Communication in relationships, even in the best of circumstances, is a skill that takes practice, patience, and a willingness to listen and learn. Conflict in relationships often stems from a breakdown in communication, and stressful, new, or complicated events or circumstances can certainly lead to a breakdown in communication.
Receiving the news that your unborn baby has a life-limiting condition is a stressful, new, and complicated circumstance. Navigating pregnancy continuation and the emotions and decisions that come with that process is a stressful, new, and complicated circumstance. Facing the death of your baby and the grief you will carry throughout your life as a result is a stressful, new, and complicated circumstance, to put it lightly. What you and your significant other are experiencing is not an easy process, so it makes sense that you might experience some breakdowns in communication and, as a result, some conflicts.
Good communication requires the effort and participation of both parties in a relationship. While the information in this post is written with men in mind, this post is designed to speak to the elements of healthy communication, advice for communicating in grief, and the importance of communication throughout this experience. As such, this post is beneficial for both men and women as they navigate pregnancy continuation and the loss of a baby within the context of a relationship.
Men, this post is written for you, not because you are incapable of communicating with your significant other. This post is designed to give you practical advice on something you can do to ensure that this process is not harder than it already has to be. Here you will find practical advice to help you feel prepared to acknowledge and navigate your own grief, acknowledge and seek to understand your significant other’s grief, and start the process of communicating needs.
Grief is a unique experience, and no two people, not even the mother and father of the baby, will experience this process and grief in the same way. You and your significant other are different for a reason. Your differences are likely what drew you to one another and have made for an exciting, interesting, and enduring relationship. Grief has a way of highlighting differences, so it is important to remember the value in being different, having unique experiences, and expressing emotions in individual ways. Those differences, if you let them, are what will shape, grow, and change your relationship into something strong, beautiful, and lasting.
As you navigate diagnosis, pregnancy, delivery, and life after loss, it is important that you acknowledge your experience, be vulnerable, redefine intimacy, compromise, and lean in. These are the elements and foundations of healthy communication throughout this process. Ignoring or avoiding any of these elements can lead to a breakdown of communication, a sense of isolation between you and your significant other, and ultimately, conflict. Men, while you may not be able to do anything to change the diagnosis and prognosis or ease the physical and emotional burden off of your significant other, you have the ability to support your significant other through emotional leadership.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR EXPERIENCE
As the father, it can be easy to believe that you have less of a right to experience grief or when you do experience grief, it has to be less intense and set aside at times to accommodate the grief and needs of your significant other. You have every right to grieve freely, openly, and intensely. You have every right to experience the weight of the diagnosis, the process, and the loss of your child and work through the complicated emotions that come with these experiences. Your family will not be irrevocably damaged or fall apart to the point of no coming back if you do. It is incredibly important that you, personally, take the time to acknowledge your feelings, thoughts, desires, and needs. This is your experience, too. This is your child, too.
While you do not get the experience of carrying or birthing this baby, you are as much of a parent as your significant other. Make a point to communicate with your significant other following diagnosis, throughout pregnancy, and in life after loss.
Part of good communication in this process is understanding your own experience. How are you coping with and processing the diagnosis and all that you have learned? What questions do you have? What feelings are your struggling with? Do you feel helpless? Do you feel the urge to do something- anything- to fix this? Are you angry? Are you numb? All of these emotions are completely normal, valid, and understandable. Communicate them. Express how you are feeling and allow your significant other to help you process and bear the weight of this experience, in the same way you are offering that support to her.
What is the pregnancy experience like for you? What memories do you want to make? What do you need to do to feel bonded to your child? What do you need to survive this pregnancy experience? What gives you joy throughout this process? Communicate the answers to these questions to your significant other. The moments that have brought you joy and connection with your baby, your significant other, and your family as a whole are worthy of being shared and remembered. They are a point of connection between the two of you as a couple. This is a shared experience, so enter in and communicate throughout the process.
What do you envision the labor and delivery experience being like? Is there anything in particular that you want to happen like catching the baby, cutting the cord, helping with handprints and footprints, or spending time holding your significant other and baby? As you and your significant other work together to create a birth plan and outline the experiences you wish to have in the delivery room, voice your needs and wants. Let this be an experience that brings you two closer together. Being present in these moments is a priceless gift- to yourself, your significant other, and your baby.
