Monday, July 1, 2013

How A Mother Grieves (Part 1)

(This week’s topic and post was so lengthy that I elected to break it into a more manageable, readable two parts. )

When a baby dies, both the mother and father grieve, but they tend to express their grief differently. In this post I’ll discuss the unique characteristics of a mother's grief.

Because you—as the mother—carried the baby physically and experienced the hormonal changes, along with the myriad of emotional and physical changes those sometimes haywire hormones bring, you will likely grieve more openly, (women tend to emote more openly anyway, don’t they?), and for a much longer period than the father. This fact illuminated itself one day for us when Chris made a striking and revealing comment to me after several days of carefully editing my manuscript. As he laid it on the counter in front of me he said softly, “You suffered a lot more than I did.” I always suspected I had (given both the severe physical debilitation and the recovery) based on the way he demonstrated his grief, but I hadn’t said so. On this occasion I simply nodded and asked, “You think so?”  “Yes, you did,”  he responded.

For ages mothers and motherhood have claimed a special, revered place in society. In Ancient biblical times it was a shame to a woman who could not reproduce. (I don’t know if they ever gave any thought to it possibly being the “man’s problem” that causing the procreation problem.) Read the biblical account of Hannah in her distress and the way her husband’s other wife torments her because of her barrenness in First Samuel. Or remember the desperate actions of Abraham and Sarah that got them and their family into so much trouble. And today motherhood is still the longing and desire of most women. (Read most, not all.) God sets it in the heart of them: to have and nurture children.

I remember distinctly when I “cravings” to become pregnant and be a mother assailed me. It was like a switch flipped on in my brain, sending happy, maternal longing volts through my body. It came as a shock to me since the mere thought of having children had always been anathema to me. I was never going to have children. Not me! Children were for other women. I didn’t even really like little kids, (I mean really little kids and babies) even though I held a K-12 teaching credential. Oh, of course, I thought they were soft, cute, and mildly entertaining, but more problem and energy than I wanted to expend on them. And for many reasons I was afraid to have any children. (That’s an entirely different topic.) Yet once that switch ignited, there was no turning back. So when your hopes and dreams—and perhaps your self-worth quotient—become invested in that outcome, having them demolished is devastating. It leaves you feeling deprived, dreadfully and embarrassingly inadequate. With such a strong desire to fill your need, losing a child—or not being able to have one—is emotionally crushing.

Many factors affect your grief: physical, hormonal and emotional factors all compiled to produce your intense sorrow, resulting in what may be a lengthy grieving period. Even before you knew you were pregnant, indeed, at the very moment of conception, your body was busy nurturing your child and preparing for its birth. Your body immediately initiated tremendous hormonal shifts to stimulate the baby’s development and make your body a hospitable place for the baby to grow. Your body suddenly went into overdrive to produce another life as well as simultaneously sustain yours. When that ends, either in a live birth with a healthy baby, or early miscarriage, or in utero death, your body responds immediately to the change. Your baby has died, but your body doesn’t often know it.

If you suffer an early miscarriage, your breasts will suddenly no longer be tender and the pregnancy “glow” will disappear from your face. If you lose a child later in pregnancy, in the second or third trimester, your milk may let down in your breasts, your abdomen may take some time to return to normal size, an episiotomy or C-section may need time to heal. These will all be devastating reminders to you of your loss, they may continue for weeks. Return to my March 11 and April 22, 2013 blogs to read the shock I experienced when my milk let down just hours after Victoria’s death; and the way I reacted to the C-section scar bearing constant, unrelenting witness to her former existence and death.

Keep in mind that these hormonal shifts can cause the “baby blues” women experience with “normal” deliveries that result in healthy babies. You aren’t exempt from them because you didn’t have the same, happy outcome. Experiencing these can cause you to sink deeper into grief and depression. Your heart was prepared to mother but now bleeds from a vicious, unrequited wound.   

