Updated: Nov 11, 2020
This post was waiting for a long time to be written, because thinking about stillbirth evokes strong emotions inside of me. It is released on October 15th - The pregnancy and infant loss awareness day (miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss). I will focus on stillbirth, since it is even nowadays quite a taboo, therefore it is still very important to raise awareness about it.
First, statistics. Unfortunately, the loss of a baby during late pregnancy remains a sad reality for many families. A stillbirth occurs every 16 seconds somewhere in the world. This means that every year, about 2 million babies are stillborn – a loss that reaches far beyond the loss of life. Not only do women and their families have to endure the sadness and grief, the stillbirth has also a long-lasting traumatic impact on them and more attention needs to be paid to the trauma of the experience.
Second, medical professionals and mental health practitioners. You should be very mindful of your verbal and non-verbal communication with the parents. Remember that your words and facial expression will imprint in the parents' nervous systems and it will tear their hearts in thousand pieces. It is tremendously important how you deliver the devastating news to the parents, hence educate yourself, refine your social skills and build your empathy.
You also need to pay closer attention in the aftermath of late pregnancy loss. Many women are highly vulnerable and meet the criteria for PTSD. Stillbirth is a trauma and should be treated as a trauma. Women should be screened for depression and PTSD as soon as possible in the maternity ward at the hospital, proceeded by multidisciplinary support quickly and not wait until the symptoms are more pronounced. It is crucial the mental health support is provided promptly after the loss, since some women also face suicidal tendencies as they want to join their child in the afterlife, where they can be together again, for this loss often feels unbearable. Mental health practitioners should also look for feelings of guilt and shame in women, especially when the cause of child's death is unknown, which is quite often. If this is the case, many women tend to seek causes for child's death in their own past behavior – »Is it because that movement I did, that food I ate, that argument I had, that negative thought in my head…? Or was it something I hadn't done, but should have?« The feeling of shame can also emerge due to internalized society's expectations and pressures on women to be able to carry a healthy child into this world. Otherwise, you as a woman are defected. Oftentimes anger, rage or even hostility towards other pregnant women or mothers of healthy children simmer inside. Mental health practitiones and medical professionals should normalize those emotions as it can be quite frightening for a person to experience it.
Since parents often search for answers, it is overly important for medical professionals to provide parents sufficient, adequate information about post-mortem and consent procedures, followed by the exact steps they need to undertake in order to receive the results of child's post-mortem examination, if that is their need or desire. Getting the results of post-mortem can help to make a closure and continue with the bereavement process at greater peace.
Third, kins and friends. Your role is of such importance throughout the pregnancy and even more so in the aftermath of pregnancy loss. I know and understand that many friends and relatives are lost, don't know how to behave and what to say to the grieving parents. The worst thing to say to the parents is that they will have another baby and they should move on and forget about it. It is so dehumanizing and shoots another poisonous arrow in the already aching heart of a parent. Another words you should better avoid are »It will get better with time«. Although this is mostly true, it doesn't help to hear. It is almost as if you were saying »You don't have the right to grieve.« But parents of a stillborn child have each and every right to grieve. In fact, it is necessary for them to grieve. Even though it can be tough for close ones as well, just try to be there for parents, put your discomfort and blend of emotions aside, and just be there even in complete silence. Express your feelings of sorrow, ask them if they need anything, ask them if they want to talk about the loss or rather stay in the quietude and most importantly don't try to pretend as if it never happened. Do know that most women want to talk about their lost child, the whole experience and twirl of emotions. It is wounding the parent when friends and family don't reach out and alienate themselves out of their discomfort. Acknowledge the existence of their child. Acknowledge the parenthood of parents. Remember the date of stillbirth and express your kind thoughts on the anniversaries as you would if the child was still alive. Ask the parents if you can visit the grave of a child or if you can accompany them visiting the grave. Every little attention you pay to the lost child will ignite such an appreciation in the heart of a parent.
Fourth, parents. Since experiencing stillbirth is traumatizing and depleting I highly recommend you seek a professional help. It is also advisable to find a local support group and/or join on-line community. Nevertheless, what I consider to be the most healing is to find the meaning and purpose of this experience on a deeper, spiritual level. Logical and analytical reasoning usually doesn't help and only makes things worse or perpetuate them. I truly wish you from the bottom of my heart to find the meaning of this process and not hold the blame or guilt in your heart. It is of utmost importance to embrace yourself with loving kindness and compassion. Find what is nourishing and soothing for your soul and bath in it as often as you can. Know that it takes time to process everything you have been through and recover. Self-care is not selfish, but very much needed to build emotional strength and reset, be it a walk in the forest, gardening, writing, cuddling with your pet, meditation, art work, dance, playing instrument, warm bath… Ask for help and communicate your needs to others. Even though it is tremendously hard to see anything to be grateful for after such a traumatic loss, it can be really healing and transformative to begin doing gratitude list every day. Start shortly and gradually the list will become longer and longer as will your strength and peace. I hope there comes a moment when you will realize you can be grateful even for this traumatizing experience and will be able to transform it in your personal growth.
Although I am a psychologist/psychotherapist, these paragraphs were written primarily from a perspective of me being a mother of a stillborn son.
Feel free to contact me for further information or advice.
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