Grief can be unnerving and shake us to the core. We may not recognize ourselves and feel like we have been taken over by the emotional monster. We are often desperate to gain some control in our lives, but emotions hit us like waves over and over again and can make us feel weak, more out of control and sometimes worried about our sanity! We wonder if we will ever feel ‘normal’ again and if these emotions are going to dominate the rest of our lives.
In today’s post I would like to discuss common and normal emotions associated with miscarriage and pregnancy loss. Often we have no control over the arrival of these emotions, but often we do have control over what we do with them and how we respond to them. The first time I had a miscarriage at 16 weeks pregnant I felt totally overwhelmed and wondered if this was going to be the beginning of a deep season of depression and sadness, but I felt in my heart a voice that said ‘you have a choice’. The strong emotions still came and washed over me time and again, but I recognized that I had a choice in how I responded to them and what I did with them.
Each one of these emotions is normal and is not a sign that you are going crazy, but rather a sign that your body is adjusting to the trauma, grief and readjustments that a miscarriage or stillbirth bring.
1. Anger and irritability
After miscarriage my tolerance level for stress was lower and I would find myself often snapping at my husband or children for minor infractions or issues. Suddenly an abandoned sock or a bed not quite neatly made would become a volcanic explosion of ‘can’t you do anything? Is it that hard to pick up a sock?’ I could recognize that this anger was unreasonable and out of scale with the event, but I often wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. My husband was often more irritable too because of his own stress and unsettledness surrounding the miscarriages so we would have more little arguments about nothing in particular.
Anger is a secondary emotion. That means when we feel angry, often it is really fear or pain that we are covering up instead.
When you find anger or irritability arise, ask yourself: what in particular am I scared about right now? What is causing me pain?
Often my anger, for example, was based on fear of not being able to cope, or deeper fears about whether I would have any more children, or I was afraid that something deeper was wrong with my body which caused the miscarriage. I had to dig a bit sometimes and become a student of myself in order to reveal where an emotion had come from and why I felt it so strongly. For me personally, I found writing about these emotions helpful, and then sharing them with my husband and later a therapist. Try to avoid giving pat answers like ‘I have lost a baby’. What is it about that that is causing pain or fear? Are you fearful about getting pregnant again? Are you simply fearful that you don’t have enough energy to get through the rest of the day? Are you fearful about the meet up with a friend this afternoon who is pregnant? Are you feeling the pain of lost hopes? Of an insensitive comment from a coworker? Of being suddenly left out of the pregnant or motherhood club you were in?
Often we say ‘I am angry about something’ when really what we need to say is, ‘I am fearful or sad about something’.
Pregnancy loss and miscarriage provides for many opportunities for jealousy to arise up in us – there are usually no lack of other pregnant women or babies around us. Often a close family member may be expecting or have a small child and we can’t avoid seeing them.
Jealousy is also a secondary emotion and one that is often based in the pain of being left out of something we desperately want to be a part of, or the fear that we will never have our dreams realized. Jealously also highlights our own lack of control over whether we have a baby or not or when that happens.
Jealousy is also a dangerous emotion because it can lead us to form bitter roots in our hearts which are hard to dislodge if we keep feeding them. Whilst it is normal to feel jealous, it is an emotion that we need to be actively on our guard against in order to protect our hearts from ongoing pain.
One of the things I found helped in the face of jealousy was thankfulness. Thankfulness for the things I did have (my husband, my health, provision for medical care.) and also harder, but what really helped was thankfulness for the things other had. When I saw a friend’s baby, instead of cursing them in my heart or being bitter towards them, I would say in my heart, ‘I am thankful for this life and I bless this life’. When I saw a pregnant woman I would send up a prayer for them: ‘God, please place your angels around this woman and protect her and the life within.’ This was not easy all the time, of course! Of course, I wanted to feel sorry for myself and wonder why they got to keep their babies and I didn’t, but it did make it easier as time went on. I didn’t want to curse my friends or begrudge them. So thankfulness was the key for me in guarding my heart against jealousy and bitterness.
Working through the emotions of miscarriage and pregnancy loss can leave us tired long after the physical tiredness of our miscarriage or pregnancy loss should have passed. It is normal to still feel more tired than usual weeks after a miscarriage if we are still working through the emotions of grief. However, anemia is also another cause of tiredness after miscarriage, especially if there has been a lot of blood lost. Eating well, eating foods which contain iron such as green leafy vegetables, meat and pulses can help but if you suspect anemia as a potential cause of your tiredness do see a doctor to have your blood levels tested to see whether you would benefit from iron supplements.
Remember too that you need to give yourself time to adjust after loss. If you try and return to life as normal then you will find it more exhausting than usual. Make sure that you give yourself space to process and care for yourself.
Also read: Why pregnant loss is making you so tired
Also read: Self-care after Loss
4. Confusion and forgetfulness
When our bodies experience stress they produce adrenaline and cortisol which can focus the memory on what our physical body sees as the important thing to fight or flee from. This hyper-focus on the most important things can mean that our normal cognitive ability to juggle the finer details of our lives becomes impaired and we find ourselves more forgetful and sometimes confused, knowing we know something about something but unable to fully recall it from our brains. Traumatic events in our lives can stamp our brains heavily and it appears that these strong emotions can override other memories, at least for a period of time. All this is normal and should improve as the stress connected with the pregnancy loss is diminished over time.