The bond you spent weeks or months developing actually continues as a “bond of grief” after your loss. Not only have you lost your baby but also a part of yourself. An integral part of your body may feel like it’s missing. A sense of emptiness envelops you, an emptiness that can be more overpowering if you have no other children. This may undermine your self-worth and inundate other areas of your life: work, relationships with your husband, family or friends, and even your other children. A friend who had recently lost a baby in the late first trimester of her pregnancy wept as she relayed how she was taking out her anger and frustration on her kids, feeling powerless to stop her actions.

Try to focus on the blessings in your life: your talents, strengths and friends, the love of your husband. Remind yourself that you are a mother, even if you don’t have a living baby in your arms to ‘prove’ that fact. A baby taken from you does not invalidate your motherhood. When people ask you if you have any children, give them a resounding “Yes!” When people ask me how many children I have, I tell them “three.” Then I briefly explain that we had a daughter between the two boys, which explains the nearly five-year age spread between them. You have a precious baby—your child—in heaven; eternity with them awaits you! You do have a glorious reunion to anticipate! Don’t let your thoughts, or others’ thoughtless words, rob you of that truth.  

Do everything you can to take care of yourself. Pamper yourself. Doing so will help you maintain a positive attitude, an attitude of hopefulness. Get out of bed in the morning, get dressed nicely and continue to maintain your health and appearance. Seek out and participate in activities that make you happy. Have lunch with a friend. Go to the movies, preferably one that will make you laugh. Laughter truly is good, healing medicine for the bones and spirit! Don’t feel guilty laughing either! Pursuing these activities and actions will help diffuse lingering anger, depression, sadness and guilt, all of which can balloon out of proportion if you add fuel to them with negative self-talk and self-pity. 

Feeling that you failed the baby’s father is another issue you may confront. A husband and wife’s relationship often deepens when she becomes pregnant. They have joined with God to accomplish something miraculous. You start sharing more dreams together, pick out names, guess about the sex, voice your preference over it, select baby paraphernalia. Your husband is likely proud of “his” accomplishment. Making your husband a father, blessing the man you love with this tremendous gift, is important to you.

You may feel as if you’ve deprived your husband of his child, of his right to be a father. Occasionally a woman will consider providing her husband with a divorce so he can remarry someone who will “easily” provide him with children. Any number of irrational thoughts like these may cross your mind. Talk about these concerns with the father; be open with him about your fears and feelings of failure. Deal with them so you don’t build an impenetrable wall of fear, silence, or mistrust between you.

Talking. Need I say it again? Women talk more than men, and now is not the time to clam up! Men will tend to clam up, however, or lose themselves in their work to avoid thinking about the loss too much, or feeling too much pain over it. That’s natural for a man to do; they find fulfillment and identity in their labor, so they are apt to automatically retreat to that in their healing. If your husband doesn’t want to discuss the loss as much as you then find friends who are willing to listen to you, who will allow you to express your grief openly and more frequently.

I expected Chris to grieve in a way that was identical to mine. Neither of us appreciated the unique ways women and men grieve. I should have explained my feelings to him without expecting him to automatically understand them or appreciate them. In turn, he should have allowed me to talk about it without acting indifferent and silent (a cover for his deep pain). A man should try to understand what a woman is experiencing, and demonstrate his appreciation of her feelings without being dismissive, but a woman should never expect the father to know or fully comprehend what she’s going through. He can’t. He didn’t carry life in his body; he didn’t feel life’s movement, wiggles and hiccups. He didn’t live the pregnancy like you did. Remember that a man will almost always more reserved in his response than a woman. Do not assume his reserved demeanor means he is suffering any less than you.

Attending a parents’ bereavement group together may be immensely helpful for both of you to express your pain, learn from others, and for you to find and capture the ears of sympathetic mothers and your husband commiserating fathers.

If you are the grieving father, remind your wife how much you love and appreciate her and do not blame her for the loss.

Allow for your differences. God created us—men and women—and we need to appreciate, celebrate those differences.

Next Week: “How A Mother Grieves, Part 2,” especially returning to your social circles and work. I’ll also add a brief section on about the unique grief that can be experienced when an abortion is selected in response to a diagnosis of congenital abnormality or condition incompatible with life.

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!



(Reference: A Silent Sorrow.)