Losing a baby to stillbirth is painful. Your emotions run from numb to angry to sad and back again. There are a lot of aspects to your emotional recovery from this kind of loss. Below you will find some things to consider on your path through grief.
It's OK to Grieve
You bonded with your baby for months without even seeing your baby face-to-face. Pregnancy is a time of so much hope and potential. You've no doubt been buying your baby a crib, clothing, and all the other equipment that comes with being a new parent. You've wondered what your baby will look like, what he or she will sound like, which personality traits will he or she share with you or your partner. Of course you will be affected by the loss. How could you not be? The death of a baby, born or unborn, is a very difficult topic for many people, and you may feel like you can't be sad in front of them for fear of making them uncomfortable, but you have every right to grieve your loss. Grief is personal and unique, so don't try to fit anyone else's mold when it comes to how you feel.
It's hard not to feel guilty. You wonder what you could have done differently. If only you'd gone to the hospital sooner… If only you had been more careful… But just as in early miscarriage, most of the time, stillbirth is not anyone's fault. It's natural to think of all the things you could have done differently, but the truth is, none of that might have made any difference anyway. Getting answers may be the best way to relieve your guilt, so talk to your doctor about all your options for discovering the cause of your stillbirth. The answers won't bring your baby back, but they may help you prepare for the future and may set your mind a little more at ease.
No doubt you've got questions
What happened to my baby? Why? Was their anything I did to make this happen? Will it happen again? Unless there's an obvious cause for your baby's death, there is a chance you'll never know exactly why. Even in those cases, there are a number of things your doctor can do to help figure out what did happen. It may be frustrating to answer a lot of questions about your personal and family medical history when you're grieving, but knowing what happened may help you get some closure. Before you go home from the hospital, your doctor may order some additional testing on you to determine if your health had any impact on your pregnancy. You may also have to decide if you want to have an autopsy done. Some religions will not allow autopsy, and your doctor should respect that decision. If, however, you have the option, an autopsy may provide valuable information about what happened to your baby. In some cases, religious leaders may permit a limited autopsy.
Your Spouse or Partner
It can be hard to remember that your partner is going through the same loss you are when your own experiences are so intense, but he's feeling it, too. Men and women tend to show their grief in very different ways, so it can be hard for them to know how to support each other. Patience, listening, and respecting each other's personal grieving styles is the key to finding your way through this loss together.
Making Memories at the Hospital
You should be given the option to see and hold your baby at the hospital. Of course you have the right to say no. Everyone's grief process is different, and you should trust your instincts on whether or not it's the right thing for you. Whether you chose to see and hold your child or not, the hospital staff should be able to help you create memories with your baby in a lot of different ways. Some things to consider: bathing and dressing your baby, getting professional photographs taken, inviting family and friends to visit with you.
Giving your baby a name is a great way to honor him or her as a person. You and your loved ones may feel more comfortable talking about your loss if you have a name for your baby. While some parents prefer to use a name they were already considering during pregnancy, others choose something more specific to represent their loss, like Angel, Heaven, or Star. Choose something you'll feel comfortable saying out loud when you talk about your baby, and seeing on a headstone, if you choose to have your baby buried.
Going Home - What About My Nursery?
It may be very difficult going home from the hospital. You may feel like you've lost your last connection with your baby. You also may be worried about facing all the baby things you've got ready at home. Trust your instincts and speak your mind. If you want to have trusted friends or family members go into your house before you get there to remove all the baby items, let them know. But, if you don't want that to happen, speak up. Sometimes family members try to be helpful by removing the baby's things without your knowledge. They may have great intentions, but if it's not what you want, be sure to make that public knowledge.
Grief can be overwhelming and all consuming. At first, it may be hard to talk about how you feel because you don't even know exactly how you feel. While sharing your feelings with someone is one of the best way to figure it out, you may also find comfort in a more solitary activity. Consider journaling, scrapbooking, creating a memorial garden, or any other creative activity that has meaning for you.
Depending on your local law, you may be required to choose a funeral home. This does not mean you must have a funeral for your baby, but it's certainly an option. Funerals are an important part of saying goodbye to our loved ones when they pass on as adults, and you may find that a funeral for your baby helps you and your family do the same when you've had a stillbirth. Many funeral homes off no- or low-cost funerals for children, and can offer you a wide variety of options for your baby's final resting place. You may be comforted by making these choices for your baby.
Signs of Depression
Even pregnancies that result in healthy babies can come with "the baby blues." When you add losing your child to that, it's no surprise your emotions are intense. Sadness and tears are normal, and there's no time limit for grief, but you should be aware of the warning signs for post-partum depression and other mental health changes.
Many parents of stillborn babies find comfort in support groups. There are excellent resources online and in person to help you through this time. Ask your doctor or nurse for a list of local organizations. If you feel like your normal sadness is becoming something more serious, like clinical depression or anxiety, don't be afraid to seek professional help. Remember: if you ever have thoughts about hurting yourself or someone else, you should seek help immediately. Call your doctor, go to the ER, or call 9-1-1 if you don't feel safe.
Coping for the Long Term
Grief is a long process, and some griefwork will never be done. There are no deadlines, and you shouldn't feel tied to any schedule - yours or anyone else's. Take as much time as you need. You will have good days and bad. Sometimes, grief can sneak up on you in the middle of a good period. Holidays, anniversaries, and seeing other pregnant women are a few common triggers. Just be kind to yourself and remember this is all normal. Share your feelings with someone you trust and know that more good days are around the corner.
Taking Care of Your Physical Self
It's important to keep caring for yourself, even when your world feels so confusing and sadness makes ordinary tasks like eating and sleeping difficult. But your body is vulnerable right now. You're recovering from all the hormonal and physical changes of pregnancy, and grieving, too. Eating, drinking lots of fluids, getting rest, and watching yourself for warning signs is all part of staying physically healthy so you can focus on your emotional health.
Eventually, you'll decide if you want to have any more children or not. The choice is deeply personal, and all yours. Stay in good communication with your partner, and trust yourself. If you're going to try again, you'll know when the time is right. It doesn't mean you've forgotten your stillborn baby, only that life continues, no matter how precious the life you've lost. Talk to your doctor when you're ready, especially if the cause of your first stillborn was something that could repeat in a future pregnancy. Keep taking good care of yourself, and recognize that another pregnancy could come with some of those surprising moments that make grief stronger again for a time. Communicating with those around you will help.
What Can Family Members Do?
Your family members will want to help you. It may be tempting to pull away from everyone at first, and it may even be OK to do that once in a while, but the support of your loved ones is invaluable. Even if you're not ready to talk, let them help you out with small tasks around the house. You're physically and emotionally exhausted right now, and they'll love to chance to feel like they're being helpful to you. Let them get involved to the extent you feel comfortable. Remember, they're going through their own grief process, even though it's not as acute as yours. It's okay to ask for help when you need it.
The emotional recovery from stillbirth can be slow and difficult, but using the resources around you, both professional and person, can make your journey a little easier. Please feel free to leave comments with anything that helped you through your emotional recovery.
Alberta Medical Association "Stillborn Protocol" Accessed: 13 Sep 2011. (updated March 25, 2011)
First Candle "Surviving Stillbirth" 8 Jul 2011. Accessed: 13 Sep 2011.
International Stillbirth Alliance http://www.stillbirthalliance.org/index.php Accessed: 13 Sep 2011.
Varney, H., Kriebs, J., et al. Varney's Midwifery, Fourth Edition. 2003.
Wisconsin Stillbirth Support Program. "When the Least Expected Happens" Accessed: 13 Sep 2011.