After experiencing a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition and the loss of your precious baby, the idea of another pregnancy can bring a mix of emotions. Whether you are just beginning to consider expanding your family or you are currently walking through a pregnancy, we are here to help you navigate the complexities and unique needs of pregnancy after loss.
No matter if you are the mother or father, or this is your first or third pregnancy after loss, your experience matters. You have reached a milestone, bittersweet though it may be. Know that, like grief, pregnancy after loss is a highly individualized experience. Every parent's reaction and process will be different, and each of your pregnancies after the loss of your child will be unique.
Pregnancy after loss is a complicated process because it points to the fact that grief and joy- past and present- are intertwined. Children do not replace children, so of course, you will grieve the child who passed away while celebrating and planning for the child who is coming. You have been changed by your experience, so it makes sense that future pregnancies will be different.
For some families, pregnancy after loss is an encouragement. A beacon of hope for the future. These families may feel confident, trusting, and ready for all that pregnancy after loss brings. For some families, pregnancy after loss is triggering and terrifying. A reminder of all that has happened and all that might happen. For most families, pregnancy after loss is mixture of both. It is a mirror reflecting the past and a window providing glimpses of joy and a future.
There is no right or wrong way to navigate this process, nor is there a way to fully prepare you for this experience, but we want to help you by providing insight into the emotions and challenges of pregnancy after loss. As you live in the tension of grief and joy- already and not yet- we encourage you to be aware of and prepared for fear and anxiety, practice self-care, navigate the complex emotions that will arise, and learn to manage both your own expectations and those of the world around you.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are the most common experiences and topics of discussion during pregnancy after loss. Experiencing fear and anxiety is so normal, valid, and understandable. You are not alone if you are struggling with this aspect of pregnancy after loss. Wrestling with fear and anxiety does not make you less grateful or loving or capable of parenting a child in grief.
Fear and anxiety are different, yet they influence one another. Anxiety is the feeling that arises when a threat is unknown, imagined, or not immediate. It is the feeling that accompanies all the dangers your mind can and does imagine along the way. Fear is the emotional response to a very known and concrete threat, regardless of its rationality or reality in this experience. Fear often causes anxiety, and anxiety, in turn, can cause fear.
You may fear losing this child, too, and that fear can cause anxiety. Anxiety can then manifest itself in physical symptoms like tension in the body, accelerated heart rate, sweating, nausea, and shaking. It can also manifest itself mentally and emotionally through obsessive and unwanted worries and thoughts as well as through crying, anger, or other unexpected emotional reactions. Fear and anxiety in pregnancy after loss are likely different than anything you have experienced in the past because now it comes with trauma. Your anxiety about losing this child is not irrational because it is rooted in fearing what you know and have already experienced. While all logic and reasoning may say there is no reason to fear the loss of this new child, grieving parents know all too well that a baby can die at any time. So, a fear rooted in trauma, and the anxiety, it can cause have to be treated with sensitivity and understanding.
Your fear and anxiety may ebb and flow throughout your pregnancy after loss. Trying to conceive can bring with it many questions and what ifs. Every ache, pain, twinge, movement, and symptom throughout pregnancy can be anxiety-inducing. Delivery and the unknown of a new child can bring with it worries about navigating grief and parenting.
Simply put, you know too much to ever take a healthy pregnancy for granted, yet you know too much to just trust the pregnancy process. Fear and anxiety are normal, but you do not have to be imprisoned by them.
Knowledge is power. It is okay to want information. Research if you want to, but try not to get lost in the overwhelming amount information available to you. The internet is full of worst case scenarios, tragedies, and anxiety-inducing stories. Limit your time, create boundaries, and reduce your exposure to these negative sources of information. As you research, write down your questions and ask them. Do not let your questions consume you. Utilize your network of medical professionals and support people as you process.
Keep a journal. Sometimes just getting your fears and worries out of your head and onto paper can help you process and navigate them. Often times, a worry looks a lot less like a worry when it is committed to paper. Try taking the time to write down one thing each day that you are grateful for. Gratitude journaling is not meant to be a dismissive reminder to be grateful; rather, it can help you combat fear and anxiety by pointing out the positives you may have missed in the fog of grief.
Problem solve your worries. It can be challenging to not focus on worries or statistics, even when the realities and numbers really are in your favor. In light of your experiences, even a possibility or a one percent chance feels too high. So, as the worries arise, do not dismiss or judge them. Problem solve them. Ask yourself if there is something that you can do about that worry right now or sometime in the next week. If yes, make a list of actions or steps you can take towards solving that worry. If not, write down the worry in your journal or voice it to your significant other, doctor, or support system. Ask for their insight. Listen to their wisdom and thoughts. If no solution to the worry arises, practice some relaxation techniques to help reduce your anxiety.
Practice self-care. Recognize that you have been through a trauma in past, and this pregnancy will likely trigger grief and other complex emotions. As your fear and anxiety arise, acknowledge and validate them. Write down a list of activities you enjoy or things that help you relax because a healthy practice of self-care can help you find peace, balance, and focus on the present throughout pregnancy after loss.
