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SELF-CARE IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS NOR IS IT A SIGN OF FORGETTING AND MOVING ON. IT IS SIMPLY A WAY TO HONOR THE EXPERIENCE YOU HAVE BEEN THROUGH AND THE NEW LITTLE LIFE YOU CREATED.
It is a way of saying that you are important and worthy even in the darkest and most difficult experience of your life. A tragedy happened. A tragedy interspersed with beautiful moments and memories that you will carry all of your life. But, to be able to carry that well and to reframe the trauma into something resembling good memories, you have to care for yourself during pregnancy and in the trenches of grief and loss.
The world after a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis and after the loss of a baby or babies is full of triggers. Unfortunately, there is no escaping them. You will inevitably feel triggered by something, and it will render you into a state of grief again and again and again. The benefit of having a solid practice of self-care is that you will know how to handle the feelings that come when you are triggered. You will know how to care well for yourself and your significant other in those moments.
“Self-care comes in many forms, and it looks different for every person. It even looks different depending on the needs of the moment.”
Self-care is exceptionally important for those of you who have to go back to work or parent living children following your diagnosis and your loss. In normal circumstances, work and parenting can be exhausting and draining and stressful. Add a component of trauma and grief, and you can expect to feel stressed, tired, and overwhelmed. Self-care is vital to functioning in the world as a parent who has lost a child.
Self-care comes in many forms, and it looks different for every person. It even looks different depending on the needs of the moment. The four main categories of self-care are emotional, physical, spiritual, and social, and each one comes with many practical ways to incorporate them into your life. It is important to adopt a self-care practice in each area because when one aspect of your being is taxed or overstressed, those effects will seep into other areas of your life. If you are running yourself ragged physically, you are going to feel emotionally drained, spiritually depleted, and socially overwhelmed.
The most important area of self-care is emotional. This entire process will, at times, seem impossible to handle. It will seem too difficult to imagine, too hard to survive, and too devastating to come back from. As much as it might not seem like this is true, you can and will survive this. You will not be the same as you were before, but you will come out the other side of it.
To get there, though, you have to take care of your emotional health, and that starts by having grace and understanding for yourself. From the day of diagnosis, your life looks different. You cannot expect yourself to manage all the things you did before with the same level of ease, skill, or accomplishment. Lower the expectations on yourself and let go of the illusion of perfection. Extend the same grace and understanding to your significant other because they are not the same either.
“Honor and welcome your feelings as they come. It takes more energy and effort to keep unwelcome emotions at bay than it does to just feel them.”
It is important to prioritize your time. If there is anything that you can offload to your social support network, do it. Say no to things that do not matter right now, that take time away from your family, and cause you distress. Shift your priorities to include making the most of the time you have with your baby or babies. Everything else can wait. Make sure to find time for yourself somewhere in the mix of information overload, memory-making, and planning for the future.
Honor and welcome your feelings as they come. It takes more energy and effort to keep unwelcome emotions at bay than it does to just feel them. It is okay to be sad or angry or laugh at something funny. Your emotions may not make sense to you, and you may not feel like you have the right to laugh or feel happy for a moment. But, the truth is that feelings are not moralistic. They are not good or bad, right or wrong. They just are. They are an expression of your circumstances. Feel them. Write them down as a way to process, and eventually, as a window into what this experience was like for you years down the road.
The carrying-to-term journey is bound to be emotionally overwhelming so consider finding specialized emotional support in the form of individual or couple’s counseling and/or support groups. Talk therapy can be incredibly healing and supportive.
Pregnancy, labor, and delivery outside of grief are exhausting and physically challenging. Grief, outside of pregnancy and delivery, can be physically draining. So, it makes sense that carrying a pregnancy to term and grieving the loss of your baby or babies would have an effect on your physical well-being. For this reason, having an established self-care practice for the physical needs of pregnancy and then the postpartum bereavement period is healthy and important.
Both men and women should listen to their body following the prenatal diagnosis all the way through the bereavement period. There can be a tendency or desire to simply put your head down and run towards the finish line. For the pregnant woman, this can look like only caring about and for the needs of her baby or babies. For her significant other, this can look like only caring about the mother and baby’s needs. Operating in this way long term will only lead to burnout. Your bodies need rest and care in order to operate to the best of their ability.
So, if your body is telling you to rest, rest. If your body is telling you to eat or exercise, do it. As much as the mind can hold on to trauma, so can the body. Pampering yourself with massages, finding downtime to read or watch television, eating a healthy meal, going for a walk, or responding to any other cues your body may give is critical. A well-cared-for physical self makes for a more emotionally balanced self.
After delivery, you will experience the hormonal, emotional, and physical effects of childbirth. It is important to listen to your doctor and take it easy. You may have unwelcome physical effects like your milk coming in. If that happens, talk to your doctor about your options for either ceasing lactation or pumping and donating your milk.
“There can be a tendency or desire to simply put your head down and run towards the finish line. For the pregnant woman, this can look like only caring about and for the needs of her baby or babies. For her significant other, this can look like only caring about the mother and baby’s needs.”
Another area of physical self-care is honoring the new behaviors that may come as a result of this experience. You may find yourself needing to nest or nurture your baby by making memories during pregnancy. Honor those desires. The feeling of empty arms is a very real and powerful phenomenon. As a result, you may find yourself needing to hold a stuffed animal or other mementos for hours on end. You may find yourself needing to lie on the floor of the nursery or spend a day in bed. These are normal physical expressions of grief. Allow yourself to do them without judgment.
