When a pregnancy loss occurs and there are two partners, there will inevitably be two individual experiences and two different grief processes. Also, there is a third grief process, the couple’s joint grief.
It can be a challenge to navigate pregnancy loss as a couple and as the therapist working with grieving couples. While there are many challenges inherent in working with couples who have experienced a pregnancy loss and who are newly pregnant following the loss, there are also many opportunities for the couple to strengthen their bonds and become closer.
The initial shock of a pregnancy loss can send couples in completely different directions.
Some partners will be outwardly very sad and emotional while others will turn inward or find things to do to keep themselves busy. This is not always a bad thing—often there are real logistics that need to be handled and one partner might take care of these things while the other can “fall apart.” Later on, these roles may switch. Sometimes, one partner feels concerned that the other is “suppressing grief” or not handling feelings in the way he or she should.
Some partners may have a greater need for emotional distance. For the non-gestational partner, there is often greater distance in the first place because it’s the other partner’s body that has gone through the physical loss. Related to this, there are sometimes differences in attachment to the baby in the womb. These are common and usually not a cause for concern but in the throes of grief, they can feel very real and scary.
Because of such differences in attachment and grief, there may be a feeling of distance or tension between members of a couple.
This may be very upsetting and bereaved parents often wonder what will happen to the relationship. When one partner wants to talk frequently about the loss and the other doesn’t, conflict can ensue. Some individuals want to spend time alone, away from family, friends, and the general public while the other partner may not want to be alone. Some people prefer to go back to work quickly and resume their usual activities but for others this may feel wrong or not feasible. Differences in grief are okay but if they are not getting talked about the there is potential for misunderstanding.
Some couples are great communicators and can navigate their grief together automatically. Others need some help with this process. A therapist can help a couple navigate their differences when communication is shut down as can a trusted clergy person.
Pre-existing communication difficulties can get exacerbated when a loss occurs. Finding a new understanding of the other can be achieved but sometimes requires many hours of hard work, both in therapy and outside of therapy.
Just as grief changes and transforms over time for individuals, it can also change jointly for the couple.
Time often softens the sharpest edges of grief and this may allow couples to talk more freely about the loss than they did when the loss was still fresh. Most of the time, couples are able to find common ground and find a way to connect with each other such that one person doesn’t feel alone in grief.
Common things I encourage couples to do:
- Write a letter together to your baby. Tell him or her how much he or she was loved. Or, each person can write a letter and let the other parent read it to see on paper the thoughts and feelings of the other.
- Find time to be alone with your partner. Even if you are not talking much about the loss, being together in a new or soothing place can be healing.
- If it’s not too painful, revisit mementos together as a way to spark a discussion and exchange of feelings.
- Mark important dates (due dates, anniversaries) together in a way that is different from just a regular day.
- If you know your partner will have a difficult time, anticipate what he or she will need. For example, if you are going somewhere where there might be triggers, develop a plan with your partner to take a break or leave if necessary.
In a new pregnancy following a loss:
- Make time to bond with the new baby. Have the non-gestational partner talk to the baby, sing a song, or read a story.
- Schedule a family photo shoot. Some parents have creatively included the baby who died in their photos, usually symbolically.
- If communication has been a challenge, find a trusted third party to discuss fear about the new pregnancy or concerns about the grief process.
- Acknowledge your strength together as a couple. If there are challenges you have navigated in the past, draw on those experiences to remind yourself what you can accomplish together.
If you can get through the loss of your baby and then find the courage to become pregnant again, then you can get through anything!
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