Author Archives: Donna Rothert, PhD

And Then…

“Grief is in two parts.  The first is loss.  The second is the remaking of life.”–              Anne Roiphe

“It’s the song that I sing because I have to.”–  Cary Ott,  I Wouldn’t Do That To You


Unexpected loss shatters the story of our lives.  We are left to stare at the pieces, and at the new absence– twisting our heads to try to understand what happened and what can be done.  We hurt and we wander around inside ourselves.  And then?

Something else certainly follows, but I’m not sure that it happens in the way Roiphe describes above.  How does one remake a life?   Is a remake what we really need?  Might this second part of the grief thing be more about accepting and being in our changed life vs. remaking it?

Or maybe grief is never really any two parts, stages or any other neatly organized idea.  Maybe it’s just a hot, turning mess that we crawl, climb and pull ourselves through as best we can.  And maybe the weirdest part of grief is that it’s not outside of our lives at all, but just sharing space with everything else in it.

The book Knocked Up, Knocked Down (2010) by Monica Lemoine chronicles the lives of the author and her husband as they are hit by multiple pregnancy losses.  At the memorial for their stillborn son, Lemoine’s husband reads the following letter which speaks to the challenge of needing to both mourn and live:

Dear Son,

Forgive me when I cry.  It’s certainly not what I would have taught you to do.  Occasionally, I can’t help it.  I can’t help it when I see your mother’s face fill with pain.  I can’t help it when I replay her phone call in my head.  “There’s something wrong with the baby,” she said.  I can’t help it when times that were supposed to be so joyous are filled with crushing disappointment–the day of your baby shower, your due date, the three months of paternity leave that we would have spent together, all the baseball games that we would have watched and played.  Forgive me when I cry, and know that I’ll never forget the seven and a half months of joy you brought us.

Love, Dad

Dear Son,

Forgive me for the times that I don’t cry.  Most of the time, I can’t help but be happy, and it’s hard not to feel guilty about that.  I can’t help but be happy when your mother dances in the living room.  I can’t help it when family and friends visit and bring us food, prop us up with support, watch football and play ping-pong with us.  I can’t help but be happy that I’m married to your mother and knowing that we’ll make it, stay positive, and have more kids in the near future.  I can’t help being happy because it’s my nature, and your mother brings it out in me, as she does in everyone else.  Forgive me when I don’t cry, and know that I’ll never forget the seven and a half months of joy you brought us.

Love, Dad

This letter moved me the first time I read it and I returned to it later to consider what was so compelling.  I do find the immediacy of the grief touching.  But what stands out for me in a second look is that it’s a beautifully simple description of what it means to love, lose and then keep the door propped open to whatever feelings come calling.

There is no shying away from emotion in the words spoken by the Dad to his stillborn son.  Instead, there is an open acknowledgement of attachment and feeling.  He honors the baby who brought joy to their lives and the father-son relationship that exists (even without a living baby to make it tangible to others).  He also is open about his considerable pain as well as periods of happiness as he sits with a bewildering absence.

It’s so easy to do a “pile on” after baby loss– giving ourselves a hard time for having a hard time.  I hear this from the women and couples I work with in questions such as “am I dwelling on this?” or “how do I stop feeling this way?”.  Anxiety about “moving on” or “forgetting/betraying” the baby make emotional movement to the other side (feeling less intense sadness) a landmine too.  I remember feeling the same way.  There is nothing clear or elegant about the acute grief experience with all of the accompanying pain, fear and confusion.  It often makes a mess of us, at least for a while, and we want it to stop.  I wish I didn’t know what I look like when I cry and brush my teeth at the same time, but alas, from my time of living with the grief of losing my daughter, I do.  It’s just not a graceful time of life.

So I don’t expect anyone to have a composed or enlightened version of their grief.   I don’t find it useful to tell people how to feel.   But I am likely to suggest that they  notice what they feel.  I’m also likely to remind people that whatever our emotional state is right now, it will change.  The intensity of  pain we experience in grief doesn’t stay the same because it can’t.  And eventually, at whatever pace we need, some other feeling will appear.   The emotional song you are compelled to sing at any given moment may be one that makes you cry or one that makes you smile and the next song may be quite different.  It’s enough to keep a heart very busy.

Living with grief can certainly feel messy and chaotic.  It may make you feel a bit crazy to have your emotions become so unruly.  But it’s still you living a chapter of your life.  You may be flooded with feelings about your past and reliving memories sweet or tragic.  You may be full of  hopes or heart-fluttering fears about your future.  These are all signs of life.  The next chapter, whatever it is, is going to be more of you living, and by surviving whatever you feel right now in this moment, you’ve already begun.


Post-Traumatic Growth

“To grow, something must be either incomplete or damaged.”  Hansjörg Znoj

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”     Louis L’Amour


“I experienced mother love and that has added to my life.”

“Surviving my losses has taught me more about who I am.”

“Now I see what’s important.”


Throughout different cultures and times, it has been frequently observed that the challenge of coping with an event that has brought about great suffering can also lead to positive change.  This is not to in any way minimize the emotional devastation of the loss of a pregnancy or child or any other painful and life-changing event.  It is only to say that from such a desolate place, people often undergo, in the words of Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006),  “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event” or Post-Traumatic Growth.