What do you anticipate needing after the loss of your baby? Do you want to take extended time off of work, or would returning to work help you cope and process? What support do you anticipate needing from family and friends? How do you expect to navigate grief? Are you an internal or external processor? How do you anticipate your significant other navigating grief? How can you support those needs without losing sight of your own?
You are not solely responsible for keeping your family’s heads above water after the death of your baby. You are not the only person standing between your family and the full weight of grief. Grief is coming whether or not you prepare for it. Grief is coming whether or not you acknowledge it. You cannot outrun, outwork, or outwill grief. The only way out of grief is through it. The longer you avoid it, the more complicated it becomes. The longer you fight it, the more complicated your relationships will be. Grief demands to be met, experienced, and worked through. Only you can make the decision to accept it as it comes, navigate its challenges, and work to live a full life in light of it.
Being vulnerable is a choice. It is a choice to open yourself up and feel. Choosing to continue a pregnancy despite a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition is a tremendous act of vulnerability. You and your significant other have chosen to open your hearts to a love like no other. A love so intense that it will threaten to break you both. This kind of love is a risk because your hearts are on the line. Vulnerability is not weakness; it is a strength that has no match. There is no one stronger than a parent who says yes to carrying to term. You have chosen life, no matter how brief, knowing that you will navigate the worst pain a person can experience.
So, never believe the lie that vulnerability is weakness. Your grief- and yes, even your tears- is a tremendous sign of strength because it is the picture of love. Vulnerability, like emotions, is neither good nor bad. It is neutral. Vulnerability and emotions are a part of life; the part of life that lets you experience beauty, joy, purpose, and meaning.
Being impenetrable- without any vulnerability- would mean living a life devoid of learning, growing, feeling, or being understood. We learn by putting ourselves out there, risking failure or disappointment. We grow by taking chances and learning from our own experiences and those of others. We feel by letting the world around us in and have an impact on us. We are understood as unique individuals only when we allow others to know us by opening up about our experiences and emotions.
Brené Brown, a research professor and author, wrote this about vulnerability in her book Daring Greatly:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. . . I know this is hard to believe, especially when we’ve spent our lives thinking that vulnerability and weakness are synonymous, but it’s true. I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
It starts to make sense that we dismiss vulnerability as weakness only when we realize that we’ve confused feeling with failing and emotions with liabilities. If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it.”
So, men, embrace the act of vulnerability. Make the choice to not only acknowledge your experience but also to share it with your significant other. Make a point to try to explain how you are feeling and what you are thinking throughout this process. You do not have to be an expert with a high emotional intelligence. You do not have to be an external processor. Simply, be vulnerable enough to put words to your experiences and your emotions, knowing that it means emotional exposure. Grief is a raw experience. There is nothing easy about it, but it is not an experience that you have to navigate alone or simply power through.
Being vulnerable is a source of connection. It is a powerful tool for communication in a relationship, especially one that has been turned upside by a grief of this magnitude.
Because grief is a different experience for each individual, it helps when each person can understand how the other is grieving. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, so you do not have to hide it or justify it or change it. You simply have to communicate it. It helps your significant other to know that, while your grief may not look like hers or your grief may not look how she expects or wants it to, you are still grieving.
It helps her to know that you need to compartmentalize your grief while you are at work or while you are handling other aspects of your family and life. It helps her to know that you need to do something or accomplish something or handle something to feel some semblance of control or usefulness. It helps her to know that while you may not need to talk about the experience as frequently, you are still thinking about your baby, what you have been through, and the grief you are still feeling.
The quickest way to miscommunicate and pave the way for conflict in a relationship, particularly one affected by grief, is to assume that you know what your significant other needs and is feeling, assume that your significant other knows what you need and are feeling, and to have expectations based on those assumptions.
Create a safe space for open communication by being the one to start the conversation. Lead and support your significant other by being vulnerable and sharing your needs, experiences, and emotions. Let your significant other know what grief looks like for you. Ask questions and hold space for your significant other to express her needs, experiences, emotions, and expression of grief.
With a new understanding of vulnerability, and hopefully a new willingness to be vulnerable, it is time to redefine intimacy in light of the diagnosis, pregnancy, and loss. The simplest definition of intimacy is closeness and familiarity. As one half of a couple, you have already experienced intimacy in your relationship. Intimacy has looked like a deep familiarity with your significant other. You know her quirks, preferences, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. You know her. Likely better than anyone else.
