* Photo courtesy of author
Comparing Loss Serves No One
Recently in a group, bereaved mothers were comparing the pain they experienced based on the age of their baby. One woman shared she had miscarriages so her pain could not be nearly as painful as a friend who had lost a baby at full term and the friend who lost her baby at full term could not possibly be in as much pain as the person who lost their baby at 2 weeks old. Even with those comparisons, another mother stated that the pain of losing her 24 week gestation child could not be as painful as someone who lost their living child.
The common denominator here is grief, the grief one experiences from a loss; however, there is a societal perception of the pain and grief one might experience based on the longer a person is alive, the more grief that one might experience. Here are some examples of what I have heard or seen regarding grief and pregnancy loss.
Women are told:
They should have nothing to grieve for the baby lost early (before she had a chance to love it).
The baby wasn’t born alive so why is she sad?
It is belittling to mothers who have lost living children for women to grieve a baby who never lived (the perception being that a baby in the womb is not living).
A miscarriage is not the same as losing a child.
Then there are other comparisons:
A mother who birthed her stillborn baby through her vagina will experience more grief than a mother who had a c-section (as if she was somehow “spared” by not having to deliver vaginally).
These are comments and comparisons I have heard but what purpose do they serve?
Society allows and accepts a family’s grief for a baby or child who passes within the first year of life and beyond because there is a physical body with which they can see, touch, smell, and hear. We also see acceptance and validation for the grief within our own federal guidelines of FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act); however, there is no time allowed to grieve the loss of a baby not born alive. This gives society the perception that born alive = worthy.
When grief is compared or challenged based on the gestation/age of a baby, it can make women feel they are not worthy to grieve for their baby not born alive; whether they were born in the first trimester or later. It can make women feel ashamed about their very real feelings. Not all women will feel grief from a miscarriage and while that’s okay, it’s not helpful for one woman who was not hurt by her miscarriage to say to another woman “What’s the big deal?” It’s a big deal to her and she deserves support.
Women should be allowed to grieve without shame just as they would grieve for the loss of their parents. Although I have seen people make others feel shameful for grieving the death of their aged parents (because they lived a long life, their death was expected). Does a woman who just married her boyfriend of six months have the right to grieve? After all, she didn’t know him that long and if the basis for grief is length of time together (as some people have suggested), then she shouldn’t grieve nearly as much as a woman who lost her husband of 15 years. When approached from this angle, it doesn’t make much sense to associate time together with how much grief should be expected or experienced.
Validation that the grief is real and that they are worthy to grieve starts with us (society); sharing our stories of loss, and encouraging society to recognize that the grief from miscarriage exists. For many women, the moment they see the positive test they begin imagining all they will do with their future child. All those hopes and dream disappear in a fleeting moment, a flicker on an ultrasound that diminished too quickly, a kick or punch which faded away, a breath that emptied too soon. All are worthy of grief and mourning.
Shaming the grief experience by comparing grief experienced from pregnancy loss further silences this common experience and forces many women to hide. I remember feeling shame. It manifested in feeling foolish for grieving something I never had (a living baby); feeling silly for grieving a baby I couldn’t hold or see in their full form. I saw my baby on the ultrasound and I saw my baby’s heartbeat so I knew she was real but she was not real to many others. I also felt shame when I was excited to be pregnant and had a new life within me, though a fragile one, and announced it to the world only to have to tell everyone that the baby died.
Many women continue to feel more shame when they choose to hide their pregnancies until much later. Just because a woman doesn’t announce her pregnancy early, does not mean she is living in shame but some do. I have a friend who has already told me that should she become pregnant again, she will not announce until later…much later.
She does not want to have to tell people her baby didn’t make it, like last time. Months after her miscarriage, she is still asked about her pregnancy or what happened which adds to her silent pain; a pain that she carries but doesn’t allow the world to see. Her ‘status’ updates are make believe; pretending nothing ever happened. She buries her pain deep within her but still knowing how far along she would be.
Even I didn’t realize that she had the same thoughts as I do. We would have been pregnant together. We would have been due within one month of each other. I would be 38 weeks with a very ripe belly. My breasts would be preparing to nourish the child within me. I would be making frozen meals and completing the final tasks to bring home a new baby.
I would most likely be sharing with her all the things I have been doing to help her prepare as well; hoping she didn’t make a mistake or forget something I may have. We would be talking about names. And after our babies were home, we would be sharing milestones. Instead, we share death. We share our experiences of miscarriage which were very different yet the same; her entry into the silent club of pregnancy loss and my mentorship of having been through it…twice.
We do not know what is inside of someone else’s mind. We do not know what their experience of pain is. We cannot possibly comprehend someone’s grief based on society’s opinion, our personal opinions, our personal experiences, the experiences of others, etc. The pain and grief a person carries is their own. They may not fully share that pain with you either. Even if we know they had a loss, they may still remain silent which in turn, makes us feel they are “okay.” They might be okay or they might be deeply struggling.
When we know someone has experienced pregnancy loss, the most we can do is offer support. There are many ways to do that.1 Books and websites are dedicated to supporting families through loss. What we cannot do though, is much for the internal grief they will inevitably experience. We cannot speed up the grief journey; we can only walk with them through it.
Accompany one another with mercy. – Pope Francis
The length of someone’s life, the size of their body, the condition they are in, and the circumstances surrounding their death do not make grief more or less worthy. Grief is grief and is a person’s own journey. Please support them and others through any grief they are experiencing. Most of us have no idea if one experience hurts more than another experience. Can we stop comparing and just support?
Elizabeth Petrucelli, SBD, CCCE ((http://elizabethpetrucelli.com)) is the author of All That is Seen and Unseen; A Journey Through a First Trimester Miscarriage and “It’s Not Just a Heavy Period; The Miscarriage Handbook.” She is a childbirth educator, birth & bereavement doula and owner of Dragonflies for Ruby; an organization dedicated to serving families through the loss of their baby. When she is not educating birth professionals on pregnancy loss, she is an advocate who raises awareness for first trimester loss. She lives in Parker, CO with her husband and two living sons.