Having A Baby After Infant Loss: The Complicated Mix of Grief & Joy

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loss of a babyThe loss of a baby — whether it be through miscarriage, childbirth, neonatally, SIDS, the heart-wrenching decision to end a pregnancy due to issues discovered through early screening, or any other reason — is without doubt one of the most painful and traumatic experiences to endure.  The process of attempting to make sense of this catastrophe is complicated and layered and it leaves most women with uncertain and raw emotion that is not easily understood.  I work with many women through their grief and eventual healing once a baby has passed, and while these women would give anything to have their babies with them in the ways that they had dreamed, they are usually aware and accepting of their own need for support during this impossibly difficult time.

But what about those women who go on to have healthy babies after losing a child?  Are they finally happy and content and able to “move on” now that they have brought their babies home?  Many people think this should be so … but in reality, a large number of these women are hit hard with a depression or anxiety that is unwanted, unwelcome, and unexpected when the new baby arrives.  And because these emotions are occurring at a time when these women want so desperately to be happy and connected to their babies, feelings of guilt, shame and insecurity abound.

Each woman’s experience is unique, and there are so many different faces of conflict:

  • > There is the mom who is pregnant again or who carries her newborn and who must negotiate the all-too-frequent question of “is this your first?”
  • >  There is the mom who looks at her baby for the first time and feels “nothing.”
  • > There is the mom who wants to feel joy as her new baby rolls over for the first time, but finds that she cannot.
  • > There is the mom whose new baby is a boy but who, secretly and all on her own, is disappointed that he is not a girl like the baby she lost.
  • > There is the mom who is riddled by anxiety and scary thoughts that her new baby will become sick or die.
  • > There is the mom who realizes that she does not enjoy breast-feeding and whose expectations around this opportunity in motherhood are lost.
  • > There is the mom who finds that she is unable to enter into her new baby’s room without crying and who suffers great anxiety when she dresses her baby in the clothes that were saved from her first pregnancy.

The experiences go on.  Still, there are similar themes that cross over between women and their unique stories. Many of these women are unsure of how to both love their new baby and also grieve the baby they lost. They may feel that they need to choose which baby to be loyal to, and worry that if they become happy and engaged with the baby they brought home, that they might, in some way, be forgetting the one who is no longer here.  This confusion and conflict can, in many instances, make it very difficult for these moms to bond and connect with their new babies, no matter how much they have “wanted” them and no matter how much they know that they love them despite it all.

While the outside world sees some of these women as first-time mothers, moms in this situation know that they are not.  And yet, the story and life of their first child often goes unnoticed and denied by so many.  People are unsure of how to talk about infant loss with the women who have this story.  Friends, family and neighbors often become silent rather than reach out to these moms in an effort to honor the lives of the babies who were lost.  The comments that understandably upset the women who I work with the most are those that sound something like this: “Well, you are young.  You can always try for another.”  Many of the moms who I see have taken this comment as an expectation that another baby is supposed to somehow take place of the one who was lost.  And when this is the case, these women may feel that there is neither opportunity nor the room to be a mother to both.

The way of the mind is complicated, and it fools many of us most of the time.  How, on earth, at a time of such joy can a mom feel so much sorrow?  She feels this way because our society does not make much room for grieving and joy together, and we often feel as though we must choose between happiness and sadness … the “either/or” dilemma.  Either I am ecstatic to bring a healthy baby home, exude joy, and have “moved on,” or I am filled with grief and sorrow and therefore must not love my new baby as I should.

Ugh.  What a painful and complicated place to be.

So, my friends, if you are a mom who has experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or any other loss of an infant or child, please know that the way that you feel is normal and valid and real.  With support, you can certainly find ways to integrate the baby you lost into your new developing family and there is, by all means, room to love all of your children.  As with most of the work that we do, none of this is easy and it all takes time.  There are no “shoulds” around grieving time and healing is certainly NOT the same as moving on.   As with most posts that I offer here, I encourage self-forgiveness and empathy and understanding and patience with yourself.  It is okay to be confused and to miss the dreams and hopes and opportunities that came with the baby who is no longer here.  Because I have worked with so many women and have seen shifts and changes occur over and over again, I am quite certain of this:  as you make space — perhaps once again — for your conflict and grief and loss, and if you take care of yourself in the process, you will find more room for love and connection and presence with your experience as a mom in this moment.