Feeling sad and broken is perhaps the most expected and socially accepted response to miscarriage but one that is still worth mentioning and looking at because it doesn’t always present as we imagine it to. For me, one of the unsettling things in the week after having a miscarriage was at times not feeling sad. The sadness came in waves and it wasn’t always present and I felt like it should be there all the time. At other points, the sadness felt deep, insurmountable and overwhelming and would hit me powerfully. All these things are normal. It is normal for waves of sadness to come now and again weeks after a miscarriage but if sadness goes on day after day after day for months on end, then depression may have set in and it is worth seeking professional help.
Also read: Depression and pregnancy loss
A surprising emotion after pregnancy loss if you haven’t heard about it, is a feeling of aching, especially in your arms or belly. Our bodies remember the pregnancy and the longing for our child may manifest itself in physical aches. We may also feel an ache to be mothered ourselves, to be held, to curl into a fetal position etc. Our aching may also be manifest in our dream life where we may have dreams where we are searching for something lost or our subconscious may be coming to terms with the loss. Sometimes women experience meeting their child in their dreams and many believe that this is a connection with the spiritual or heavenly realm and is a meaningful experience for them.
We thought we were part of one club, ‘the pregnant women’s club’ and suddenly we find ourselves in the club that no one wants to join – the one with women who have lost babies. Although we can often find others who have experienced miscarriage and pregnancy loss, it can still feel very lonely. The unexpected and different emotions connected with each loss can also mean that even with multiple losses, each time is different.
Our partners who may be a source of comfort in other times may find they are dealing with their own emotions and need help placing on their own oxygen masks. When we are out with other mothers and friends who are talking children and babies or simply attending to their babies, we may find that loneliness is increased as there may be a lack of sensitivity or ability to acknowledge our feelings. Loneliness is the feeling that we are disconnected and so often we need to take steps to connect with others. At the start, it may mean connecting with other women who have experienced pregnancy loss, or talking with a spouse, close friend or counselor about our feelings. We may find that those people we would have turned to before for help are not the ones who will best help us in this season and so we may need to seek out others.
Also read: Why pregnancy loss is so hard
8. Shame and guilt
Because miscarriage and pregnancy loss is often an underground subject, women often feel a lot of shame connected with their loss. They may feel that something they had eaten or a lifestyle choice had caused the death of their baby or that they were too active and didn’t care for the child in utero. Women may feel that their bodies are failing them because they haven’t been able to maintain the pregnancy.
When I had my first ectopic pregnancy I was convinced that taking a certain medicine the day before the pain had started had been the cause of the miscarriage and that I should have never taken it if I had any suspicions I could be pregnant. I later discovered that there was no way that the medicine would have caused the ectopic pregnancy as it was already there just the symptoms hadn’t yet manifested and that it was totally a coincidence. Not knowing, however, I had been racked with guilt for days after the miscarriage.
Whether we can accurately assess that we have directly influenced the miscarriage or pregnancy loss or not (which in nearly all cases, except abortion, we cannot), we need to accept what has happened and move towards healing. There are many rituals which women can do to help, such as prayer – asking God and the baby for forgiveness, or simply writing a letter expressing our regret to our child. Talking through our concerns with a medical professional may also help us realize the truth about our concerns and help us to realize that we were not to blame.
9. Desire to withdraw
Almost every time you go out, you face a pregnant woman, a newborn or a person who won’t understand your loss. It can be physically painful and our bodies try and keep us away from pain. It can also feel incredibly lonely and withdrawing feels like the right course of action. And it may be. For a short period of time. When miscarriage and pregnancy loss are still very raw, withdrawing regularly can be vital to process our grief and shift through our feelings, but only if it is done in a healthy way.
Ideally, we want to wean ourselves back into situations little by little and prepare ourselves with a strategy when we face painful reminders. For example, I live in a community where all my closest friends were pregnant or had newborns right after losing a baby. There were days when I would withdraw and cry and days when I could just keep pushing through and stay a little longer. As I chose to be grateful in my mind for the lives of those babies (believe me, it took some time!), I was able to hold them and be involved in their lives again and value their lives.
When we have experienced pain, our body and mind becomes extra wary and on edge sometimes, ready to fight or run from the next threat. These are the stress hormones working overtime in our bodies. This can make us especially sensitive to things, and things that normally wouldn’t bother us. The fact that our husband left for work this morning without saying ‘I love you’ might be normally be shrugged off with ‘he obviously has a lot on his mind’, but now it has become a major issue and fear that maybe he is seeing someone else! A dropped bowl in the kitchen can cause us to break down in floods of tears over something else that has been lost. Our sense of reason and perspective can go out of the window and that is important to remember.