The greatest act of self-care is being patient with yourself and your significant other. Hold space for each other's emotions and experiences. Encourage and allow your significant other to share vulnerably with you. Seek to understand how they are feeling and the emotions they are processing. Your individual self-care is invaluable and should be prioritized while the two of you discuss becoming pregnant, try to conceive, experience pregnancy, or navigate the postpartum period of pregnancy after loss.
It is okay to need further support than what you can provide to yourself or your significant other can offer. There is a beauty and gift in the fact that specialized support exists for grieving families. There are counselors and support groups specifically designed for your unique needs, and there is nothing wrong with utilizing those resources. Connecting with other parents who have navigated both loss and pregnancy after loss can be tremendously helpful, too. A simple "me too" can serve as support, validation, and encouragement when it feels like the rest of the world cannot possibly understand the magnitude and nuance of your grief, love, and hope. Reach out. Talk. Listen.
Self-care can also look like purposefully managing your time to allow for balance. Life's responsibilities can feel overwhelming in this season, so balance work, bills, and medical appointments with something fun, light, and distracting like going to a movie, having dinner with a friend, or engaging in your favorite hobby.
Self-care is also about ensuring your physical needs are met. A healthy diet, regular exercise of some form-even if it is just going for a walk- and prioritizing sleep are important for both you and your significant other. This process is more like marathon than a sprint, and there will be emotional, physical, spiritual, and social challenges. So, a comprehensive practice of self-care is important. For more specific information about emotional, physical, spiritual, and social self-care, read our post found here.
Prioritizing intentional time with your family is also a form of self-care. Go on dates with your significant other. Find ways to bond with the new little life yet to be born. Connect with your living children. Carve out time to grieve and honor your precious son or daughter who passed away.
The sole purpose of self-care is to meet yourself where you are. It is not about placing expectations or changing emotions. It is a tool to help you take this process day-by-day. It is one of the best ways to ground you in the present, even when that entirely impossible. It can be so hard to not be consumed by the experiences of the past and the fears for the future. So, when you place your hand on your growing child, go for a walk with your significant other, talk about your experience, engage in an activity you enjoy, or spend intentional time with those you love, you draw your focus to the present, even if only for a moment.
Pregnancy after loss is an "and" not an "or" experience. It is not grief or joy. It is grief and joy. As often as the world might tell you so, or as much as you might sometimes wish it so, pregnancy after loss is not a cure for grief. It does not erase the pain, just as the grief does not diminish the joy of a new child. There is complexity and nuance to the emotions that come with a subsequent pregnancy, and the only way to truly navigate these emotions is to embrace and process them as they come.
You may feel a wide range of emotions- everything from shock and numbness, a sense of being overwhelmed and out of control, anger, blame, guilt, or shame, anxiety, loneliness and avoidance, yearning for the child who died, sorrow, and even hope, joy, and peace. These emotions will likely not be surprising to you because you navigated them during your carrying to term and grieving experience. What may be surprising is how similarly or differently they manifest during this new season.
Remember that emotions are not moralistic. They are not right or wrong. They just are. Often, they are unpredictable, so the best thing you can do is hold space for them, process through them, and give yourself patience and understanding. The same applies to your significant other. Give them the freedom and permission to not judge their own emotions or hide them from you. Support one another as you navigate this complicated experience. Grieve together. Celebrate together.
Like with fear and anxiety, your emotions will ebb and flow throughout pregnancy after loss. Reaching milestones can be both triggering and a source of comfort. Whether it is getting the all-clear from your genetic testing, reaching a new trimester, making it to viability, getting good news at the anatomy scan, approaching delivery, giving birth, or going home, each of these events comes with past and present, grief and joy.
It is important to know that these complicated emotions do not just end because you have a baby in your arms. Children do not replace children, so if you go home with a precious new baby and feel overcome with the weight of the one who is not here, you are not failing as a parent. You have room in your heart for both: the child you grieve and the child you hold. Be patient with yourself as you adjust to parenting after loss. You will get better at navigating complex emotions. It just takes time, so be patient and meet yourself where you are.
An expectation is the belief that someone should be a certain way or do and say certain things. Expectations- whether they are the ones you place on yourself or the ones the world places on you- have no place in grief or pregnancy after loss.
It is easy and tempting to place expectations on your own grief. You may see how someone else is grieving and then believe that you are somehow wrong or less than as a result. Be gentle with yourself. You are human; a grieving human. You are not perfect, so do not expect yourself to be. You can only be where you are, each day, so do not place expectations on how you are supposed to feel or how pregnancy after loss is supposed to be. This is a day-by-day process. Some days, you may be consumed by thoughts of the child you lost, overcome with grief. Other days, your grief may be secondary to the joy and anticipation of the child who is coming. So, instead of expecting yourself to be different or further along in the process, appreciate where you are now and how far you have come.
In the same way that you place expectations on yourself, the world around you will do the same. They will see a growing belly and expect that you are better- back to normal. They may question why you still grieve or wrestle with all that you have lost. They will mistakenly assume that the weight of this new baby lessens the heaviness of empty arms. They expect these things because they do not- and cannot- understand the wholly consuming nature of losing a child.
Do not let misguided expectations dictate anything about your pregnancy after loss experience. You have the full freedom to grieve and feel however you grieve and feel during this time. It truly is a beautiful and broken experience.