Pregnancy Loss & Shame
Miscarriage occurs in 10-15% of known pregnancies. It occurs when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy, and it is often spoken about in hushed tones or not at all. This needs to change, and in order for that to happen, we have to understand what drives this lack of conversation and then become vulnerable enough with one another to share the dark moments and the life lessons that accompany pregnancy loss. I believe that shame is the primary culprit here. Unfortunately, there are many reasons which often contribute to the shame experienced after a miscarriage. Even the word itself, miscarriage, is reminiscent of "mistake" or "mishap;" it carries a sense that some wrongdoing occurred. Common reasons for experiencing shame after a pregnancy loss are:
1. It feels like a personal failure. Women who have experienced pregnancy loss often feel as though they can't do this thing that all women are supposed to be able to do or that they lost the baby despite having done “everything right." This pattern of thinking can lead to much hurt and lowered self-confidence as it does not account for the prevalence with which pregnancy loss occurs and the vast number of causes for it. There is a sense that if a woman had done something differently, this wouldn't have happened. Although we may know intellectually that this is not true, it is not easy to shake these thoughts. In therapy, we process the way in which these thoughts impact core beliefs about oneself and the world, and we work to reframe them into more adaptive, affirming beliefs.
2. It feels like I'm the only one (that I know of). Others who have experienced loss do not always feel comfortable sharing their own experiences. Although pregnancy loss is not uncommon, it is difficult to speak about, so women tend to feel isolated in their despair. Thankfully we live in an age where women are coming forward through social media to share their stories of grief & loss; we need more of this type of openness to help reduce the stigma around pregnancy loss and to build community amongst those who have experienced it.
3. I feel guilty for grieving because others may have it worse. This one is particularly difficult because on top of the grief and visceral sense of loss that a woman may experience after a miscarriage, she may also feel guilty for feeling so badly about it. Well-meaning loved ones may unknowingly make this worse with statements such as, "at least it was early in the pregnancy" or "at least you know you can get pregnant." Although these statements may be true, they carry an implied message that she should be grateful that this wasn't as bad as it could have been. A loss is a loss and in order for healing to occur, her baby's passing must be felt and it must be honored, just as we would honor the death of anyone else. Statements like, "I am so sorry," "I know this hurts, and I'm here for you," or "How I can support you in this?" are great ways for others to convey concern without minimizing her experience.
Shame flourishes when we isolate ourselves by hiding our vulnerabilities and wearing a mask that conveys, "Everything's fine; I'm fine." It tricks us into thinking that if we keep it all in, we can protect ourselves from scrutiny and pity. The truth is, if we keep it all in, we deny ourselves and others the opportunity to experience genuine empathy; we deprive ourselves of hearing, "I've been there too" or "I'm here for you." Shame begins to wither away when we step out on faith and share our stories. Healing begins when we start to feel accepted and empowered by our ability to withstand what we feared so greatly.
If you are struggling with painful emotions after a pregnancy loss, please contact the Center for Maternal Mental Health or a mental health professional near you. It can be helpful to sort things out in a safe place, figure out what coping strategies are right for you, and to have an ally in what can be a lonely time. You can also visit www.marchofdimes.org or www.postpartum.net for educational resources and online support.