When Loss is Ambiguous

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“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.  

2 thoughts on “When Loss is Ambiguous

  1. SecondVoice

    The problem with defining what your own loss means to you is that everyone else will assume it means something else, based on what they would feel. I think that’s part of what makes it so hard.

    1. Donna Rothert, PhD Post author

      Thanks so much for writing. I agree that others can be quick to assume what a loss means and it can be quite hurtful. For me, it helped to get clear about my own words regarding my losses so that I could understand how the experiences fit into the bigger story of my life. Easier said than done, I know, but I think it’s starts with respecting our own feelings and beliefs.


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