As a woman, your body has spent months preparing to mother a new little life. So, it makes sense, that in the aftermath of diagnosis and loss, your body would still long to mother your baby or babies. As a man, you have been preparing to care for your significant other and child, so it makes sense that you would have the physical longing to do something to fix what has happened. Since there is no changing your circumstances, the best way to honor your baby or babies is to care well for you and your significant other.
If you do not practice a specific faith, spiritual self-care may not be applicable to you or look different than emotional or physical self-care. This category of self-care is being included for men and women who already have an established practice of faith prior to or have an interest in finding faith in the wake of diagnosis.
According to a Duke University study on the psychological effects of loss in cases of prenatal diagnoses of life-limiting conditions and carrying to term, organized religious activity has been shown to help reduce grief in men and women. The study reported findings that as organized religious activity, such as attending church or other religious gatherings increased, the acute levels of grief experienced by fathers and mothers decreased. The study attributes this decrease in grief to the psychosocial support that men and women receive from their faith-based communities.
It is important to note that the increased engagement of spiritual self-care did not show any effect on depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or any other perinatal mood and anxiety disorder. Grief is different from the myriad of mental health issues that men and women can face as a result of a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis. For more specific information on the difference between grief and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, please read our blog post found here.
If you and/or your significant other practice a specific faith, it is equally as important to nurture and meet your spiritual needs as it is for your emotional, physical, and social needs. Attending your regular services or gatherings at your place of worship, engaging in prayer, meditation, holy book study, and continuing attendance at small groups or community gatherings are all ways to care well for your spiritual needs.
If you need more individualized or specific spiritual care, reach out to a spiritual leader at your church or house of faith. Faith-based counseling is another avenue of specialized care for your spiritual and emotional well-being.
Wrestling with issues of faith following a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis, anticipatory grief, and ultimately, loss is completely normal. It makes sense that you might question all that you know and believe about your faith. If you find yourself in this situation, reach out to a trusted member of your faith-based community. Share your doubts, struggles, and questions, and let your community come alongside you.
When life feels overwhelming, it can be hard to know where to begin. In addition to processing the large amount of information you are now familiarizing yourself with, all the questions you have to think through, and all the unwanted planning you are doing, you also have to contend with the barrage of loving and well-meaning people who want to know how to care for you. This can be a challenge because some days you might barely know how to care for yourself let alone how to tell others to care for you. When it comes to social self-care, the name of the game is prioritizing.
As much as it might feel like you have an obligation or responsibility to update your social network or answer every text, phone call, and email, the truth is that your only priority is you, your significant other, any living children, and your precious baby or babies. Give yourself permission and the freedom to say no without guilt. Say no to answering text messages or phone calls if they come at a time when you just cannot deal with them. Say no to attending baby showers, birthday parties, or other social events that take away time from your family or cause you emotional distress. Say no to letting other people make your experiences about them.
“When it comes to social self-care, the name of the game is prioritizing.”
A healthy way to prioritize yourself is to consider a social media edit or blackout. Unfollow people, groups, or pages that may trigger you or cause emotional distress. Turn off social media notifications or even the comment function if you make posts sharing information about your journey. It is okay to unfollow your friend who just announced their new pregnancy or just had a new baby or overshares about their kid or only complains about their life. It does not mean you are not happy for them or lack empathy for their situation. It just means that you are aware of your capacity and your need for boundaries.
Prioritizing yourself and your family does not make you selfish or isolating or rude. It makes you smart and healthy and balanced. Prioritizing yourself does not mean never accepting help or never sharing information about what this journey is like for you and your family. It simply means knowing your limits, establishing boundaries, and having a plan for asking for help from your support network.
Building a support network is a huge avenue of self-care. Trust that the people in your life are going to want to help. The only person who feels like caring for you is a burden is you. People want to feel needed and as though they have a way to help you. There will inevitably be a few people who just want to offer the phrase “I am here if you need me” without following through, and that is okay. Not everyone has the capacity to care for you in this season. For every one person like that, trust that there are a handful of people who genuinely want to step into the trenches with you and help however they can. It is important to note that social support can take several forms, and you will want to be able to call on a few people for each type of social support.
Social support can be broken down into four main types: emotional, peer, informative, and tangible.
Emotional social support looks like people who listen when you need to process or talk about your baby or babies. They are there to remind of you of your strengths when you feel weak and make you feel valued and validated when you feel alone. Emotional social support can come from your significant other, close family members, friends, and community members. Emotional social support can come in a more structured way through individual counseling and/or support groups.
“Trust that the people in your life are going to want to help. The only person who feels like caring for you is a burden is you. People want to feel needed and as though they have a way to help you.”
Peer social support looks like connecting with people who have a similar diagnosis or similar experience. This is a community where you can share your stories and insights into the carrying to term process and the bereavement period. Support groups, online groups, and one-on-one friendships are all examples of peer social support.
Informative social support looks like people or organizations that can provide information, insight, tools, and specialized knowledge for you. Individual counseling, support groups, other loss parents, medical professionals, and organizations like Carrying To Term are all examples of informative social support.
Tangible social support looks like the meeting of practical needs. Things like meals, house cleaning, errands, childcare for living children, financial help, or keeping your community informed. One of the best ways to ensure you have ongoing tangible social support is to designate a point person or people. These are close friends or family members who take on the task of coordinating your tangible social support. Everyone who wants to care for you and your significant other can reach out to that person or people directly.
Keeping these types of social support in mind, who in your life would you trust to come alongside you as you carry to term and transition into bereavement? Make a list and keep this support network as a reference when you need help. Reach out to your tangible support person or people and share with them some ideas of care that might be helpful and then allow them to come alongside you and care for you well. If you are not sure what tangible support you need, I have written a helpful guide for you to share with your friends and family to help them better understand how to care for you. You can find that post here.