Our bodies and minds feel under treat so they become hyper-focused, often on the wrong things, but they are not seeing the wider perspective. Just as in battle the focus needs to be on the enemy and not the scenery, we too fail to see the bigger picture. One of the things that helped me, in those moments I knew I was making a lot of fuss about something that normally wouldn’t bother me, was to take a step back and ask myself: what is the bigger picture here? In what ways has my spouse shown me love this week? Does it really matter if one bowl or even if all the bowls are smashed? Surely cups work just as well for cereal! Although they definitely do not feel like it at the time, these overreactions can be opportunities to laugh later if we will let them!
As well as having times when you feel extra sensitive to pain, you may also have times when you feel numb to the emotions you feel should be present. Because our hearts and minds have been in overdrive, our hearts and minds can sometimes shut down our response to our emotions. This can be a normal and healthy part of grief or it can be a sign that we are deliberately ignoring and failing to address strong emotions. Sometimes we can’t deal with strong emotions right there, like at a friend’s baby shower, but we do need to try and go back later and allow ourselves to feel those strong emotions and grieve when we are in a safer place to do so.
When something out of our control happens to us it can make us feel fearful and wonder what else is just around the corner. We can suddenly become more fearful about losing other loved ones, about losing future pregnancies or anything else that we value highly. We can feel that a greater force is out to get us and feel intimidated and anxious.
I once heard that fear is ‘False evidence appearing real’ – and although there are some things that we fear that do happen to us (like our pregnancy loss perhaps), most of the things we are fearful about are much larger than we fear them to be.
I personally was so transformed by my first miscarriage experience, that although I prayed that it would never happen again (it did, three more times), I didn’t live in fear of a future miscarriage. For me personally, my faith in God and my belief in heaven and that my children were waiting for me there helped me not to see any future losses as losses forever, but rather treasures I would have to wait for.
Even if you don’t personally have a faith in God, living in fear rather than hope is a horrible way to live and we can train our minds to think positively and replace fears with positive affirmations. It has been scientifically shown that the way we think does affect future outcomes, so choosing to believe the best and embrace hope and life rather than fear and despair does make a difference.
Sometimes speaking out our fears to someone close to us or a counselor can help us put them in perspective too. Another thing I do when I am fearful, is to explore all the worst case scenarios and think through how bad they would actually be and how I would handle them. It makes me realize that I am stronger than I think I am and that with my personal beliefs I will be able to face more than I think I can. It helps me to put the fear in perspective (and also be grateful for all the things that I do still have!)
13. Joy and Happiness
Joy and happiness are unexpected emotions, but ones that can be present nonetheless. We are not joyful or happy about what has happened, or that our child is no longer with us, of course, but we may experience moments which bring us joy or a depth of gratitude during our journey after loss. We may find joy in the love we experience from others during our time of grief, or a deep gratitude for the things that we do have.
Although perhaps not as common as other emotions, it is not wrong to feel joy and happiness at times – it is not a betrayal of our grieving process. After I lost my first child I woke up in the middle of the night enveloped by a feeling of joy. It felt so wrong! I asked God what it was and if it was okay to feel joy and I felt a thought in my mind say: ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’. It was a verse from the Bible and I felt that is was a gift from heaven to help me cope with the loss of my child. At other points choosing to be grateful for the babies of friends around me has also brought me joy (sometimes tinged with pain too, but joy nonetheless!) as I have fought to be grateful for the lives of those who are alive around me.
Another emotion that can feel shameful is relief. Although I really wanted to have more children, each time I lost a baby there was also a sense of relief of not having to be pregnant anymore or not having to face sleepless nights again so soon. Although I was also very upset about the loss of each child, I cannot deny that at times I also felt relief from the burden of being pregnant and the responsibility of mothering another child.
Losing 4 children in utero has made me grateful for those things I do have. After my first miscarriage, I suddenly became more sensitive to life and the beautiful thing that it was and how much I had taken it for granted before. I also planted a garden and suddenly became more aware of the natural world around me. I had never understood why people appreciated flowers before losing my first child, but I suddenly became lost in wonder at the beauty of each flower and bird I saw. I became more grateful too for my living children and their messes and fights and nighttime interruptions. Gratitude was an emotion that came to me naturally after my first loss, but it was something I had to fight for after subsequent losses – I had to choose gratefulness. I tried to write regularly in a gratitude journal and chose to see the things that I was thankful for when they didn’t come to me naturally.
All these emotions and others too, maybe a normal part of coming to terms with miscarriage and pregnancy loss. Sometimes just acknowledging them and recognizing the root ourselves, talking it through with a partner or close friend or writing our emotions is enough. Sometimes, however, it is difficult for us to process these emotions and we find ourselves ‘stuck’ and in need of help. Seeking professional help from a counselor or therapist is sometimes the least selfish thing we can do. It can help us begin to get over the gridlock in our minds and hearts and also makes us prioritize the necessary work of wrestling with grief in a safe place. I know from experience that it is a worthwhile investment in my future and a gift to those closest to me as well as to myself.
Self-care is essential to help us process our emotions and to give us a rest from them! You can grab your free self-care guide with 10 unique ideas especially for women after pregnancy loss by clicking here.