Coping after a stillbirth

In Australia, six babies are stillborn every day.  It’s an utterly heartbreaking and tragic statistic, which impacts thousands of families each year. 

The impact of stillbirth

Finding out when you are well into your pregnancy that your baby has not survived or that there are problems with the unborn child or pregnancy can be devastating and commonly leads women and men to experience a range of reactions.

Common feelings and reactions

Initially, many people describe feeling in a state of shock, as they learn that their baby, whom they assumed to be healthy, is now at risk or has died.  The news that this has occurred leaves many in a state of disbelief or denial – as they cannot quite believe that this is happening, or has happened to them. For others, there is an immediate feeling of immense pain.

It took a while for it to sink in.  I was shocked and filled with so much emotional pain that it was almost unbearable.

Many people also describe feeling angry that this has happened to them. These feelings of anger may be strong from the early days or linger over time as you are reminded of your loss.

I felt really, really angry.  Angry with people who were pregnant, angry with people whose babies hadn’t been stillborn, angry with people who tried to empathise by talking to me about their miscarriages, angry even with those who were just trying to help.

Coming to terms with the news can also lead parents to feel immense and overwhelming feelings of sadness – and it’s important to allow yourselves the opportunity to grieve, cry and mourn the loss of your child.  The loss of a baby can also leave you feeling very alone and isolated as an individual and a couple – so it’s important to keep talking to each other, and derive all the support you can from one another and from loved ones.

Many bereaved couples also say that the stigma of stillbirth can compound feelings of isolation, making it difficult to talk to others who simply don’t understand what they’re going through. 

We both felt quite alone as this was happening to us but no one around us really knew what it was like to go through.  On the outside, we tried to make it seem like we were moving on, but on the inside it was raw.  It was a really difficult time for both of us.

Talking with others whom you feel that you can trust and who can be understanding and supportive, can also be incredibly helpful.  Connecting with families who have had a similar experience can help you realise that you are not alone and that others have been through a similar experience.

One of the greatest comforts to me over these last excruciating months was learning how many other women felt the same fear that I do and yet survived subsequent pregnancies.

It is also common to feel a range of other reactions such as guilt, anguish, jealousy and/or shame.  If you are experiencing these feelings, it is important to remember that it is not your fault and the reasons for this occurring are beyond your control.

It is a natural response to question why?  Why me?  Why us?  While it is perfectly normal to ask this, there is, however, no natural answer or explanation. In fact, in Australia, around 40 per cent of stillbirths that occur after 28 weeks’ gestation are unexplained. 

 Rather than placing pressure on yourself to find an explanation that may not be forthcoming, try to embrace your feelings of grief and draw on each other (or others that you trust) to hold and support you at this difficult time.

Acknowledging your loss

 It is important to acknowledge and allow yourselves time and space to grieve for the loss of your baby and all the hopes and dreams that you held for your child and your future as parents of your little one. 

Many parents talk of the importance of holding their stillborn babies and having photographs taken to remember and cherish the moments that they had with them. 

That moment when I held him in my arms, he was perfect.  It was the most precious, wonderful and sad moment of my life.

I wish I had got more photos taken of her by an organisation such as Heartfelt – I never knew how precious the few I have now would be.

Give yourself time

Try to give yourself time to grieve before considering trying again for another baby in the future, as this is important for your emotional and mental health, both now and in the future.  While you or your partner may feel a sense of urgency to try to conceive again as soon as possible, often rushing in to this can increase your anxiety later on .

After my child was stillborn, I was desperate to get pregnant as soon as we could.  Becoming pregnant again was my sole focus.  And when I did become pregnant again, initially I felt immense relief … but that was soon replaced with feelings of apprehension, as I got through the next eight months holding my breath hoping everything would be ok.

Anxiety and depression

Research indicates that rates of anxiety in women during a subsequent pregnancy are likely to be higher if she falls pregnant within twelve months of a stillbirth.  Further, there is also more likelihood of experiencing postnatal depression and anxiety following the birth of their subsequent healthy baby.  As a result, some health professionals recommend giving yourself time (around a year) to mourn your loss before beginning another pregnancy, as this may be advantageous to your emotional and mental wellbeing in the longer term.

Seek professional and peer support

 There are a range of professionals and services with expertise in providing support after stillbirth.

You can find a service in your area by searching under the category of perinatal loss on the e-COPE directory.