Loss in pregnancy and postpartum is common. When most people think of perinatal loss, they think of miscarriage or stillbirth—the loss of a baby. Certainly losing a baby is one of the hardest postpartum losses to bear. There are many other types of loss families may experience in pregnancy and postpartum, however, including: infertility, dealing with multiples, high-risk pregnancy, adoption, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, disability or death in the family, career/job loss, and the loss of a significant relationship or divorce.
Pregnancy and postpartum loss not only affects mothers; it can have a significant impact on the father/partner, the couple’s relationship, other children, and the entire family system. Loss and grief have long been considered an individual process, but families who turn together in times of perinatal grief will not only heal as individuals, they will strengthen their family, too.
Postpartum Grief: Professional & Personal Experience
As a clinical psychologist I was already specializing in postpartum mental health and grief/loss. I had already helped many families through postpartum grief—miscarriages, stillbirths, adoptions, and postpartum depression—when my most intense postpartum grief experience hit.
In 2007, my sister and brother-in-law died just before I gave birth to our fourth child. We inherited our two young nephews, and three weeks later I had our baby, going from three to six kids just like that. I had already experienced postpartum depression and anxiety with my previous births, and I knew, in light of all the death and loss we had just experienced, I was at even higher risk.
In the months and years to follow, grief hit hard—for myself, my husband and our six kids. Between trying to create a new family, dealing with troublesome family members, adopting our nephews, and simply trying to help us all heal—I was overloaded. It was difficult to distinguish postpartum depression and fatigue from pure and simple grief. As time went on, however, I learned it didn’t matter so much what my exact diagnosis was. What mattered was that I found a way for myself, and my family, to heal.
One of the most important things I learned through this experience, and what I write about in my new memoir, This is How We Grow, is this: “Families that feel together heal together.”
Pregnancy and Postpartum Grief & The Family
Through my personal and professional experiences with perinatal loss, I can say with certainty that whether the loss of a baby, the loss involved with perinatal mood disorders or adoption, or a death in the family during the postpartum period, each loss must be grieved. Yet, letting ourselves feel the emotions of grief can be a challenge. And it can especially be challenging for families to grieve together.
Each of us will experience the loss and grieve in our own unique way. Mothers can feel alone in their grief process—like no one understands or they carry the weight of grief for the family. Fathers/partners may isolate into work or activities to cope with grief, making it difficult for couples to come together and work through grief as a team. Siblings or other children are often forgotten in the grief process because parents are so overcome by their own grief. Thus, families often bear the stress of grief symptoms, with family members feeling isolated or like the family is pulling apart.
So, what is a family to do in times of perinatal loss and grief?
1) First, know that your loss is real. It matters. And it is real and matters for your family members, too. Even if they feel or express their sense of loss in a different way, know that it matters to each of you.
2) Grief is the body and mind’s healthy response to perinatal loss, and grief work is necessary to move forward. You must grieve your losses, and your family members must as well. Help children, partners, and other family members understand their need to grieve and give permission for family members to talk about or work through grief openly.
3) Remember it is normal for each of us to experience and work through grief in our own way. Try to respect your family member’s methods of grieving, but also try to turn together and bridge the gaps.
4) Grieve together. Grieving individually is important to help you process and experience your own grief reactions. But turning together and grieving as a family is powerful and can protect and strengthen family relationships. Mark the loss with a memorial or creative project, talk about it, cry together, ask, “How are you feeling today” and listen. Families who can do these things will not only heal; they can and will grow stronger through perinatal loss and grief.
~ Christina G. Hibbert, Psy.D.
Christina Hibbert is a clinical psychologist, author of the new book, This is How We Grow, and founder or the AZ Postpartum Wellness Coalition. You can also find her blogging at www.DrChristinaHibbert.com.
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