Category Archives: Ambiguous Loss

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.


When Loss is Ambiguous

fields-in-the-fog Rostislav Kralik

“I went through labor and delivery and I saw my baby.  People seem to think that since I lost a baby during pregnancy, it was no big deal physically or emotionally.  What do they think happened?”

“I’m prochoice and after my miscarriage, I feel like I’m grieving a baby.  Is that wrong?”

“There is no Hallmark card for this occasion.”


Losing someone who was not known to the world at large can make the loss ambiguous and confusing.  This might be especially profound if you have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth or other loss during pregnancy.  It may be unclear to others in your life if the loss was a death, or even an event of great significance.

Not everyone who loses a pregnancy feels she has lost a baby.  Not everyone who loses a pregnancy finds it to even be a big deal.  But for most of us, it is an enormously big deal.  It can feel like the invisible giant of losses, that earthquake that only happened to us.  And understanding what it means to us- what was lost- may be a challenge to ourselves and to others.

Some of the specifics may be clear:

“My baby died.”

“I’m not pregnant anymore- I won’t be having a baby soon.”

“I lost my dream of having this baby”

However, the specifics and scope of the loss may be quite confusing:

“Will I ever have a baby?”

“I lost a person!  Is it OK to name my baby and to say I had a daughter?”

“Sometimes I feel like it was just part of me that I lost.”

The confusing and amorphous nature of losing a baby before it is born are displayed in the titles of two books:  “About What Was Lost:  20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing and Hope” (Jessica Berger Gross, Ed.) and the memoir of carrying and losing a stillborn baby, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination” by Elizabeth McCracken.  Just the one line titles speak to an experience of losing someone who is both so precious and ephemeral.  These qualities contribute to make these losses such a bewildering experience.

Pregnancy is a complicated mix of physical and psychological changes.  Identity transitions (e.g. starting to see oneself as a mother) and deepening attachment to the baby are normal reactions for an expecting woman as well as her partner.  The timelines for these experiences in pregnancy vary from person to person.  If a particular pregnancy ends with a loss, the truck carrying all of the wishes, attachment and expectations of that individual can’t just back up to some earlier, pre-pregnancy place.  The woman will still be left carrying feelings from the pregnancy, whatever they  may be.  That’s why an early miscarriage may feel to one person like a unrealized dream while to another it feels like the loss of a specific, loved baby.

Legal definitions of personhood, medical procedures based on gestational age, and beliefs about when life begins don’t start or stop attachments of the heart. No one else has the right or ability to decide what your perinatal loss means to you.  You don’t have to adopt the words or explanations of others when deciding if you feel like you experienced the death of a person or death of a dream.  Your pregnancy or baby was part of you, and you have the right to acknowledge (or discover) what the loss means to you.