Grieving for children lost too soon
Posted on 21 October 2022
Losing a baby during pregnancy or in infancy is a devastating and heart-breaking experience for parents and their families. As it is a subject that is often not spoken about, it can be very lonely living through the experience, which is why it is very important to seek emotional support to help one cope with the grief.
World Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month is observed during October to remember those babies who have been lost far too soon, raise awareness about such early bereavement and highlight the importance of supporting those affected.
“Thousands of families in South Africa are affected each year by the loss of a child to stillbirth, miscarriage, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and other causes of death during pregnancy and infancy. Sadly, this is often not spoken about,” says clinical psychologist Alexis Haupt-Pullen, who practises at Mediclinic Durbanville and in Stellenbosch. While she works with all mental health problems, she is passionate about helping those who are struggling with pregnancy loss and infant death.
“Such a loss is usually incredibly traumatic and is felt both physically and emotionally. Bereaved parents and their families need a space to talk, ask questions, be angry, feel sad and receive understanding and this process is affirming and validating.”
Remaining silent after suffering a lost pregnancy or infant death can make it even harder to process the grief. In many cultures, losing a baby is a stigmatised and taboo subject, leaving the mothers especially feeling unnecessary guilt and shame. Never having the chance to meet one’s unborn baby or having to say a sudden farewell to an infant can leave parents feeling lost and empty.
In 1988, when former US president Ronald Reagan declared October to be Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, he said: “When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them.”
Bereaved parents and families who receive support from professional counsellors tend to be able to navigate the emotions and triggers of the grieving process more effectively and are able to move beyond the loss.
Because men and women tend to grieve very differently, which can cause misunderstandings and conflict in a relationship, couple’s counselling can be a great help, says Haupt-Pullen. Whereas women generally need to talk about the emotional experience of losing their baby, men may feel deeply but often don’t verbalise their emotions and are initially preoccupied with the well-being of their partner and thoughts about the future.
“Bereaved parents often have a lot of questions. They ask: Why did this happen? Is there something that I have done to cause this? Why did God allow this? Having to live with the numerous questions for which there are limited answers often makes it difficult to experience closure. Many women condemn themselves even when they know they haven’t done anything wrong or couldn’t have done things differently.”
Considering a future pregnancy can also be the cause of a great deal of anxiety, making a couple hyperaware of potential dangers. “This anxiety doesn’t have to be detrimental if they receive adequate support and learn healthy coping mechanisms,” says Haupt-Pullen.
She notes that family members, such as grandparents, may also need help to deal with their own grief and be able to provide the bereaved couple with the right kind of care. Well-meaning friends and family may come across as hurtful or insensitive when they say things to a bereaved couple like: ‘Don’t worry you’ll have more children one day,’ or ‘Everything happens for a reason.’
“These (kinds of comments) can invalidate the enormity of pain and loss. I’ve learnt over the years that bereaved parents are comforted when they hear that the people in their world genuinely empathise with them without giving advice,” says Haupt-Pullen.
Reaching out for emotional support is an important step to coping with the loss of a pregnancy or infant. If you need a safe and supportive space to process your grief, contact your healthcare provider for a referral to a psychologist for individual or couple’s counselling. Bereavement support groups can also be beneficial.
For more information about pregnancy loss and infant death, you can watch this video of clinical psychologist Alexis Haupt-Pullen speaking about the subject.