Pregnancy is a time of great excitement and change. There is so much to look forward to when anticipating a new life. For this reason, the loss of a pregnancy is often heartbreaking, especially for the infant’s parents. In this article, we hope to provide important information to help you understand perinatal loss, as well as helpful sources to lead you towards healing during this most difficult time.
What is Perinatal Loss?
Perinatal loss is the death of an infant during pregnancy or soon thereafter. There are several different kinds of perinatal loss, including miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death.
Miscarriage, also known as spontaneous abortion, is defined as the body’s natural termination of pregnancy before 20 weeks gestation. It is the most common form of perinatal loss. Most miscarriages occur within the first 13 weeks. Many happen before the woman even realizes that she is pregnant.5
Miscarriages can occur for a variety of reasons. Most commonly they are caused by fetal chromosomal abnormalities.2 Chances of miscarriage go down drastically after the first trimester is completed.
A stillbirth is a fetal death that occurs after 20 weeks gestation. Neonatal death occurs when an infant dies within 28 days following a live birth. These deaths can be due to a variety of medical complications.
The Pain of Perinatal Loss
It is natural to feel bombarded by mixed emotions when you receive the news that your infant has not survived. Understand that there is no right or wrong way to feel. There are no “shoulds.”
You may experience feelings of extreme sadness and loss. You may feel cheated or betrayed, or that something is wrong with you. Perhaps you are struggling to make meaning of your loss.
This is your time to come to grips with the unexpected. The pain isn’t going to go away immediately. The memory of this experience will linger, but try to have courage and faith that over time heartache associated with it will lessen somewhat.
Taking Time to Grieve
At this stage of your life, it is important that you allow yourself to mourn. Take as much time as you need. Let it happen in your own way and on your own timeline.7
One of the most helpful things you can have at this time is a strong network of support. Try to reach out to friends and family. Talk to them about your feelings. Do not be afraid to ask them for help if you need it.4
Keep in mind that others may not understand the magnitude of this loss. Consider explaining the significance of the loss to those around you. Communicating with them can help them sympathize and become better able to support you in the way that you need to be supported.
Strengthening Your Relationship with Your Partner
In hard times like these, it can be difficult to cope alone. You may find that the experience brings you closer to your spouse or partner. You may also find that the pain drives each of you to seek alone time and that you feel yourselves growing distant and apart.
One challenge of perinatal loss is the realization that you and your partner are grieving in different ways.1 Do not let this difference in mourning styles discourage you from attempting to communicate with one another. Remember, your partner is hurting, too. Take turns talking to each other about how you are feeling. Support each other.
The Importance of Rituals
Birth, marriage, and other cultural rites of passage are important life transitions. Death is no exception. Experts agree that active participation in the grieving process is the best way to cope with the loss of a loved one.3 Rituals are effective tools you can use to make meaning of your loss. There are many different kinds of rituals. Here are some suggestions for you to consider.
1. Memory boxes
2. Name your baby
3. Come into contact with a higher power
4. Religious rites and practices
5. Cultural and family traditions
6. See, hold, and touch your infant
7. Take photographs
8. Consider a funeral
9. Collect mementos
10. Keep a journal or a blog
Taking Care of Your Body
While you are bereaving, it is important to take care of yourself physically. It may be difficult to think about right now, but good lifestyle choices will help your body to heal, and sometimes the best way to nourish a hurting soul is to take care of the physical needs first. Try to eat nutritious foods and stay active.
Other Sources of Support
There are many websites that offer online communities for those in your same situation. Here are a few for you to try:
Consider meeting with a grief counselor. These professionals are trained to help guide you through this difficult time. We also invite you to visit another article on our website: Making Meaning of Death. This article offers additional information about making meaning of death, including suggestions on how to support grieving children and adults.
If you have been through perinatal loss before, subsequent pregnancies may be worrisome or stressful. Take comfort; the odds are in your favor. As many as 85% of women who have experienced perinatal loss go on to have successful pregnancies.6,5 This means that you have an excellent chance of conceiving again in the future.
Conclusion – Looking Forward to the Future
Perinatal death is tragic, but there are many ways of coping. There is no one method that is perfect for everyone. Your bereavement process can be as unique as you are. We hope that you will be able to find a source of comfort and healing that works best for you and that someday you will be able to face the future with peace and hope.
Written by TaeLynn Johnson, Research Assistant, and reviewed by Lynn Callister, professor in the College of Nursing, and Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Gilbert, K. R. (1996). We've had the same loss, why don't we have the same grief? Loss and differential grief in families. Death Studies, 20, 269-283.
- Gross, D. (2008). Infancy: Development from birth to age 3. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
- Kobler, K, & Kavanaugh, K. (2007). Meaningful moments: the use of ritual in perinatal and pediatric death. The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, 32(5), 288-295.
- March of Dimes Foundation. (2010). Dealing with your grief. Retrieved from http://www.marchofdimes.com/loss_grief.html.
- Petrozza, J. C., & Berin, I. (2011, January 5). Recurrent early pregnancy loss. Retrieved from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/260495-overview.
- Simkin, P., Whalley, J., Keppler, A., Durham, J., & Bolding, A. (2010). Common changes and concerns in pregnancy. Chapter 3 in Pregnancy, childbirth and the newborn: The complete guide (pp. 32-61). New York, NY: Meadowbrook Press.
- Swanson, K. M, Connor, S, Jolley, S. N, Pettinato, M, & Wang, T. (2007). Contexts and evolution of women's responses to miscarriage during the first year of loss. Research in Nursing & Health, 30, 2-16.