For too many women pregnant after a loss, there’s suddenly all this pressure to focus on the baby you have in your womb while ignoring or forgetting the one who came before. We have all known people who say: “You must be so happy you can put the past behind you!” or “So glad to have you back now that you’re pregnant again, you’ll finally get the baby you dreamed of!”
They may mean well, but research shows actively thinking about your baby who died helps you bond better with *this* baby! What if it wasn’t a case of either/or but both/and?
Theory of mentalization
The basis for this is something called the theory of mentalization. It has four basic principles to think about when considering how remembering your baby who died actually helps:
- Remembering your baby who died helps you to understand the trauma of losing a child. It also helps with how that loss is affecting you.
- Remembering the baby who died is a way of recognizing that these are two different babies.
- By both remembering and celebrating, you are realizing that you are capable of holding multiple, conflicting emotions in your mind. Yes, you can be both happy and sad at the same time. Yes, you can switch from one emotion to the other!
- By honoring the child who died, you are thinking about how you can change your future. This isn’t a guarantee that bad things won’t happen again, but a recognition that we can respond to our emotions in a healthy way.
How it works
One way to actively work through this is to try and think of your babies together. Practice imagining them as siblings, with your firstborn talking to and playing with their baby brother or sister. These fantasies actually help you to develop the two children into distinct personalities. It makes it easier for you to see your unborn child as a person who will have a relationship with you that is unlike that of their sibling.
Honoring your child’s life helps to process the trauma of their loss. When you avoid thinking about the baby you lost and avoid the painful feelings that go with thinking about them, you also avoid forming an attachment to the baby you have now. This imagining them separately helps to process these feelings.
The conflicting emotions you feel are healthy and normal. We are capable of feeling sadness, grief, and loss when thinking about all that we’ve lost: our child, our sense of safety in the world, our feelings of self-worth and so much more. Spending time in these emotions as you process your grief is okay! It is also possible to feel joy and relief and excitement when thinking about the baby in your womb, the one who is expected to arrive happy and healthy. You are not betraying your child who died, you are honoring the one who is to come.
Whatever happens in the future, knowing that the emotions that come are something you can manage, even if they are incredibly hard, helps to build resiliency. Even if this baby is born happy and healthy and perfect, you will face tough times in your life. All of us do, usually several times over. Taking time to work through and acknowledge your grief, even in the face of happy occasions, helps us to develop these skills that will last a lifetime.
For further reading
Much of the basis for this post comes from: Markin RA. “Ghosts” in the Womb: A Mentalizing Approach to Understanding and Treating Prenatal Attachment Disturbances During Pregnancies After Loss. Psychotherapy. 55(3): 275-288. Doi: 10.1037/pst0000186
Image credit: Flickr user Alex Holyoake, used under Creative Commons license