When I lost my second baby during pregnancy, my world radically shifted. Everything around me was familiar, but also foreign. How could time keep moving forward when my world has stopped? And when the shock slowly lost its hold on my psyche, and the permanency of my loss took root, I felt as though I were drowning . . . flailing around in an unfamiliar sea, being pummeled by waves of grief while those on the shore acted as though everything was fine, just fine.
When you are expecting a baby, life feels somewhat predictable: Yes, new and different. But you generally expect nine months of both joy and discomfort, changes and growth until this new little person arrives. But when you lose a baby in pregnancy or after birth – your once expanding world suddenly falls apart. And no matter how hard you try, nothing will ever get you back to the way things were supposed to be.
So what can you expect when the worst has happened to you? While the answer to this question is going to be unique to you, I want to help you prepare for what your body, heart, mind, and soul might experience in life after loss.
What your body may experience:
It’s important to note that how you feel will be influenced by both your postpartum state, as well as by your grief. Let’s talk through each:
You are postpartum.
No matter how far along you were when your baby died, your body went from pregnant to not pregnant. That fundamental hormonal shift is a form of birth. Not every experience of birth is identical. One form of birth may demand more from your body than another. However, in each case, your body needs special care.
As you recover, you may experience the following:
- Anticipate that you will bleed in the days and weeks following your loss. Be sure to talk with your provider about what kind of bleeding is considered normal, and what signs you should look for that would indicate you need medical attention for your bleeding.
- Milk coming in. Some moms have reported their milk coming in as early as the first trimester. For many, this is an unexpected and sometimes painful experience. As soon as you can, decide if you feel most comfortable pumping and donating, pumping and keeping some milk (say for memorial jewelry), or drying up your supply. Talk to your medical provider about your choices, any concerning symptoms to be aware of, and ways to manage your discomfort.
- In the days and weeks following your birth, your uterus will continue to contract, which may cause you to feel achy and uncomfortable. This is no time to try to power through your pain. Take whatever comfort measures you need that your doctor has approved.
- Fatigue and sleep changes. You may struggle with new-onset insomnia, nightmares, or excessive daytime sleepiness. As with all changes to your body, don’t hesitate to call your nurse or doctor to ask for suggestions on how to get better rest and manage your energy levels.
- One of the more triggering physical experiences is to see the parts of your body that are still affected by your pregnancy—such as a swollen abdomen and the engorgement of your breasts—or to watch the physical reminders of your pregnancy disappear when you’re desperate to be reminded that your baby was real. It can be hard to continue wearing maternity clothes after your baby has died—but it may also be the most comfortable choice for your body.
- Unexpected, tangible reminders of loss. Many women report feeling phantom kicks, which is the bodily sensation that your baby is still inside you moving around. While it may just be muscle memory, gas, or your organs shifting back around, it can be surprising and triggering. Moms also report the feeling their arms literally ache with emptiness. (If you experience full-body aches, with or without a fever, talk to your provider to make sure you are not developing an infection.)
- Physical trauma. Your body may have gone through extra trauma in birth such as excessive blood loss, surgery, episiotomies or tears, maternal complications, etc. Any extenuating circumstance will likely prolong the time it will take to fully recuperate.
However you navigate your body’s constantly evolving state, remember to treat it with kindness, compassion, and comfort.
You are grieving.
Grief is as much a physical state as it is an emotional or mental state. You may experience a long-lasting sense of fatigue. Physical reactions to grief triggers. Heightened or dulled senses. If you have any concerns about whether you are experiencing something concerning, rather than a tangible expression of your loss, please seek medical support.
What your heart may feel:
Grief has often been reduced to the five stages originally proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-RossElisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families* (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1970). in her study on those who were dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, you will experience many emotions after loss, often more than one at a time, and sometimes, emotions that seem to conflict.
You will likely begin experiencing grief triggers, which are waves of often unwanted emotion following a reminder of your loss. This could be something that you may anticipate – such as looking through your baby’s items or driving by the hospital where you gave birth – or something that hits out of the blue that you couldn’t have anticipated had you tried, such as a scent or a sound.
You may find that your emotional needs change from one moment to the next. You may go from being someone who needs to be around others to someone who craves solitude (or vice versa.) You may feel misunderstood and unsupported by your loved ones, even if they are doing their best to be supportive. Your partner may struggle to relate to your expression of loss, and you may wish they grieved more like you.
Losing a child may make you feel vulnerable to all other kinds of loss, as though the world is no longer a safe place. You may try to insulate yourself from other potential risks to keep you and your loved ones safe. (On the other hand, you may decide that since doing things “safe” doesn’t always guarantee a healthy outcome, you start living a little more on the edge.)
