The Loneliness of Perinatal Loss

October is the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. This formal designation is meaningful and important as it lets parents who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss know that their loss is not invisible. Grief can feel incredibly lonely — the whole world around you is still buzzing with its steady, everyday activity while you are looking on in disbelief, dazed, wondering how things can seem so normal when to you they are anything but.

Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz captured this painful experience in his poem “A Song on the End of the World”:

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

The poem concludes with a description of an old man who says while binding tomatoes, “There will be no other end of the world / There will be no other end of the world.”

To lose a baby, whether during pregnancy or post-childbirth, is a devastating experience that to many can and does feel like the end of the world. It does not make any sense when it happens; you were just celebrating the creation of a new life and the building of your family, and weaving dreams and hopes together into a vision of a beautiful future, and now your baby is gone. The pain is made greater by the shattering of these dreams and the identity you began to form as a parent to your baby.

One of the very troubling social dimensions of perinatal loss is that many parents experience a sense of isolation and lack of understanding from others. For pregnancy loss in particular, there are few recognized social rituals that facilitate grieving. Often loved ones do not know what to say or are dismissive. Medical providers might inadvertently fail to acknowledge the emotional pain in visits following the loss. The loneliness of this kind of grief increases the risk of the loss being experienced as a traumatic one. If the lack of understanding has felt cruel or judgmental to the bereaved person, the potential for trauma is made even greater.

For all these reasons, a nationally recognized designation of October as the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month is an important step towards helping parents and families heal. Indeed, awareness is the first step on the path to compassion and attunement. We cannot be compassionate towards something we do not even see.

Let us make sure that we recognize the pain of perinatal loss. If you care about someone who has experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss, show that you care. Ask what you can do. It may be hard for the bereaved person to express what their loss feels like in words or what they need. That is okay. Words are not the only means of communication. Sometimes just sitting there without judgment and with compassion in your heart can make your loved one’s grief a bit more bearable, if only for a moment. Whatever you do, make sure your message is one of acceptance towards the person who is hurting. Do not try to talk them out of their grief.

Grieving is a profoundly personal process that does not end with acceptance and moving on. Instead, the bereaved person comes to learn how to carry their pain in a way that allows them to make room for feeling alive and once again connected to people and things that matter to them. This takes time and is facilitated by the presence of compassion and attunement from others: gentle recognition of the pain and an equally gentle invitation to share and to be together in that pain, even though the person who is not going through it cannot possibly take it away or comprehend the enormity of the loss.

We grieve because we have loved. We heal in the presence of love. It is as simple and as complicated as that.