October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month
I know I typically try to keep things fun and humourous, but not everything is sunshine and butterflies for everyone. This month’s article touches on something a little more serious, but just as educational, as we strive for awareness and compassion. October has been known as the International Month of Pregnancy & Infant Loss for many decades, and the specific date of October 15th has been recognized by several countries around the world as a day to mourn and celebrate the lives that were lost, and to provide calm and safe space for bereaved parents/families. So why am I posting this now, in August? Because every single day is a day where someone could be going through emotional pain due to a loss, and it is important that we all know what to do in the situation when we find out someone we know or love is going through this hardship. We don’t need a special day to recognize this; it’s just nice that we have one to force us all to remember to be compassionate. Jennifer Gillean, a local bereavement doula has graciously offered to tell us some of her story, and to help navigate the unknowns when it comes to interacting with someone who has experienced loss: how to act, what to say, what not to say, and how to support them in their ongoing journey.
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Affects Everyone
Some people have been dreaming about becoming a parent for as long as they can remember, while some folks surprisingly find themselves with mixed emotions to learn they’re “expecting”. No matter how you came to your pregnancy, having it abruptly end or having your baby die can be a shattering experience. I am so grateful to be a mom of 3 living children, who has been profoundly touched by living through 4 pregnancy losses.
When a parent hears the awful news that their baby has an abnormality not compatible with life, or that there is no longer a heartbeat, their entire being can be rocked to the core. For most people, this may be when they slip into shock mixed with dread about what comes next. Or maybe they feel like they are being punished or tested in some way. Nothing seems right or fair or real.
Pregnancy and infant loss touches so many of us, yet it is only recently that we have begun to acknowledge how deeply it can impact a person, just as the death of a loved one can forever change us. Struggling through 1st trimester and 2nd trimester losses inspired me to become a birth, death and bereavement doula, a Birthing From Within childbirth mentor and a birth story listener. Through these deep learnings, I am practicing how to be a companion to both a mother and her partner’s heartbreaking transition to living after loss.
For many, this experience initiates such vulnerable, intense emotions and meaningful learning-it can take time to unravel and integrate death. As the bereaved navigates their return to daily living, it can be awkward to know what to say or do, but I’ve learned that it is usually better to say something rather than nothing at all. So perhaps it may be helpful to explore how to practice compassion in connecting with those suffering through loss.
Try asking the person how they are really doing, and just listen. Showing a willingness to hear and respond without judgement to whatever it is they would like to share can create an opening for a later conversation, or at least an acknowledgement that you care enough to ask. Aim to be sensitive to present company, as well as timing, and try to be mindful of your own values or perspectives in responding to someone else’s experience.
When a person expresses their grief, it can be a habit of speech or culture to layer what was said with something positive. Saying things, even with good intention, can be painfully received. Words similar to: “At least you know you can get pregnant”, or “it wasn’t meant to be”, or “it’ll happen next time”, or any version of “be grateful for what you have”, might seem like positive ways to respond but can actually come across as dismissive. Saying the wrong thing happens often and is an opportunity to deepen your awareness and compassion, so feel welcome in apologizing if you make a wrong assumption.
You might consider taking some time to connect by letting the person know that you are thinking about them and what they’ve gone through-weeks, months even years after a loss. For those who named their baby, saying their baby’s name can be like music to their ears. Remembering to check in around anniversary dates, like due dates or death dates, or holidays can be so incredibly touching. Any action that lets them know they are not alone in their grief, allows their voice to be heard and that their experience of loss matters is helpful and will most likely will be appreciated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Jennifer Gillean is a stillbirthday birth & bereavement doula trained in supporting women through abortion and miscarriage. She is also an ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) and Birth Trauma Ontario co-facilitator with monthly peer based support gatherings for families who are healing from a challenging birth experience. Jennifer has founded the Empty Arms Open Heart, an on line and in person community for parents healing from pregnancy and infant loss, and works to build a supportive and learning network for Full Spectrum Doulas and Reproductive Justice advocates across Canada.