are supporting a friend or family member through loss then avoid platitudes and just say what you think and what you feel. Offer help but ask them in what way they can help you best. Put yourself in their shoes and I bet you would be able to find ten things to say, even if it just,”wow, this is so shit”.
Useful links for information and support
Supporting Every Birth is a workshop run by an amazing doula, Michelle Every, for any birth professional who works with parents in pregnancy, labour and birth. This blog article was inspired by my attendance at this workshop and draws upon the material we covered in the workshop.
The Miscarriage Association
Helpline 01924 200 799
SANDS – The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity
Tommy’s – Charity funding research into Stillbirth, premature birth and miscarriage.
Reading Lifeline – an organisation in Reading, Berkshire that offers free support and counselling to anyone who has experienced losing your baby.