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Pregnancy Loss: How to Respond with Compassion

by Connie Shapiro, PhD,  Psychology Today,  June 24, 2010
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All too often, the world just turns its head when learning of a pregnancy loss. There may have been no bulging abdomen, no sonogram being passed around, maybe not even a public announcement of the pregnancy. Or there may have been all of these things plus more. What is missing in both circumstances is any ritual whereby comfort can be extended to the grieving couple. There are no Hallmark cards, no funerals, no gravestones, no memories to be shared among the mourners. Only a void. And it is into this void that you may decide to venture, with the hope that you are able to offer some support and comfort.

So let's consider a few things that will influence your thoughts about how to reach out to the couple. Keep in mind that a pregnancy loss may mean something different to each of them; also keep in mind that both are sad, so please do not fall into the trap of asking one partner how the no-longer-pregnant partner is doing. It is true that the woman has lost the pregnancy, but both of them have lost the dream of becoming birth parents to this baby, and both of them deserve a genuine expression of your sorrow.

Although pregnancy loss can mean a miscarriage or a stillbirth, it also can come about as a result of the agonizing decision of the parents to terminate the pregnancy, either because of learning the results of prenatal genetic testing or because a multi-fetal pregnancy reduction has been advised by the couple's physician who fears for the outcome of the pregnancy if the woman attempts to carry all fetuses to term. Some couples are comfortable sharing this decision with others, but many anticipate they will be harshly judged for their decision to terminate the pregnancy and they decide to present the pregnancy loss as a miscarriage. Regardless of how open the couple may be about the circumstances surrounding their loss, you will want to empathize with their sadness and to ask how you can help.

For some couples, the pregnancy loss is a dimension of their infertility. They may have had difficulty conceiving; they may have had earlier pregnancy losses; this may be a loss from an ectopic pregnancy (where the embryo begins to develop outside the uterus, often in a fallopian tube); or they may be told after an IVF procedure that, although they had a chemical pregnancy, the hormone levels did not rise sufficiently to sustain hope that the fetus would develop. For any couple grappling with infertility, a pregnancy loss is a terrifying reminder that they cannot take birth-parenthood for granted. Another, less discussed, form of loss occurs when a couple has made a plan to adopt, and the birth mother either loses the pregnancy or decides to keep the infant after its birth. The prospective adoptive couple has invested so many hopes in this adoption, that the loss will be a devastating end to what may have been years of infertility. So, with infertility as a backdrop, any form of pregnancy loss feels especially devastating.

Some people assume that the attachment to a pregnancy grows in proportion to the number of months the pregnancy was sustained. It is more accurate to let the couple tell you what this loss means to each of them, because that will enable you to understand more fully the emotions they had attached to this pregnancy, regardless of how far along it had progressed. And hearing from the couple will prevent you from saying hurtful remarks like "It's probably for the best," or "You can always try again." Instead it will feel more supportive to say "This is such a difficult time for you. Please tell me how I can be helpful/ let me know when you feel like a visit/ tell me if I can bring over some food (books, flowers) or run some errands for you." And then prepare to be a good listener. Read more in Psychology Today.

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