This is a touchy subject to address.  It can be very challenging and uncomfortable to believe that something good could come out of something so painful.  Specifically, it can bring up concerns that any positive outcome after perinatal loss is somehow disloyal to the baby.  These are understandable and not uncommon worries.  It can also make people wonder– does acknowledging a positive side to a loss imply that you would choose to go through it?   I don’t believe so.  I know for myself that I would definitely choose the version of my life where my baby had lived over a chance for personal growth or any other prize behind door number two.

So this is an area where I tread carefully with bereaved men and women.  I usually do  a lot more following than leading toward this subject.  But I also think there can be a reason to go there.  I think it’s worthwhile, and occasionally life-saving, to know that others have been in your shoes and that they got through it.   Additionally, it can help to know that some of them, in their process of coping and understanding,  found that their lives changed in some way for the better.  It also addresses the concern that many people have after a life-changing event–  “How will I get back to normal?”  The answer may be that you won’t, and that may not be a bad thing.

What kind of positive change do people tend to experience after a life crisis?  In the Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth, Calhoun and Tedeschi note their qualitative research on PTG, which led to identification of five domains of growth.  The categories are new personal strength, new possibilities, relating to others, appreciation of life and spiritual change.  Here is a brief look at how each of these areas might relate to someone who has experienced a perinatal loss.

Personal Strength   I have often heard clients express surprise at what they have been able to live through.  Calhoun and Tedeschi capture the sentiment of many after a trauma,  “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I imagined.”  Having survived something they did not expect to face, people may approach the future with less fear.

In relation to perinatal loss, this can sometimes be helpful for those who decide to try to conceive again.  Trying again after loss is typically a very loaded issue in which people are balancing tentative hopes and vivid fears.  Faced with the prospect of investing again in a process where they are keenly aware that things can go wrong, people may be able to use the awareness of their strength to address the fears in another pregnancy.  They may feel that they can survive something so difficult because they already have.  For those who decide to not try for another baby, the knowledge of their strength may increase confidence in any future endeavor.

New Possibilities   If something unimaginably bad has happened, maybe the field of possibility can be stretched both ways.  Unexpected loss is a strong reminder that life can proceed in an unplanned and unanticipated manner.  Through both luck and effort, desired changes can also happen.

Women and men often speak of a broadened view of the world after a perinatal loss.  I have known many people to see the event as a crossroads in their life.  Some women and men decide to change professions to something that has more meaning to them.  Some people become very clear that they wish to become a parent by trying to conceive again, some decide to build their family through adoption or other ways and some decide they will not have children but will attach to other meaningful things in their life.

Relating to Others  Relationships with those who are still here can feel more precious when we’re missing our babies.   It may feel similar to the sentiment sung by Meghan Trainor, “I’m going to love you like I’m going to lose you, I’m going to hold you like we’re saying goodbye.”  We never know what lies ahead, and that uncertainty makes us want to embrace the time we have with those we love.  Despite the stress that perinatal loss puts on a couple, there can also be a sense of wanting to hold partners closer after loss.

Some family and friends may have offered themselves as support in a way that deepens and enriches the relationship.  Children, whether already in the family or imagined in the future, may be all the more valued.  Some people find that relationships with others who have experienced baby loss help them to understand their new world.  After a perinatal loss, many people report increased empathy for others in general, making all of their relationships feel a bit deeper.

Appreciation of Life   Perinatal loss puts us directly in touch with both birth and death, and is a reminder of how fragile life can be.  As a result, it can lead to greater appreciation of this life and this moment.   Feeling the warm sun on your face, sharing time with an elderly relative or engaging in a favorite hobby may all take on heightened value when one has been made so aware of the finite and uncertain elements of life.

Spiritual Change   Losing a baby often challenges our understanding of how the world works.  For some, that leads to a new or deeper understanding of spiritual connections.  A man who was raised in the Catholic church may find great comfort in returning to the rituals of the church to process and cope with the loss of his baby.  A woman may find increased meaning and spirituality in nature and the beauty she sees in her everyday world.  It is not uncommon to experience an expanded sense of being, which may bring up existential questioning and growth related to our place and purpose in the world.

Summary   Post-traumatic growth doesn’t always happen to those who have suffered loss and it’s not the only way to get through the experience and back to a satisfying life.  However, it can be important to know that it exists and that it doesn’t have to be big and dramatic to be meaningful.  Yes, some people will start an organization, join the Peace Corps, or in some other way show a dramatic change in the focus of their lives.  But that’s not the road for all of us.  We may experience our growth in other ways such as feeling closer to our loved ones, being more self-aware and compassionate or appreciating our world in a more profound way.



Partners in Pain

“Truth is everybody is going to hurt you:  you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.”

 –Bob Marley

“I don’t think she should wallow in it and be so sad all the time.  I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it so let’s move on.”

“I don’t even know if he misses her or understands how I feel.  I wonder if I’ve lost him too.”

“He acts like everything is fine.  He says we just need to get pregnant again.  Does he think that will make it all better?”

hPerinatal loss is a huge challenge for any couple to face.  When we took vows to stand by our partner for better or for worse, we didn’t picture this.  When we saw that second line on the pregnancy test, or heard the excited words from our mate, we had no idea that it would end this way.  But, somehow, this is the bus we ended up on and this is the ride we (and our partners) take.

