Category Archives: Comparing Losses

The Shaking Tree

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????“Family isn’t something that’s supposed to be static, or set. People marry in, divorce out. They’re born, they die. It’s always evolving, turning into something else.”  Sarah Dessen, Lock and Key

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.”  Frederick Buechner

Pregnancy’s ineluctably relational nature means that once it begins, it can never be completely negated…  In any case, in any outcome, there is a relationship the woman has to do something with–  mourn it, celebrate it, try to forget it, dismiss it, accept its loss.  Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire:  On Children Love and the Inner Life


Family trees are overrated.  That’s my opinion about the traditional ones anyway–  the kind that kids are asked to do in school and the ones touted on ancestry websites.   I get that they can be useful for teaching us something about where we come from and some of the characters in our family history.  I understand that the information may be rather poignant or interesting (e.g. my first relative to enter this country was a stowaway on a ship– I love to travel on the cheap– any meaningful connection there?).  But when the background of our clan is drawn up in terms of births, deaths, marriage and divorce only, it seems to me to be a skeleton– with some bones missing– view of a family.  There’s just a whole lot that remains unseen.

Maybe you were raised by your Aunt Fanny or your grandparents.  Maybe your parents forgot to get married or divorced.  Or maybe your parents couldn’t get married or you were conceived with the help of what psychologist Dianne Ehrensaft terms a “birth other” (donor or surrogate) or have more or less than two parents who are raised you.  The authorities who track the comings and goings of our lives are likely to miss such details.  The lines running between our hearts and those we love may be very different than what shows up on a traditional family tree.

Historically and today, a baby loss may not be noted in a family record.  Depending on whether the loss was during or after pregnancy, whether a birth or death certificate was made and who all was told, it may be an off the books experience.  The fact that it may go undeclared and unwritten matches the ambiguous quality that can be a part of baby loss.

Not every pregnancy loss is seen as a loss of a person and it doesn’t need to be.  We each have an individual understanding of our loss and may hold it as more of a loss of a dream or a version of one’s future.  Even infant loss, depending on cultural and individual differences, may be viewed as something less than would the loss of another family member.

But even when the occurrence is documented minimally or not at all, a baby loss still shakes the family tree.

Perinatal loss is often felt as a family crisis at multiple levels.  When a baby is expected or recently arrived, new tendrils of feelings come out of family members.   The feelings may be simply love or something more complicated, but a course is charted for a relationship and its accompanying emotions.

When a baby dies, everything changes.  After excitement, planning and attachment, there is a space.  There may be very traumatic memories and almost certainly very sad ones.  There is hurt and shadow hanging over at least some of the family members.  There may be a name that will rarely be said, family pictures that will have someone missing and ongoing relationships that will not develop.

All the hopes and dreams of one part of the family story are altered.  The identities of mother, grandmother, uncle, etc are questioned or shifted as family members consider how a place will or will not be held for the baby in the family history.  The ambiguity of a relationship starting and not continuing in a tangible manner may lead people to minimize the experience, but that won’t make it a non-event.  The loss to the family at large of a baby may be a confusing experience to articulate, but that doesn’t diminish the reverberations.

One consequence of a baby loss might be the test of our family member’s emotional responses in time of crisis.  We often have years or decades between big moments of birth and death, coming and going, beginnings and endings in a family.  Baby loss may trigger a sense of fast forwarding through these types of experiences.  We attach and change, grieve and stumble, show up for each other or don’t.

As with any loss in the family, we also run the experiment of testing out whether our mourning can be done while we stay connected to life and to each other.  We find out if we can be open to joy again as we still grieve.  Expecting and losing a baby makes us trot our heart quickly through its paces of the highs and lows of love.

At the end of it all, as the old bumper sticker tells us, love is what makes a family.  All of this family drama may include family of various descriptions.  The VIP list in your heart and star placement on your family tree can always include a list of less than traditional players.  It could include the teacher who changed your life, your AA sponsor or your best friend.

Your family tree may also proudly feature someone you never met.  It may include someone who changed you both physically and emotionally and taught you about attachment, priorities and loss.  It may be the person whose presence made you both a mother and a bereaved person.  It may be someone you never held, but who you will always hold close.

 

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.”


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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.