Intimacy has looked like intimate acts, be them physical, emotional, or spiritual. You engage with each other in ways that feel safe, tender, and intimate because they belong only to the two of you. Intimacy is the foundation of a healthy and functioning relationship and the communication between two people.
Intimacy is not an overnight process. It grows from experience, time, and a conscious decision to enter in and be present. Intimacy can be strengthened or weakened over the course of a relationship, and loss and grief can have a huge impact on the intimacy experienced between two people.
The loss of a child is a pain that has no comparison. There is no preparing you for this experience, and there is no truly getting over the pain of a loss of this magnitude. As a result, you will be changed and so will your significant other. When people change, intimacy changes. You will have to make the choice to redefine what intimacy means for you, relearn what intimacy means for her, and then rebuild the intimacy in your relationship.
So, what does intimacy look like for you? Is it emotional, physical, or both? What makes you feel the most connected to your significant other? When do you feel the most yourself? When do you feel the most seen, understood, and valued?
What does intimacy look like for your significant other? Is it emotional, physical, or both? What makes her feel the most connected to you? What makes her feel the most herself? When does she feel the most seen, understood, and valued?
Take a few moments to answer these questions about yourself and your significant other, and then start this conversation with her. Ask her to answer the same questions about you and herself. Where do your answers align and where do they differ? How have the two of you changed since the diagnosis? How are you changing throughout the pregnancy? Have did the birth and time with your baby change you both? How has grief shaped your lives after loss? Ask these questions often, especially as you enter into new seasons in this process. Redefine, relearn, and rebuild constantly.
The key to intimacy in a season of grief is open and honest communication, even when it might feel uncomfortable. Talking about intimacy can feel vulnerable, but it is always worth the risk. Give each other the space to articulate your needs for intimacy. Listen intently when your significant other shares her fears or reservations about emotional or physical acts of intimacy. Be open about your own fears or reservations.
For example, physical intimacy can be emotionally complicated and challenging for women after the loss of a baby. She is navigating hormonal changes, physical recovery, the consuming nature of grief, and potentially, the very real anxiety and fear of getting pregnant again. It may take a long time before she is ready for physical intimacy again. She may need to rebuild emotional intimacy with you before she is ready for physical intimacy.
You may find that physical intimacy is how you need to connect right now. She may feel distant and different than before, and that may feel disconcerting. The desire to connect physically and feel that closeness is not bad or wrong. You should absolutely communicate not only your need for physical intimacy but also the reasons behind that desire. Sharing that physical intimacy makes you feel close, connected, safe, needed, and understood is emotional intimacy. You are opening up and being vulnerable, and that builds emotional intimacy between two people.
Meeting needs is about more than just meeting the surface need. It is about understanding and communicating the why behind the need. Ultimately, both you and your significant other are looking for ways to connect, feel seen and understood, feel in control, feel a semblance of normalcy and happiness, and feel secure in your relationship with one another. Loss has a way of permeating all aspects of life and create new fears, anxieties, and questions. When you and your significant other can connect and openly communicate how you are feeling, what you are experiencing, and what you need and why, you create the intimacy necessary to truly understand and meet each other’s needs.
Fundamentally, intimacy is about closeness, and grief, unfortunately, has a tendency to isolate. Intimacy truly is a powerful weapon against the potentially divisive and damaging nature of grief. When you acknowledge and accept that grief is a complicated and overwhelming experience- one that cannot be ignored, overlooked, or dismissed- you can then choose how you let grief affect you and your relationship. When you fight for intimacy in grief, you take something broken, and you use it to create resiliency, courage, strength, and beauty.
Anyone who has been in a relationship for any extended period of time has experienced compromise. Healthy and enduring relationships require compromise at times. A compromise is something that two people agree upon after each taking a moment to identify their own wants, listening to the other person’s wants, and then making a mutual decision to change or give up something in order to both be happy.
Compromise is a necessary part of the grieving process for couples who lose a baby. You are two different people with different personalities, needs, and even different and individual experiences within the shared experience of receiving the diagnosis, continuing the pregnancy, and navigating the loss. Compromise, while aimed at meeting each other halfway, sometimes requires one person to sacrifice more than the other. When emotions are high due to stressful situations like the ones you are navigating, it can be difficult to see how a compromise can be reached, especially when your needs and your significant other’s needs fall on opposite ends of the spectrum.
