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