You may feel incredibly proud of your baby and want to include others in your expression of love toward your baby. You may also feel intensely private about your loss and want to keep his or her memory close to your heart. There is no right or wrong – only what feels right or wrong to you.
In short, you may experience a lot of emotions you may not expect or are outside of how you normally feel. But whatever you feel, it’s important to remember that no feeling is wrong. Feelings are barometers that tell you what you value, what you need, and what needs are going unmet. Feelings help you connect to yourself, your baby, and your community of support. Find healthy ways to express your emotions, such as talking with a trusted friend, journaling, going to a support group, or seeing a therapist.
What your mind may think:
Nothing makes you feel like you are losing your mind like grief. Here’s why: When you’re in a state of trauma – and the death of a child is traumatic – your brain shifts from an active state (where you choose your actions based on goals and values) to a reactive state (where you operate from fight/flight/freeze/appease to survive.) This physiological change means you quite literally cannot think as you did before.
This may look like forgetfulness, having a limited attention span, brain fog, decision fatigue, hyperfocus, and more.
Once shock and numbness have worn off, your brain may try to make sense of the senseless. And in doing so, it may create a narrative, even if false, of why your baby died. You may experience a sense of false guilt – that somehow, you could have done something differently to prevent it or that it was somehow your fault. (I assure you, this was not your fault, no matter how convincing those feelings are.) A side effect of this is something called “counterfactual thinking” – which simply means “thinking against the facts.” Your brain comes up with scenarios of what you could have done differently to ensure your baby’s survival – but counterfactual thinking will get you nowhere. Your brain is trying to solve an unsolvable problem. This is not your fault. And you can’t interject your present knowledge into your past.
Last, baby loss can either exacerbate existing mental health disorders or precipitate new ones. (There are specific factors inherent to the loss of a baby that increase your risk.) Furthermore, the chemical shift that comes with birth, no matter the gestation, puts you at risk of perinatal mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. You are also at risk for PTSD and complicated griefThese are not the only potential mood or mental disorders that could either come from or be exacerbated by grief, just the most common ones.. Trying to figure out what is simply grief – and what is a mental health disorder – can be a challenge. If you or your loved ones are concerned that what you are experiencing is more than grief, please reach out to a licensed mental health professional.
It may be hard to function after a loss – but your mind is not lost. It is doing what it is designed to do to protect you following a traumatic loss. It will take time, but you will be able to start functioning normally again. Please be patient with yourself in the meantime.
How your soul may struggle:
When I talk about your soul, I mean your deepest identity: what makes you, you. For many, this takes on a spiritual significance, but it doesn’t have to. Whether you are a person of faith or not, the needs of your soul are important.
The senselessness of your loss may cause you to question the meaning of life. Answers that you always felt confident in may now be punctuated by a question mark. Your beliefs about God, an afterlife, or what it means to express your faith may be in flux. You may find yourself constantly asking God or the universe why – and hate the empty silence that holds no answer.
Or – you may find that whatever expression of faith you felt before your loss never felt more right. Perhaps the only thing that’s gotten you through this season is spiritual comfort.
The needs of your soul are intensely personal. If you find yourself feeling comforted by your beliefs and you feel held up by your faith community, that can be a very healing place to be.
But questioning, doubting, admitting feelings betrayal, refining your beliefs, challenging your status quo of your faith – these can also be healing and healthful ways to approach the needs of your soul.
And if you find that faith was never a part of your equation – that’s okay, too. The needs of your soul are worth exploring and honoring.
Your experience through your loss won’t look like anyone else’s.
It may be tempting to compare experiences or ways you process your loss with those around you. But your experience is not more valid—or less valid—than anyone else’s experience.
Your loss is your loss. And you have every right to own your experience, validate it, and be supported through it exactly as you need.
For helpful ways to cope through loss, please visit “How to cope with baby loss.”
For a much more thorough discussion on what baby loss is like and how to move forward with your grief, please see my book Unexpecting: Real Talk on Pregnancy Loss*.
- When you Miscarry your Rainbow Baby
- How to cope with baby loss
- What You Need to Know about First-Trimester Loss
- When Pregnancy Loss Happens Again
- Recurrent Pregnancy Loss: Always a Risk, but Always a Chance
*This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase using this link, you also support PALS without it costing anything extra for you — a total win-win!
|↑1||Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families* (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1970).|
|↑2||These are not the only potential mood or mental disorders that could either come from or be exacerbated by grief, just the most common ones.|