Sometimes we may find our partner extremely comforting to us during the time of intense grief.  After all, he or she is likely the person to whom we feel closest and the one who shared the most of the baby experience with us.  Our partner may be great at knowing what we need and being able to provide it much of the time.  Many people do report a sense of feeling closer than ever to their partners after a perinatal loss.

But all of us at some point, in the midst of our own imperfections, pain and sense of overwhelm, run the risk of adding to our partner’s suffering.  Even in the strongest relationships, there are likely to be moments (sometimes many) of disappointment or anger though out the grief process.  These upsets may appear as passing challenges or large crises that cause concern for the couple about their long term commitment.

Sometimes partners injure each other because they don’t know how to react in the midst of this type of life event.  After all, who ever took the prep course on how to lose a baby?  When new to grief, or this type of grief, many people jump to assumptions about what they or their partner should be feeling or doing and are intolerant when the expectations are not met.  It may be a husband who thinks his wife is “making too much” over an early miscarriage. It may be a woman who is angry and hurt that her partner does not want to see pictures of their stillborn son.   The intolerance may be verbally stated or just otherwise implied, leading to distance and pain for them both.

Injury can also occur simply due to depleted resources.  When we are maxed out due to sadness and fatigue (and grief is exhausting), it is harder to do the work of reaching out and connecting with with our partner.  It has been noted by many that grief tends to be a rather self-absorbing experience and you may notice yourself turned inward much of the time. It can be easy to look at the distance between you and your beloved and worry that you are no longer on the same side.

Of course, these two issues just scratch the surface of what can arise in a couple’s life after the loss of a baby, but they are ones that are familiar to most of us who have been in this situation.  Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help yourself and your partner.

What Can Help

Examine Expectations

Rather than jumping to negative assumptions about you or your partner’s reaction to the loss, try to first notice what you’re feeling and thinking.  Be curious about what has come up for you in terms of beliefs about what you or your partner should be doing.  Consider that these assumptions may stem from cultural, gender or personality influences as well as your own history of loss.  Acknowledge and take responsibility for your own bias, remembering that we all have them.

Respect Differences

Unless your partner is exhibiting behavior that you think is dangerous, try to respect that he or she is having an experience different from yours and is entitled to be in that place.  If you can suspend judgements about right or wrong, and work on accepting and acknowledging that you are grieving differently, it can neutralize some of the anxiety and related hurtful reactions.  The truth is, however close or similar you and your partner may be, the two of you are different people who had different experiences with the pregnancy and/or baby as well as the circumstances of the loss.  As a result, you can’t possibly have the exact same grief experience.

Build Bridges

Although it’s important to allow for the space inherent in holding different views and feelings, it’s also important to find ways to meet and connect.  This may be far easier in some moments than others and that’s OK.  Being open to the idea will help you to notice opportunities.  It may help to remember that both of you are going through a painful and confusing time.  You are also both adjusting to a big change in the story of your lives together and may be unsure of how the two of you will be in this new chapter.

You may want to be transparent about your intention to try to connect.  Some couples make a time at the end of the day to briefly check in to say how they are each feeling and what they need.  Other couples work together on a project such as planning a memorial or making something together to honor their baby.  It may be particularly helpful to acknowledge difficult feelings about the loss to your loved one.  I’ve heard many people say they would much rather have their partners disclose their sadness or fear than “be strong” for them.

Prioritize Self-Care

Baby loss and the grief that accompanies it make for a high needs time.   A corresponding high level of self-care is appropriate.  This includes a focus on the basics such as eating, sleeping and avoiding abuse of alcohol and other drugs.  Exercise (as appropriate to your current physical condition), meditation or relaxation exercises may be very useful as well.  Sources of support outside of your partner can also be particularly important.  If no one in your current circle seems like the right person to talk to or you feel that you would benefit from additional support, remember that there are options for in person support groups, online support forums or psychotherapy.

Pain and distance in our primary relationship can feel like another layer of loss.  Living in this time of grief challenges us in ways we may never have anticipated.  It is also a time when couples can grow as they learn how to support themselves and each other in the midst of this crisis.







Smacking Sharks

The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness. – Abraham Maslow

Blue ocean underwater sun rays background

I recently spent some time reading aloud to a family member who wasn’t feeling well.  Our selection was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the true story of an Olympic runner who was in World War II. It’s not the kind of book I usually go for, but I plan to finish it as I’m finding it to be not just a page turner, but pretty darn inspiring.

The part we just finished (spoiler alert) involves the main character, Louie Zamperini, floating in a life raft after his B-24 bomber has crashed with the loss of eight men aboard.  He is one of the three crew members who have survived together on two life rafts.  After being adrift for 27 days, with the men in the throes of both intense starvation and dehydration, a plane appears overhead.  Unfortunately, it’s a Japanese aircraft,  which starts firing at them.  Louie jumps overboard to avoid being shot and the life raft begins to be riddled with bullets.