When you are navigating a situation that might require compromise throughout this process, try using this practical exercise: Rank your feelings about the situation and your preferred solution on a scale from 1 to 10. Have your significant other rank her feelings about the situation and her preferred solution on a scale from 1 to 10. Where do you each rank?
If you are a 3, meaning that the intensity of your feelings about said situation and your preferred solution is fairly low, and your significant other is a 10 in the intensity of her feelings, the logical compromise is to defer to your significant other’s feelings and preferences. If both of your feelings rank with an intensity of an 8, 9, or 10, a true compromise is required.
For example, if your significant other is a 10 in the intensity of her need to talk about the experience repeatedly, externally process her feelings, and navigate her grief vocally with you, and you are a 10 in the intensity of your need to not talk about the experience, internally process your own feelings, and not navigate your grief vocally, you two need to reach a compromise that does not result in one person being totally overlooked or in the position to sacrifice their needs.
Compromise is about not falling on your sword unnecessarily. Compromise is not about elevating your own needs to the point that you disregard your significant other’s needs.
In the example above, a compromise could be reached by having an open and honest conversation about each of your needs and the why behind them.
Why does your significant other need to externally process? Does it help her remember? Does it help her reconcile the reality of the experience with the surreal nature of it all? Does it help her understand her own feelings and come to terms with what she has experienced? Does it help her feel connected, close, and a level of intimacy with you?
Why do you need to internally process? Does it help you cope to compartmentalize? Is it painful to relive the experience? Are you struggling to articulate your emotions? Do you feel like you have to be strong, so that your significant other can have the freedom to grieve as she needs to? Are you avoiding your grief?
When, and only when, you understand the why behind the intensity of the feelings and needs can you begin to work towards a compromise that allows both sets of needs to be met.
When you understand the why in the example above, maybe the solution is that your significant other reaches out and finds some peer-to-peer support. Talking to other mothers may help her feel understood in a way she cannot be understood by you. She may also benefit from talking with a professional who specializes in supporting grieving parents. A professional counselor can provide her with tools to cope, navigate her emotions, communicate, and balance her grief with life after loss. Having outside support does not mean that she can no longer talk and process with you. You are the only other person who truly understands her experience and the magnitude of her loss. Part of the compromise is that you are there to help her process and that you share your own experience of grief and express your emotions.
For you, maybe the compromise looks like needing to create boundaries around when you are able to talk about your shared experience. Expressing that you need to focus work while at work is not a bad boundary. If your significant other does attend counseling, consider attending with her occasionally. Counseling can be a powerful tool for healthy communication, putting words to difficult experiences and emotions, and helping two people reach a compromise.
Just as with intimacy and vulnerability, compromise is a weapon against the divisive and isolating nature of grief. Being willing to engage your significant other in an open and honest discussion about needs, truly listening and desiring to meet those needs, acknowledging and valuing your own needs, and then working together to find a compromise that suits both of you and promotes healthy individual and collective grieving is how couples successfully navigate a loss of this magnitude. This is how you move from grieving to surviving to living to thriving.
When you lean in to this experience, you move toward it. It is the conscious decision to be present, accept it as it comes, and experience every aspect of it. Leaning in is the opposite of avoiding, dismissing, or ignoring.
This experience is hard. There is no sugarcoating the realities of receiving a prenatal diagnosis and facing the loss of a child. This process will be hard, but you have the power to avoid making it more difficult than it has to be.
When you choose to lean in and accept grief for what it is, rather than fighting it or avoiding it, you are making a choice to not make this process harder. When you acknowledge and embrace that you and your significant other will grief differently, you are opening the door to healthy communication, vulnerability, intimacy, and you are laying the foundation for a strong, resilient relationship. When you lean in and wrestle with your own experience and emotions, you are validating yourself and your significant other. Leaning in means recognizing who you both are and what you both need and then working towards finding ways to support each other.
Grief changes you at the core. Losing a child is life-altering, but it is not the end of the story. This loss does not sentence you to a life without joy or to a life without the person you initially fell in love with. While grief will change you and your significant other, grief will not be what causes miscommunications, disappointments, or an irrevocable break in your relationship. Miscommunication, disappointments, and damaged relationships are the product of isolating from one another, placing expectations on each other’s grief, holding each other to the standards of your own experience and needs, and ultimately, the choice to not lean in, relearn, and grow together in the aftermath.