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Common responses to perinatal bereavement

Grief can affect emotional, social, physical, spiritual/religious and mental wellbeing. Grief is not a set of finite stages, instead it comes and goes over a lifetime, reducing in intensity over several months or years but re-emerging at particular times or milestones. It involves varied, complex and sometimes conflicting emotions that may come up suddenly and unexpectedly. The symptoms below were compiled by The Gidget Foundation Australia and include some parents’ common reactions to perinatal bereavement,.

Many parents experience some or many of these symptoms in the wake of baby or pregnancy loss. Remember that no two people experience or cope with grief in exactly the same way - how, and how much you grieve will be unique to you, and whatever scope your grief turns out to embody is entirely valid and appropriate.

Physical symptoms

Disrupted sleep and appetite; headaches; body tension or aches and pains; stomach pain and digestive issues; nausea; flare-up of pre-existing chronic health issues; still feeling pregnant; feeling empty. Mums can experience the distress of lactation issues.

Emotional responses

Shock, disbelief – many people report numbness and emptiness after learning that their baby has died. They may also experience a sense of detachment from reality.

Guilt – feeling guilty that they didn’t prevent the loss, that they should have done something differently, or as if their body has let them down

Anger, blame or sense of injustice – parents may blame themselves or others. They may be angry with others, that life isn’t fair, or feel confused about spiritual or religious beliefs that they believe have let them down.

  • Worry they may struggle to get pregnant again and/or significant anxiety during subsequent pregnancies

  • Deep sadness about the baby’s absence and grieving a future that no longer exists

  • Fears or anxiety about the future, about their own or loved ones’ health or safety

  • Jealousy about other people’s pregnancies

  • Being overwhelmed with daily life

Cognitive responses

  • Thoughts about dying/wanting to die

  • Thoughts such as: “I wish I never had to wake up again”

  • Intrusive thoughts or images about the safety or wellbeing of themselves or other loved ones

  • Spiralling thoughts along the lines of “what if…” that seem unrelenting and out of control

  • Negative thoughts about self including thoughts of failure, hopelessness

Common social responses

  • Feeling distant, isolated from other family and friends, feeling abandoned

  • Experiencing other people as insensitive or unsupportive, or feeling let down or disappointed by others’ difficulty in dealing with grief

  • Changes in family dynamics or relationships. Parents may notice behavioural changes in their other children, or tensions with other family members, such as their own parents

  • Feelings of not fitting in or being misunderstood

  • Losing interest in social activities or finding small talk in social groups difficult as it can feel superficial when they are feeling such deep loss

  • Stress about returning to work or financial issues, disinterest in work

  • Lacking the motivation to leave the house or see other people

  • Concern about how to explain what has happened to family, friends or colleagues

Long-term triggers

In the months and years after their loss, parents may experience painful reminders from expected and unexpected sources, including:

  • Pregnancies and births among family or friends

  • Deciding what to do with the contents of their baby’s room, if it was already set up

  • Birth date or anniversary of death

  • Significant occasions such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or holidays

  • Any major life change such as moving house or the loss of another loved one

  • When their child was due to reach certain milestones, such as walking or starting school

  • Dealing with questions such as ‘how many children do you have’?

  • Dealing with being excessively vigilant or protective with their other children

  • Feeling anxiety and fear during subsequent pregnancies or when subsequent babies are asleep or sick

  • Having to visit a hospital or other locations associated with the loss

Suggestions for grieving parents

  • Find ways to create an ongoing bond or connection with the child who died. This may include regular rituals and acknowledging birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones. This allows for healing and honours a parent’s continuing connection with their baby.

  • Talk to a doctor or other healthcare professionals to gain further understanding of the possible medical causes for the baby’s death

  • Provide feedback to the medical team if there are unresolved issues

  • Seek support from family and friends if they are able to provide it

  • Seek counselling, peer support, support groups, or online groups

  • Remember that grief is an individual experience and different people grieve in different ways. If significant relationships are suffering, seek counselling together.

  • Speak to your Manager or workplace about possible bereavement leave for yourself and your partner

You can also download The Gidget Foundation's Coping with Reminders of Pregnancy Loss Fact Sheet here.


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