The area of the ocean where this takes place is infested with sharks, and as Louie enters it, he suddenly becomes the intended object of the next meal.  Weak and underwater, Louie is approached by attacking, open mouthed sharks which he fights off using the information he learned in a survival class (basically to widen his eyes, bare his teeth and bop the sharks on the snout with an open palm).

He goes back and forth between shark bopping and climbing back onto the raft in between the six passes of the plane and six episodes of shooting (plus a dropped bomb that did not explode).   When he climbs back aboard the raft for the last time he finds his two crew mates miraculously unscathed by the shooting.  The three of them manage to save one raft and patch the 48 bullet holes in it while taking turns pumping out water and clubbing the sharks that are now jumping out of the water to get at them.  Altogether a pretty intense series of images…

The story stirred up a lot of thoughts for me, and is currently serving as a marker of what a really bad day can look like.  It made me think, too, about how so many dramatic episodes in life seem to be a mixture of lucky and unlucky events.  Another take on the story could be that it’s a compelling message about not giving up in the middle of a crisis.  And it has definitely crossed my mind that I may want to invest in a survival class.

It also made me think about how in any challenge, no matter how dire or convoluted, we can only face our issues one step at a time.  We can only be where we are right then doing the little piece in front of us.  We can only be right where we are.

Louie had a bunch of things on his mind that day in the ocean and he was full of action, but he wasn’t really multi tasking.  When he was smacking sharks, he was smacking sharks.  Not dealing with starvation, dehydration, avoiding bullets, fixing the boat or trying to float to land.  He wasn’t even breathing.

If Maslow was right about the ability to live in the present moment being a component of mental wellness, and if all of those writers, meditators and therapists preaching mindfulness are also on to something, then our moment, our now, seems a bit more sacred.   What we are doing right now is what we need to be doing fully.  And all the moments coming will benefit from engagement with the one we’re having with now.

More aspirational than realistic as a way to be all the time?  Heck, yeah.  And what’s wrong with that?

I was pretty anxious during my last pregnancy, which occured after my two losses.  But I remember a point where I really started to appreciate that there were very few things in the pregnancy that were under my control.  I could try to eat well, take my vitamins, go to my doctor appointments and generally try to live a safe and pleasant life.   And that very short and humble list was the total extent of my control over the experience.

And sometimes, not all of the time, I felt the freedom of that humble list.  I could eat and think about eating (way too many bagels for some reason), take my vitamins and so on and those actions had meaning and purpose.  The rest of the time I could try to take up my now, whether that moment was about acknowledging and living with a moment of fear (which always passes eventually) or enjoying a moment of peace or hope.  Just like in meditation or any type of mindfulness, I didn’t stay in this place.  My mind would race away and I would have to circle back, but it helped.  It helped a lot.

In times of uncertainty, (which, realistically, is always) this is the only moment we have.  If we’re in a tough spot, breaking it down is likely to help us get through it.  If we’re in a great spot, it’s probably worth taking in.  Yes, we’re going to sleep through and space out through much of our lives.  But it just might help to notice that we can also jump in and roll around in a given moment.  Your right now experience may feel like a challenge, a gift, or pretty inconsequential, but by noticing it, you might live it a little more deeply.








In the Mirror


“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”   – Erik Erikson

“Am I a Mom?”

“People look at me differently now.”

“I’m not the same person I was.”

Seeing who we are at this time helps us to orient to our moral compass, desires and place in the world.  It also gives us a starting place to connect and be known to others.  Social media is one example of how people put out who they are to both define themselves and be a part of something bigger.  In the vast world of blog and twitter profiles, people identify themselves by gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, personality traits, profession, hobbies, geographical location, political affiliation, pets, etc.  (Part of the “etc.” I recently encountered was “peripatetic”.  If, like me, that word hasn’t been part of your working vocabulary, you may want to look it up- it’s a good one to have in your pocket.)

Sometimes life events may shift how we view ourselves.  Many of the men and women I see after a perinatal loss talk about feeling profoundly changed as a person as a result of the loss.  These changes may feel dramatic and difficult to describe.  There are the permanent aspects of a changed self (e.g. I had a baby who died), those that are more fleeting (e.g. I am physically recovering from a miscarriage) and pieces that may be much harder to categorize.

For example, a woman who has gone through the nine month physical and psychological process of pregnancy is certainly not the exact same person she was before she became pregnant.  If things have gone well up to that point, she has been attaching to a child and preparing to parent that child and her identity has changed accordingly.  Yet, if her baby dies at birth, she may wonder if a childless mother is still a mother or if she has become something else.  Additionally, when a woman experiences a traumatic loss at a hospital, the medical setting and focus may leave her feeling more like a medical patient than anything else- as though the physical challenges were the main issue instead of the crisis of losing someone dear.

Not everybody who has experienced a perinatal loss feels that he or she is a parent to the lost baby.  But for many, it is a clear and important part of who they are.  It has been noted by a number of people that there is no word to describe a person who has lost a child or children, whether during pregnancy or later in life.  Nothing along the lines “orphan” or “widow” or “widower” to indicate that someone is missing and that the surviving person is living with an absence.  Maybe this has something to do with baby and child loss previously being a much more common experience.  Whatever the reason, it can lead to bereaved parents feeling like outsiders in a world that does not recognize them or their baby.

