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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About Kate Kripke

Kate Kripke is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) specializing in the prevention and treatment of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. She is also a Colorado state coordinator for Postpartum Support International. Kate lives in Boulder with her husband and two daughters and writes an eponymous blog.

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  1. Meredith McNeil says:

    Thank you for this. It is beautifully well written and brings a peace to my soul.

  2. 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.

  3. Very nicely written, some points hit home.

  4. 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…

  5. 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.

  6. "“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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Such moving post replies from all of you. Thank YOU!

  10. 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.

  11. Thank you. Just, thank you. I truly needed to read this.

  12. 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.

  13. Michael Maddox says:

    My girlfriends baby was 6 months old and was murdered by her father …this happened two years ago and to this day she cries hard…now shes pregnant and im scared that shes scared she refuses to talk to anybody or seek help…as the father of th oh s new child wat do i do how do i help.

    • Heather King says:

      Michael, thank you for reaching out. What a horrible thing to live through. I’m sorry this happened, and I’m sure the grief is so hard to live with. It is so good of you to be asking questions and trying to figure out how to help. This means you are doing what you can–learning and seeking help are the two things you can do for right now. And being there for your girlfriend, of course. If she refuses to talk about it or get help, you cannot force her unless it seems she is a danger to herself. So while you watch and wait (and I’m sorry that is so hard), you will have to learn to trust yourself to know how to help depending on how she is doing. You never know, she may become willing to see someone for help. It sounds like she could really use a counselor or therapist. You can plant the seeds, reminding her that we all need help sometimes and that she has been through something terribly traumatic. No human could come out of that without needing help. You can remind her that it could get a lot worse if she does not learn to let go and rely on help. She is dealing with hormone changes and mixed feelings. She is probably experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is not her fault, and she needs to be reminded of that over and over. I wish there was an easy answer when someone is refusing help, but there is not. Waiting to see how it goes is so hard, but you will have to continue to trust that you will know what to do when the need arises. It would be so good for you to see a therapist that can work with you ongoing, being there to navigate things, giving you ideas on how to help so you don’t feel so alone and helpless. You would have someone to reach out to if things get worse and they could walk you through what to do. I’m so sorry, Michael. Your new baby is a gift, and I will be hoping right with you that things improve, that your girlfriend can heal and the three of you can be happy. It is entirely possible, with help for both of you.

      • Michael Maddox says:

        I suppose all i can say is thank you for your response and that we will see where this goes shes only 23 and i love her and want her to be happy and to realize this here is a blessing…but she doesnt smile and she mentioned that I dont understand no one does…so i suppose with time and patience i will and that she will also…we will see thank you again.

  14. Douglas Southerland says:

    My wife had a miscarriage on August 28th (our first miscarriage experience), and I can honestly say as a military veteran and former police officer (disabled while on duty) it was the most gut wrenching and sorrow filled day of my life. I am the strong one that always protects my family (we have 3 daughters ages 11, 8 & 6) from everything and takes care of my wife and kiddos against anything that can hurt them but nothing ever prepared me for the helplessness and utter lack of control I felt when my wife screamed for me to help her and I walked in and saw what was happening. She had been having cramps and spotting at about 5 and a half to 5 weeks in and I kept calling her OB/GYN to get a sooner appt. but they were booked solid and no other doctor could see her any sooner so we spent many a night at the ER where we were constantly told everything looked fine and to go home. As her symptoms got worse I got more frustrated with the hospital and her doctor, I know there was more than likely nothing they could have done at that point but I still feel that had her doctor double booked her based on her symptoms or squeezed her in between other patients maybe my son would have had the chance to be here with us now. To be honest, we were quite terrified when she suspected she was pregnant, a fourth child is crazy difficult to raise especially when all of them are still living at home and rely on us to take care of and nurture three of them majority of the time and a new baby requires 24/7 attention. However, we just embraced the news and decided we were going to welcome this new little one just like our three before, and we were both pretty sure it was going to be a boy so we were extra excited although we just wanted he/she to be healthy and happy. Then the 28th of August came, and there is no feeling like seeing your wife in so much pain, shock and so emotionally destroyed and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to make it go away or stop. I came into the room and after catching my breath and swallowing my own tears and choking down that lump in my throat I got my wife all cleaned up and cleaned up the room and got her into bed, I barely processed what had happened by the time she finally cried herself to sleep in my arms and I laid there the remainder of the night trying to figure out what I DID wrong. Of course I realize neither of us did anything wrong but at the time my rationale was that if I could find some kind of tangible excuse or reason behind it or even make it my fault, then my wife wouldn’t focus on what SHE might have done wrong or could have done differently; it may sound stupid now but I thought at the time even if she was mad at me at least she wouldn’t think horribly of herself or believe she was to blame. Since that day I have been trying to help her navigate her grief as best as possible and at what ever pace she needs to go while dealing with my own grief in the process and it has proven to be an extremely difficult task. If she knew how hard it is for me to choke it all down and help her she would feel awful and then she would be even more depressed and distant because she herself has said she doesn’t know what she would do if I wasn’t there for her and I’m afraid of what would happen if I was lost in grief myself, I’m afraid of what might happen and worry about my children’s quality of life while we are going through this loss. I will say this though: sexually, I am fine I mean I am ready to get back in the swing of things like normal before the miscarriage but completely understand how it must feel as a woman going through the same loss just felt in a completely different way and she knows that I am ready as soon as she feels okay to be intimate and I haven’t nagged or egged on about sex or intimacy since it happened, I just let her know I still love and am in love with her, find her sexy, attractive and a wonderful wife and mother and that nothing was her fault. I am far from perfect and still have, dare I say it, “man needs and desires” but a man can still feel that way and still be a loving provider and emotional “rock” for his wife, even if he himself can’t or doesn’t understand what his wife or partner is going through personally. That being said, I think a large majority of men simply cannot process emotions or feelings at the same level or capacity of their spouse or partner and I think a lot of women cannot grasp how some men process complex emotions like the loss of a child. I know, I’m a man and the first emotion that came to me was anger, because my wife was in pain and it was an enemy I could do nothing to stop or protect her from it and it killed me that I couldn’t make it go away and it still angers and upsets me that I can’t do anything against this intangible force that is threatening to unravel her sanity and emotionally wreck the woman I’ve loved and been in love with since I met her 15 years ago. So as far as your husband/boyfriend is concerned, I can almost promise you the issues he is having with this loss has more to do with how powerless he feels rather than his actually feelings towards you or your pregnancy and loss of your child and you have to both lean on each other instead of expecting your partner to carry all your weight; God bless them if they try too but you both need each other regardless of what gender roles or society has pounded into us how it should be, but you must recognize that there may still come a point where you have to just focus on yourself and your own grief and coping with it before you get dragged under a current so strong that you lose yourself instead of your husband or partner. Just my opinion about our struggle to cope and recover from OUR loss, and I know everyone’s situation is different and varied but I wish you all the best in this world and hope each and everyone of us finds the peace we need and deserve. God Bless.

  15. As difficult as it is, this article explains how I feel and I am hopeful that with time, I am able to cope well.