Losing a baby during pregnancy or soon after birth is one of the most devastating experiences a parent can face. The grief that follows such a loss can be intense, complex, and long-lasting. It can also affect the parents’ relationship, their family, and their friends. But what exactly causes this grief and how can parents cope with it? In this article, we will explore some of the factors that influence parental grief after fetal death, as well as some of the strategies and resources that can help parents heal.
What is Fetal Death?
Fetal death is the term used to describe the death of a baby in the womb or during delivery. It can occur at any stage of pregnancy, but it is more common in the first trimester (before 13 weeks) or the third trimester (after 28 weeks). Fetal death can be caused by various factors, such as chromosomal abnormalities, infections, placental problems, umbilical cord accidents, maternal health conditions, or trauma. Sometimes, the cause of fetal death remains unknown.
Fetal death can be classified into different types, depending on the gestational age of the baby:
- Miscarriage: The loss of a baby before 20 weeks of pregnancy. It is estimated that about 15% to 20% of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, but the actual rate may be higher as many miscarriages occur before the woman knows she is pregnant.
- Stillbirth: The loss of a baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The rate of stillbirth in Canada is about 6 per 1000 births.
- Neonatal death: The death of a baby within the first 28 days of life. The rate of neonatal death in Canada is about 3 per 1000 live births.
What Causes Parental Grief After Fetal Death?
Parental grief after fetal death is primarily related to the attachment that the parents have formed with their baby, as well as their expectations and hopes for the future. Losing a baby means losing a part of oneself, as well as a potential family member and a lifelong relationship. It also means facing a profound sense of loss, emptiness, and injustice.
Parental grief after fetal death can be influenced by many factors, such as:
- The gestational age and appearance of the baby: The longer the pregnancy lasts and the more developed the baby looks, the stronger the bond and the grief may be.
- The circumstances and cause of the death: The suddenness, unpredictability, and preventability of the death can affect how parents cope with it. Some parents may feel guilty, angry, or responsible for what happened. Some may question their faith or their medical care.
- The gender and name of the baby: Knowing or choosing the gender and name of the baby can make the loss more real and personal for some parents.
- The number and order of pregnancies: Having multiple losses or having no living children can intensify the grief and affect the parents’ sense of identity and purpose.
- The personal and social context: The parents’ personality, coping style, beliefs, values, culture, and religion can shape how they express and process their grief. The support and understanding they receive from their partner, family, friends, health care providers, and community can also make a difference in their recovery.
How Can Parents Cope with Grief After Fetal Death?
There is no right or wrong way to grieve after fetal death. Each parent may experience and express their grief differently and at their own pace. However, there are some general steps that can help parents cope with their loss and heal over time:
- Acknowledge and accept your feelings: Grief can bring a range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, guilt, fear, anxiety, loneliness, numbness, or relief. These feelings are normal and valid. Try not to judge or suppress them. Instead, allow yourself to feel them and express them in healthy ways.
- Seek support from others: You are not alone in your grief. Reach out to your partner, family members, friends, or other people who have gone through a similar loss. Share your thoughts and feelings with them and listen to theirs. You may also benefit from joining a support group or seeking professional counseling.
- Honor your baby and your loss: There are many ways to remember and honor your baby and your loss. You may choose to have a funeral or memorial service for your baby. You may also keep some mementos or create some rituals to commemorate your baby’s life. For example, you may plant a tree or flower in your baby’s name, light a candle on special dates, write a letter or poem to your baby, or donate to a charity in your baby’s memory.
- Take care of yourself: Grief can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Try to eat well, sleep enough, exercise regularly, and avoid alcohol or drugs. Find some activities that bring you joy, comfort, or relaxation. Be gentle and patient with yourself. Give yourself time and space to heal.
- Plan for the future: Losing a baby does not mean losing your future. You can still have hopes and dreams for yourself and your family. You may decide to try for another pregnancy or explore other options to expand your family. You may also pursue other goals or interests that are meaningful to you. Whatever you choose, remember that your baby will always be a part of you and your story.
Where Can Parents Find Support After Fetal Death?
There are many resources and organizations that can provide support and information to parents who have experienced fetal death. Some of them are:
- Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network: A Canadian network that offers peer support, education, and advocacy for families who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss. They also provide training and resources for health care professionals who work with bereaved families.
- The Compassionate Friends: An international organization that provides support and friendship to families who have lost a child of any age, from any cause. They have local chapters, online groups, newsletters, and conferences.
- Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support: A US-based organization that serves those who are touched by the death of a baby through pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or in the first few months of life. They offer support groups, online communities, publications, and events.
- SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity): A UK-based charity that supports anyone affected by the death of a baby. They offer a helpline, email support, online forums, local groups, and bereavement support packs.
- MISS Foundation: An international organization that provides counseling, advocacy, research, and education services to families experiencing the death of a child. They also offer online support groups, forums, blogs, and podcasts.
Parental grief after fetal death is primarily related to the attachment that the parents have formed with their baby, as well as their expectations and hopes for the future. It is a complex and individual process that can be influenced by many factors. Parents can cope with their grief by acknowledging and accepting their feelings, seeking support from others, honoring their baby and their loss, taking care of themselves, and planning for the future. There are also many resources and organizations that can provide support and information to parents who have experienced fetal death.