Many people have spoken to me about the trouble they have answering the question “Do you have children?” or “How many children do you have?” after a loss.  The question can highlight a conflict or incongruence between how they see themselves- whether as a parent, bereaved parent, grieving person or a new, not as yet named category of being in the world- and how they expect to be perceived by others.  It may not always feel appropriate to launch into the longer explanation of our reproductive history and losses in the grocery check-out line or on the street, but I think it’s important to ask and attempt to answer for ourselves who we are now.

So, who do you see in the mirror today?  It’s probably a complicated question under any circumstances.  For those of us who have had our hearts broken by baby loss, the lens with which we view ourselves and the world may be a little (or a lot) different than it was.   You may be clear about who you are in the aftermath of your loss or you may be in the process of putting the pieces together.

You may see yourself as a person in a crisis transition, a grieving man or woman, a mom or dad missing a baby or in some other way.  Whether you want to announce it on Facebook, share it with close family and friends or just acknowledge it to yourself, you might benefit from asking yourself and listening for the authentic answer.  Seeing who we are right now is another way of respecting ourselves and our process.  It also often opens our eyes to others who are in the same place.  Making eye contact with that person in the mirror can help us to know our needs, communicate about ourselves and find our way in the world.



Worried Times



“Who else am I going to lose?”

“How can I ever stand being pregnant again?  Or not being pregnant again?”

“Will this loss hurt my relationship with my partner?”

Perinatal bereavement is a startling juxtaposition of birth (anticipated or actual) and death (whether of a baby or dream).  It may feel like a dramatic roller coaster ride from an all time high to a record low in a very short period of time.  This extreme drop can leave us quite shaken and scared.  As C.S. Lewis said,  “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”

As you probably know firsthand, anxiety comes in a variety of flavors and strengths.  This can vary from minor worries to anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (exaggerated worries about everyday things) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (anxiety reactions following and related to a trauma).  Most experiences of anxiety after baby loss are usually transient but can be quite uncomfortable.  Many factors, including if you are a bit of a worrier in general, may be affecting your current experience.  The details of your loss, including the level of trauma it involved and the meaning your pregnancy or baby has for you, will likely play a part in the level of your anxiety.

And although you might be worried about any number of things, there are certain concerns that commonly raise their head after a reproductive loss.  If you recognize any of the following, you’re in good company.  Many people have had these concerns after a perinatal loss and were able to successfully work through them.

What Other Bad Things Can Happen?

The world may suddenly feel like a precarious place.  Previously unimagined things have now happened.  What next?  You may be waiting for the next bad thing to jump out and mess up your life even more.  Especially in the early days and weeks after a loss, many people worry about something terrible happening to their partner or to their other current or future children.  It’s also common to just worry that the recent lousy trajectory of your life will continue and plow you into more pain-inducing experiences.

Luckily, having a terrible loss does not mean you are now on a course for more of the same.  It may be important for you to delineate what is happening now vs. what has taken place.  This means noticing that the painful event has already happened.  You are having feelings about your loss, but you are not having the exact same experience of loss forever.  Despite whatever anxious thoughts are going through your head, this stage of your life is not endless.

Anxiety usually involves some negative self-talk– those things that you say to yourself that raise your blood pressure.  You may need to find gentle ways to speak to yourself about what you’re feeling.  Examples may be something like:  “I’m grieving a baby I loved, and my life is really hard right now but I will get through this”.  Discussing your concerns with people in your support system, whether friends, family, therapist or support group (in person or online) can also be reassuring.

Should I Try Again?  If So, When?

This question is incredibly compelling and probably pretty stressful.   You may be filled with intense longing to have a baby.  You might also be convinced that becoming pregnant again is the only way you will heal.  You are probably also scared about being pregnant again.  Many factors can contribute to an anxiety-producing preoccupation with trying again.

You may need to give yourself permission to delay this big decision.  This probably sounds terribly hard to do.  Additionally, many of us feel the pressure of time.  Our age, known fertility concerns or other physical challenges affect our sense of how long we can wait to try to conceive.

Even with these realistic concerns, it may help to remember that you have time for something.  You have time for a breath and time to notice how your body is feeling.   You also have time to give at least a bit of thought as to what you need right now.  If you really feel time is of the essence, you may want to break down the decision into whether you can and want to try to conceive this month or whether you wish to decide next month.  This may give you at least a bit more time while not pushing the issue off too far into the future.

Can My Partner and I Get Through This?

Two grieving people don’t generally make for the calmest couple.  That doesn’t mean that you and your partner are headed for disaster.  It just means that the two of you may be facing some additional challenges in your relationship such as differences in reacting and coping.

It’s quite common for each member of a couple to react to the loss of a pregnancy or baby with different levels of emotion.  One of you might be more expressive and verbal.  This person might be more interested in talking about the loss and be more likely to find comfort in speaking to friends, family or a therapist.  The other of you might be less likely to cry or talk and instead find more relief in activity or quieter expressions of grief.

When you’re feeling depleted due to grief, it can hard to understand why your partner is having such a different experience than you.  However, finding a way to respect, accept and work with differences is far more important than trying to be “on the same page” in the grief process.  Hearing and validating your partner’s experience and supporting him or her in getting what he or she needs may do the most for both of you.  This may mean finding others who can listen to you when your partner is maxed out or acknowledging that your partner’s reaction, although different, isn’t wrong.

