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.
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.
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
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
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.