Forcing the Space for Perinatal Loss & Grief Around the Holidays
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
(This was a blog originally written in collaboration with Brooklyn Center for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy on how best to support loved ones during this time -- with some added updates).
End-of-the-year holidays are fast approaching and the pressures of a joyous season are around the corner. Overall, grief, sadness, loss and the associated feelings are already hard to name, acknowledge, honor and sit with. In the overwhelm of a stifling holiday time, this becomes impossible.
"My older sister acted as if I was contagious because I had a miscarriage at 16 weeks. She didn't want me talking about it at her dinner. As if my grief was dirty and my loss was somehow going to infect someone else."
For those who have experienced stillbirth, TFMR, miscarriage and other perinatal losses, there are the very real added layers of shame, guilt or taboo tacked on when attempting to be vocal and emotive about this kind of loss. Bereaved parents in session and support groups often echo similar sentiments of not feeling heard when it comes to perinatal loss and the openness it deserves. There are cultural mores that dictate certain loss practices, including not talking about early pregnancy for superstitious fears of a miscarriage happening, and those too contribute to a gap in intentional activities around perinatal loss for families.
Beyond specific cultural rituals, there is something else common and often, more painful, to be noted which contributes to a lack of support in the realm of perinatal loss: The extended family or friends and their own inability to honor the discomfort they themselves feel when needing to step up for a perinatal loss. If hard conversations honoring experiences like sadness or disappointment are not frequent in family or friend structures, there will be very little space for grief and even less space for perinatal loss.
In reality, 10% – 20% of people face perinatal loss, and yet the stories of those who have had such a common and difficult experience are usually invisible. This statistic isn’t even all-encompassing as it doesn’t account for stillbirth, TFMR, and other losses the perinatal community experience. As the season moves forward, it is so important to break the taboo on grief and loss and hold real and tangible space for loss families.
As a whole, the holiday season isn't one of nuance. From bright lights to big feasts, there aren’t many spaces to hide from such pronounced displays of cheer. Grief, on the other hand, is not as reliable. It pops up at inconvenient and varied times like at night before bed or during dinner with friends -- it has no set schedule or predictable behaviors. It comes in waves, subsides in waves and crashes into the shore at full velocity. The over-emphasis on family, togetherness, milestones, and celebration can be crushing for someone who is moving through grief. The approaching new year and the focus on resolutions, new beginnings, and gratitude isn’t often where a bereaved family immediately docks after loss.
Without naming this period of time, holding appropriate care and space for it, allowing the grief to exist and if wanted, moving through it with grace, it becomes an amorphous thing to pathologize. What happens to normal feelings and emotions when they are silenced, pathologized or deliberately ignored? Consider that landscape and how that influences future needs and experiences of a family.
"I know that nothing is wrong with me and I'm just sad because my son isn't here but when I started to talk about him, it was so quiet. No one said anything except my wife. She said, 'I wish he was here too.' But my mom, sister, no one said anything else. The silence felt like I should shut up and move on."
Perinatal loss may feel like such a taboo subject to discuss. Yet, it is important to acknowledge it in a way that is meaningful to the individual or the family. Silence, even if well-intentioned, can feel unbearably isolating, create disesteem, become the source of resentment, and sow many tangible, negative experiences. This is the opposite of what a friend or relative aims to do.
There are ways to be more mindful and supportive of someone who experienced perinatal loss, stillbirth, terminating a pregnancy for medical reasons (TFMR), abortion, neonatal infant loss, ectopic pregnancy, or another kind of loss.
How to Offer Loss Support During the Holidays:
Engage in your own feelings around loss and grief. Name them for yourself. Maybe you aren't ready to go into a deep dive, and that is okay because yes, these are very hard feelings to be with. Keep in mind that your feelings are not those of your friend or relative. Hold yours as you need to, and allow your friend or relative to express and experience theirs as they need to.
Consider helping the family hire a bereavement or perinatal loss doula. There are many physical and emotional tasks and experiences to work through that would be very new for someone outside of the field, including planning around lactation for a later-term loss. These are important things that doulas are qualified to advise and find resources on.
Ask the parent or family their preferences. Perhaps they want their baby's name on holiday cards or mentioned in prayers. Perhaps they want to be directly asked about their grief or they want to have their own mourning ceremony. Ask with a heart full of love and courage, "Is there a way you would like me to talk about your loss and experience at this time? Let me know what feels best for you."
Offer a way to honor the baby. Consider lighting a candle or putting up a special ornament in honor of the baby and the bereaved parents. Consider offering a flowering plant in honor of the baby.
Remain mindful about those who may be joining a gathering who have infants or are expecting. Of course, not inviting a pregnant relative isn’t the answer, however, addressing it gently and lovingly might be. Say to the bereaved, “I imagine this may be hard for you. I love you. I just want you to know that I am here if you need a break or space to talk."
Be charitable. Make a donation in the name of the baby or family to a children’s charity or another meaningful organization of choice. If the baby was named, please use the name of the baby.
If there is a partner, father, or non-gestating parent involved, don’t ignore them. Recognize their grief too. Talk to them about it and respect their space.
Talk to the parents about their loss. We acknowledge the loss of a parent or a friend, so why not a perinatal loss? Pain should have space to air out, not be cooped up. It should be supported with love.
Here are a few additional resources for loss families:
Organizations, groups & community:
Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby
At a Loss: Finding Your Way After Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Infant Death
There is no wrong way or right way to grieve or honor a perinatal loss, there is, however, ignoring loss or pretending everyone has moved on, which is deeply hurtful to the family or parent. Let the bereaved family decide what they need by creating a space for them to feel like they can make their decisions known. Perhaps they may not want to attend a party this year, perhaps they may request support in finding bereavement groups or counseling, or perhaps they may want to talk often about their experience, either way, to love them is to let them grieve how they need to without agenda.