In general, if you are looking for ways to address your worries, it helps to start simply.  Break things down into whatever size pieces you need.  You can practice getting through your life one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, or one breath at a time- all fine choices.  Whatever size you’re at right now, that’s all you really need to do.

If you’re experiencing a lot of worry, it’s important to remember that it will not feel this way forever and that there are steps you can take to decrease your anxiety.  Many of them are actions you can do on your own such as practicing relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation or any physical exercise that settles your mind and body.  Since self-talk matters, don’t forget to have some good conversations with yourself.   Topics could include what you are doing to help yourself, reminding yourself that your anxiety is temporary and that there is additional support out there for you if you need it.



A Partial View from Later

h“It gets better.”

– Slogan from the 2010 It Gets Better Project founded to give hope to LGBTQ youth and quoted in a pregnancy loss group.   The group member stated that the words also summed up her experience of how her life had changed in the year after she had experienced multiple pregnancy losses.

I received a postcard from myself this week.  It was sent from Burning Man, the yearly event in the Nevada desert devoted to art and self-expression, and was part of someone’s art/gift.  The idea was to invite people to write postcards to themselves from the festival so that they could capture their thoughts from the experience and ponder them at a later time.

The man who was leading the project said that he would send my card at a random date, which ended up being a little less than 4 months later.  Given that I had initiated this piece of correspondence and had done so in the fairly recent past, there wasn’t much about the card that surprised me. The only thing that gave me pause was my closing signature- “Love, D”- which seemed both kind of sweet and wholly unnecessary in a letter to one’s self.

Receiving the note, though, especially at the end of the year, led me to think about time and how, through effort and circumstance, we change and experience different versions of ourselves.  It also reminded me of how different my grief has felt through the years, and how I have heard this experience described by others.

As you may be keenly aware of at this point, the loss of someone to whom you are attached is not all felt in one brief episode of your life.  Although the most intense pain is usually experienced early on, the vibrations of the loss will likely be evident in various ways and intensity through the years.  There is a part of our love and loss that is put in our life for keeps.  However, the way we think and feel about it is likely to change quite a bit.

Losing a baby often sets a line of before and after in our personal story.  We change to a “new normal” and then we change again.  How the loss of our baby hits us emotionally and what it means to the arc of our lives may be drastically different 1 month, 1 year or 10+ years later.  Major loss is a crisis that shakes and breaks a certain story we have in our minds of what is supposed to happen.  The version of who we were and where we thought we were going is altered.

When I reflect on my own pregnancies and losses, I can recall very different versions of how I saw the world and my place in it.  There was a time when I looked at my future with the expectation that I would be raising a daughter.  There was another time when I thought I might never be happy again.  I was remarkably wrong on both counts.

Clients have told me of similar experiences in their lives.  One woman spoke to me about how she viewed a pregnancy loss that had happened years before.   Initially, she felt that the loss had hurt her in a way that would never be viewed as anything other than tragic.   Years later, rather than be entirely painful, she noted that the memories of that time had taken on a gentler, rather sweet quality in a richer life history.  In particular, she recalled the internal transition of seeing herself as a mother and expressed appreciation for understanding that she had that part of her inside.  Although the memories of it were still sad, she viewed the pregnancy as an important and tender experience.

The passing of time and introduction of new circumstances tends to soften some of the pain of loss.  It may also lead you to see how your values, priorities or sense of purpose were affected.  You may have decided to focus more or less on having a family or on an entirely different area of your life.  You may have found that you have more empathy for others suffering loss.  My guess is that you have learned more about yourself and pain than you ever cared to, and that some of that information might have turned out to be useful.

This isn’t a fancy way of saying that time heals all wounds. Rather, it’s that we change with time and interact differently with our grief.  The loss is not gone, or made insignificant, but we don’t stay at a fixed point.  We have had a wider set of experiences, including time spent learning to tolerate the loss.  If nothing else, as time goes on you may have more empathy for your former self who went through so much.  You might also feel humble when contemplating the twists and turns of life that your future self will encounter.

For my part, for this moment, I’m going to take a cue from my Burning Man self of last August and try to take a warm and welcoming stance toward my future self.  I wish her well and hope she gets a lot of great postcards.

Wherever you are in your grief journey, I wish you a big breath of peace today.

Happy New Year and all the best in 2015.



Comparing our Losses

“At least I got to hold my baby.”

“Her loss was later than mine, so it was much worse.”

“I don’t have a partner- no one can understand what I’m going through.”


It is simply a human tendency to compare ourselves and our struggles to others.

For those of us grieving babies, this impulse can be one of the primary ways by which we attempt to orient ourselves and provide ourselves with comfort while walking around this new, unexplored planet.  We compare how far along we were in the pregnancy or how old our baby was, what we have experienced emotionally and physically, and how we are coping.  I did this the day I lost my baby twelve years ago, and I do this today as I write this.  It is both the most normal thing in the world and a potentially damaging bit of thinking.

