Mind Matters: Effects of birthing grief

Years ago at a nearby retreat center, Temenos, I offered afternoons of healing for what I termed “griefs of birthing.” Anyone who had experienced miscarriages, infertility, stillbirths, sudden infant death syndrome and elected abortions were welcome.

There was little venue then to express grief about such invisible losses. In the parlance of thanatology (death studies), they were and are “disenfranchised” griefs — the invisible losses for which the culture gives short shrift, and generally there are no mourning rituals or memorials.

What led me to design an afternoon on healing for these losses — which, in effect, developed into a sort of memorial service — was that I myself had suffered multiple miscarriages followed by a few years of infertility. My mother and my paternal grandmother had also experienced miscarriages and early infant loss.

My losses, and the losses of my intergenerational family prompted me to reach out to others in similar circumstances. Resources for griefs of birthing were slim.

Now, however, I am pleased to report that there are not only resources for support but also research to corroborate my anecdotal evidence, that, indeed, griefs of birthing can wield a mighty blow.

Bolstering the many stories I have heard, new research suggests: “that some women may mourn for much longer than expected, even after the birth of a healthy child, although the range and the severity of the symptoms may vary.” (APA Monitor, June, 2012)

I recall in my healing groups that there were women who had unresolved feelings of loss from miscarriages that had occurred twenty years before. While the person sitting next to them may have endured a very recent loss that was still raw, their grief remained locked in their hearts — old wounds never given a chance to be acknowledged.

However, the research is also identifying how men experience griefs of birthing. In part, men confront the physical loss of their wives. “When can I get her back?” is their refrain. In lesbian relationships, it is found that the non-pregnant partner experiences the grieving mother in much the same fashion as the male, i.e., a sense of loss of the partner, “Where is she?”

This may also be the unarticulated question of an infant born subsequent to a birthing loss. Women who have experienced birthing losses and have not had avenues to express their grief may spiral into depression and anxiety. And so a baby born after the loss may develop “disorganized attachment” in response to the mother’s depression. In other words, the mother-infant bond is disrupted. Literally, the mother’s gaze with her infant is out of sync.

An early miscarriage that precipitated unresolved grief can have profound effects upon the child (or children) born after. This emotional effect can cascade down the generations.

Yet, this is not about life being predetermined or set in stone. When we become aware of the importance of honoring the suffering, the losses, the emotions of such grief, the intergenerational story can be one of healing and hope.
Suggested further reading:

Elizabeth Leis-Newman, “Miscarriage and Loss”, APA Monitor on Psychology (June, 2012).
Pamela A. Geller PhD, Mark B. Woodland MD, Christof J. Daetwyler MD, et al, “Psychological and Medical Aspects of Pregnancy Loss,” WebCampus.DrexelMed.edu/interactive/PregLoss.

* Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or (610)388-2888. Past columns are posted to http://www.drgajdos.com.

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