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Normalizing Grief: Coping After the Loss of a Pregnancy or Child

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Couple holding hands

The loss of a pregnancy or a child is a devastating experience for parents. The grief can be all-consuming, and it may be weeks, months or even years before life starts to settle into a new normal.

Grief and bereavement look different for everyone – no two people will respond in the same way. Even partners may respond to the loss of a child differently. It’s important to remember that whatever your response, it’s completely normal and valid, says Allison Remy, MSSA, LISW, The Joanie and Tom Adler Endowed Director of University Hospitals Parent Bereavement Programs.

“We need to normalize grief and understand that it’s OK to not be OK,” says Remy.

While everybody has their own way of responding to and working through grief, Remy says there are some universal grief responses that are commonly experienced, at least to some degree. These common grief reactions can affect your physical, emotional and social well-being.

Sleep Disruptions

When experiencing grief, some people might find themselves sleeping more. Others may find themselves being unable to sleep because their minds are racing. Both are normal grief responses.

“They may keep busy all day and be unable to think about it, but at night it all comes rushing back and they can’t sleep,” explains Remy.

Remy says finding a way to calm your mind can allow you to get the rest your body needs. This may entail finding a soothing activity such as reading a book, meditating, listening to a podcast, or breaking thought cycles by doing a crossword puzzle – find an activity that works for you. Concentrating on a specific task can help keep your brain from focusing on intrusive thoughts and allow your mind to relax.

Practicing mindful breathing exercises can also help to calm your mind by focusing your attention on your breathing in the present moment.

Physical Symptoms

Grief can also manifest in a host of physical symptoms. This can include tightness in the chest and throat, pounding heart, loss of appetite, dry mouth, lack of energy or fatigue, weakness, and the aforementioned sleep problems. For women who experience pregnancy loss, hormonal shifts can cause various physical symptoms as well. While these are normal and often decrease over time, you should contact your health provider if symptoms get worse or become overwhelming.

Returning to ‘Normal Life’

Some people want to throw themselves back into work and a regular routine in order to feel better. Others may find they’re not ready, and that everyday life can be too triggering. There is no set timeline for this process and it’s important to allow yourself whatever time and space you need to grieve.

“Going back to work doesn’t mean you are OK and not sad, but it can be your way of working through the loss,” says Remy.

Grief and Isolation

Feeling isolated can be a big part of grief. Especially with the loss of a child, you may feel like others won’t understand what you’re going through so you may close yourself off from others. But it is important to find ways to connect with others and your environment, even when you are actively grieving.

“You don’t have to do it by yourself. Find a person to talk to, like a partner, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker, therapist or peer support group,” suggests Remy. “Just know you’re not alone.”

It’s also important to keep the lines of communication open with your partner so you can help and support each other during this time. Even if your partner seems to be doing OK on the outside, they may be struggling inside. Make sure to check in with each other frequently so that you can navigate grief together, even if you are grieving in different ways.

‘Good Days and Bad Days’

You may be familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But these stages are not a one-size-fits-all progression and the path is not always linear. You may not go through every stage, and you may not go through them in the same order. The feelings of grief can also ebb and flow over time.

“Grief is like waves,” says Remy. “They can come crashing in, really hard and fast. Sometimes they trickle off but can churn back up at any moment.”

You have your good days and bad days, or even just good and bad moments. Part of the process is finding a way to allow yourself to experience both happiness and sadness.

Remy says it’s important to be gentle with yourself and not put any deadlines or timelines on your grief, because it is not something that you can “get over”. It’s something you have to learn to live with, and that can take time: “Grief is not going to get smaller, but you can build your life back up around it. You don’t have to ‘move on from it’. You can carry it with you.”

Related Links

University Hospitals Parent Bereavement Program is working to build a safe community for people who have endured the loss of a pregnancy or child by providing support and resources for grieving parents and families.

For more information, call 216-844-8254 or email HEAL@UHhospitals.org.

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