Sometimes the comparison may bring us comfort.  I’ve heard women say things like “at least I didn’t have to make any decisions about ending my baby’s life” or “it would have been so much harder if I had been further along” or “at least I got to see my baby.”  It may give us a sense of perspective that our loss is not the very worst experience we can imagine or have heard about.  It may help us tolerate our own pain to acknowledge that someone somewhere is surviving a worse fate.

Unfortunately, comparing ourselves to others can also hurt us. This is because it’s never quite a fair comparison between our rich, complicated lives and circumstances to those of another.  Especially when the reality is we may not really know that much about some one else’s experience. Additionally, these comparisons may create distance between people who may be in a great place to support each other.  While leading multiple pregnancy loss groups for women, I had an up close picture of the different ways we use comparisons between ourselves and others in processing our grief after losing a baby.

In the pregnancy loss groups that I’ve led, some of the women had recurrent early miscarriages and some had later losses (after twenty or more weeks’ gestation).  A few of the women had delivered babies so prematurely that they lived only minutes or hours.  In some ways, it was a powerful link for a woman to feel that another in her group experienced a similar type of loss or losses.  To share the heartbreak of what it had been like to get the best news of one’s life, only to have hopes crushed with the onset of early bleeding, formed a bond.  Similarly, when someone had lost a baby most of the way through a pregnancy, a process often accompanied by physical and emotional trauma, it could bring comfort to them to hear that someone else had survived something similar.

But here’s the thing:  it turned out that these were not the only categories of difference that mattered to the group members.  Some of the women had living children prior to their loss while others did not.  Some had earlier life experiences of a pregnancy ending in abortion or adoption which affected how they perceived this perinatal loss.   A few had lost multiples and most had been carrying one baby.   Some of the women had known infertility issues while others had every reason to expect that they could easily conceive again.  Most of the women had partners, but some did not.  Most women were straight; some gay or bisexual.  Some of the women had severe physical or emotional trauma associated with their losses, while some did not.  Some had losses caused by factors (such as physical limitations or genetic issues) that would make future pregnancies potentially higher risk or more likely to result in a baby with severe medical problems, while some did not.  Some had subsequent pregnancies while in the group and some did not.

All of these differences mattered or had the potential to matter to any given group member at any given time.  It periodically made the group very challenging.  The feelings of envy, guilt and isolation were often expressed as people noticed a difference that they thought made someone else’s experience better or worse, more or less hopeful, or more or less survivable.

The glue holding the group together, though, was a simple bond.  All of these women were grieving a baby (or babies) to whom they were attached.  They all grieved someone for whom they had feelings of love and about whom they had been excited, someone for whom they were willing to try rearranging their lives, someone so small and yet so big that the loss had left them rearranged.  The attachment and loss had carved out a space inside them and they were somehow connected to one another through those spaces.

And that’s what made them people of the same planet.  This was a group of people who could understand each other’s language and customs, even if they were not immediate relatives.  These women shared many of the same feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, envy and anxiety.  Their self-esteem and identity had taken a beating because they had started out on the road of pregnancy and dropped off the map before reaching the place where they had a living baby.   They inhabited a planet where life without their baby was hard, sometimes seemingly impossible.  They were in a  place where life meant living in a body that was missing someone or something, with hearts that were split open, but where minimal tangible evidence of what was lost remained.  Seeing the shared pain opened up them up to feeling compassion for each other, which often helped them to foster self-compassion.   It gave them something to recognize, feel and tolerate together.

When comparing our losses, just like our lives, we are all comparing apples to oranges. Differences are real but they may not be the most useful thing to focus on.  In this time of your pain and vulnerability, it may help to notice who can bridge the difference and be with you where you are.  The bridge between you and another may be made by a shared life experience that shaped something inside you in a similar way or it may be the empathy and skill that enables another to come find you where you are.  Try to notice who is emotionally available to you.  Let that person (or people) help you by being in this with you.  You are like no one else but you’re not alone.

‘Tis the Season?

“What a beautiful, such a beautiful, beautiful wreck you are.” -Shawn Mullins “Beautiful Wreck”

hI was ambivalent about doing a holiday related post. There are certainly other places on the internet to find great articles that address the challenges of this time of year for those who have experienced reproductive loss. They offer useful ideas regarding how to cope with family members, find meaning in the holidays and ways to create your own traditions.  These articles can feel like lifesavers for those who are grieving babies during the holiday season.  If you’re interested, I would recommend looking at the National Infertility website Resolve or googling “pregnancy/infant loss and holidays.”

But as Thanksgiving approached, I kept thinking about a scene from the movie “Return to Zero,” a Lifetime movie that came out earlier this year.   It’s based on a true story about a couple coping with the loss of their stillborn son.

This particular scene takes place some months after the loss and the grieving woman, played by Minnie Driver, is in the midst of alcohol affected family Thanksgiving dinner.  At the table, family members start expressing gratitude for various things in their lives and making toasts.  Following her father-in-law’s elaborate and effusive toast “To Life!” (during which Driver’s character visibly sinks further into her own drunken sadness), she makes her own toast:

“I’m thankful that today I can see life for what it really is.  To know that just beneath the surface, just under the radar, is death.”  She says a few more lines and ultimately raises her glass “to Death!”