Kate Kripke, LCSW

P.S. From Katherine: I found this lovely site for parents who have lost their children and wanted to share it with those of you who may need it: Glow in the Woods

Photo credit: © Bernd S. – Fotolia.com

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  1. This: our society does not make much room for grieving and joy together, and we often feel as though we must choose between happiness and sadness

    Sums it all up, thank you so much for this.

  2. This: "Either I am ecstatic to bring a healthy baby home, exude joy, and have “moved on,” or I am filled with grief and sorrow and therefore must not love my new baby as I should." Is spot on. It wraps it all up into a neat package.

    As a mother who had a son after our first son died at 24 days old, THIS is exactly how I felt. How I still feel sometimes, even 8 years later…

  3. This is SUCH a wonderful article. I hate having to say, "no this is my second baby, 4th pregnancy." I hate that I am supposed to "feel better" now because I will have two to "replace" the two that didn't make it.

    I could have a million babies and the experience of losing those first two will still be etched in my heart and mind. It was physically, emotionally, and mentally horribly painful.

  4. "“Well, you are young. You can always try for another.” Many of the moms who I see have taken this comment as an expectation that another baby is supposed to somehow take place of the one who was lost."

    This was the WORST comment EVER that I received after our pregnancy loss. It was so insensitive.

    Losing my pregnancy had to be one of THE WORST experiences I ever had in my life. I have since given birth to a healthy baby boy that is now a 2 year old going on 20. :) I know that if I hadn't lost that pregnancy that he would not be here, but he has not taken the place of the child we never got to meet.

  5. Thank you for this. It's always nice to know that I'm not alone, as much as I hate the thought that anyone else has to know the pain of losing a baby.

  6. I have a close friend who just have a miscarriage. She felt devastated as if the world is going to crash on her. I will have to share your wonderful post with her reminding her that she's not alone and there's still hope after a precious lost.

  7. Thanks for the great post!

    I had a loss after two children, and then went on to have two more babies. The worst comment I received after my loss…. "I don't understand why she's so upset, she's got two others." That was from a pregnant family member, no less. PPD and anxiety have left me disabled since my third child. It is interesting to connect the dots between the grief over the loss, and the fear or replacing the love for one child with another, and the still constant fear that my 4th child, and only son, will simply die at any moment.

    My children are not an accessory – they are a part of me, each and every one of them.

  8. This is a great article. I have book marked it to refer to once baby arrives. But for now I am in search of anything to help with my anxiety about labour. I am now just over 39 weeks with baby number 3. I have a beautiful 4.5 yr old girl which everything was pretty textbook. 2 years ago now we lost our little boy to heart complications at 23 weeks, still laboured, held him and loved him. After a tough time falling pregnant again and having surgery we are now very close to the arrival of this baby. I have struggled throughout this pregnancy as the due dates of my son and this baby are only a few days difference just 2 years later. I have continued on antidepressants but still find the anxiety to be horrible. I have had on and off contractions for several weeks building excitement and nerves. Now I’m to the point of exhaustion, I just want this baby in my arms to know she is safe and healthy. I worry that my anxiety has stopped labour several times now and find it very frustrating. I have reoccurring dreams that she will be stillborn although everything seems medically stable. I know its all in my head but still can’t control this anxiousness.

    • Selena, having a baby after a loss is so hard! I lost my son in 2006 at 33 weeks. I gave birth to my healthy daughter in 2010. I had a LOT of anxiety during my 2nd pregnancy and her early years and I still struggle with it. Do you practice any mindfulness techniques? Even deep breathing and trying to bring your mind to the present moment’s sensations and thoughts can help to loosen the grip of anxiety. I wish you all the best as you await the arrival of your 3rd child.