The words are sad, defiant, jarring and clearly disturbing to some of the family members, but make perfect sense to the bereaved couple.  The toast seems to me to be a kind of postcard from the upside-down version of the holiday experience, a version that needs to be acknowledged.  Certainly partly influenced by alcohol (which I don’t, by the way, recommend as a coping mechanism),  the character is giving voice to what is lost in her life.

The speech acknowledges the baby who is dead, the part of the grieving woman that feels dead and the character’s acute awareness of the thin line between her losses and the right side-up world of the others sitting around the table.   The couple is living in the season of grief, which overrides any other dates on the calendar.  And as sad as it is, their experience is just as real (and alive) as any version of a “Happy Holiday.”

Most of us probably spend the majority of our lives traveling somewhere between the sentiments of the two toasts- the over-the-top shout out to life and the dark nod to death.  But we are likely to spend at least some significant time parked closer to one or the other of these perspectives.  It may help to remember that someone is always parked near you as well as across the road and you will all likely be switching positions at some point.

If grief is a part of your season, you may notice that you are looking at the world in a very different way than you have in past years.   It also is likely to be very different than what you will experience in future years, despite any current conviction you may have that all of your future holidays will be as sad and painful as this one.

You know on some level that there are people all over the world who are also grieving right now.  People who feel just as sad and wrecked by a loss as you may be feeling.  Noticing them with respect may help you to respect and have some compassion for yourself.  This could happen just through shifting your awareness to consider them or something more hands on, such as volunteering to help others in need during the holidays.

Darkness punctuated by light of all kinds is a pretty ubiquitous sight at this time of year.  It reminds us of the drama and meaning in both sides of the human experience- cold vs. warm, drained of life or bursting with it.  We all want to live on the bright side, but since that’s not a permanent address, it may help us to keep our eyes and hearts open to toasts from both sides of the table.

Reviewing the Loss: Thinking and Feeling it Through


“I must not have been careful enough.”

“Maybe I just don’t deserve a baby.”

“Of course it was my fault, I was the one who was pregnant. ”

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, termination due to diagnosis of a fetal abnormality, or infant loss who did not spend some time worrying that she had done something to contribute to the loss.  And by some time, I mean usually quite a bit of time.

I know I did this myself and I think it’s probably an inevitable part of the process of grieving a perinatal loss.  As a species, we like to make sense of our world.  Being pregnant or having a new baby is a huge responsibility.  When we are the one carrying the baby or caring for the baby, it’s pretty compelling to believe that we have control over what happens on our watch.

Drinking coffee or small amounts of alcohol, having sex, riding in an airplane, eating soft cheese, deli meat or non-organic food, exercising, not exercising, thinking too much or too little about the pregnancy or baby, feeling too positive or not positive enough about the pregnancy or baby are all often mentioned by women as possible causes of their loss.

Although medical advice may caution us about some of these issues during pregnancy, it is rare to have them actually contribute to a loss.  But, despite what we are told about the evidence, sometimes it just feels better to blame ourselves rather than to acknowledge how little control we actually had over something so important.

Pregnancy and giving birth can feel like a time when we are granted special powers.  Our body steps up to do amazing things in the way of hormone production, shape shifting and perceptual changes such as a heightened sense of smell and taste.  We are tasked with the mind-blowing job of growing a new human and are usually given plenty of advice on how to do it.  All of these factors help set the stage for believing we must be responsible for what happens.  If we’re not the ones in charge of things going right for our pregnancy or baby, who is?

And then something goes so horribly, painfully, wrong.  Despite all of our strength and intentions, we couldn’t stop it from happening.  We search the world for a loophole to reality or a chance for a do-over and we come up empty.  What does it mean about us?  If it turns out that we aren’t Superman, who could make everything safe, are we Lex Luthor (the arch supervillan) who did something awful to make everything go wrong?

Maybe accepting our part in what happened involves coming to terms with how, despite all of our strong wishes and abilities, when it comes to certain medical realities, each one of us is a perpetual Clark Kent with no phone booth in sight.   We only ever had a few things under our control, and none of them were enough.  If we could have made the world spin backwards and saved our baby, we would have.  It just wasn’t ever an option.  Unfortunately, great responsibility doesn’t always come with great power (to mix in a Spider-Man reference).

So when your brain leads you to do the review of what happened and why, maybe you can try to keep in mind who you’re actually dealing with- a loving, heartbroken person.  You’ve already been through a lot and beating up on yourself isn’t appropriate or helpful.  Start trying to speak to yourself gently, as you would to your best friend if she were going through the same thing.

Think about what you need.  Is there any information that might help you to logically or emotionally understand what happened?  If so, you may want to try to seek it out.

If not, or if the information is not that clear or helpful, work on accepting the story you have with the knowledge that you have.  Part of this acceptance is to acknowledge the limited or total lack of control you had over your loss.

As you do your review, don’t forget the parts of your story where you went to your prenatal appointments, took your vitamins and did your best to care for your pregnancy or baby.  Don’t forget any sweet moments you had while pregnant or with your baby.  And definitely remember that your desire to understand is because of your attachment to someone very dear to you.  That ability to attach doesn’t come with the ability to fly or change the past, but it’s a huge part of being an imperfect and loving human.