One is hopeful that Meghan Markle’s emotional essay on the loss of her unborn child will encourage more women to open up about the trauma they experienced and consequently start the process of healing. Despite all the candidness about other life-altering experiences, the pain and grief of a miscarriage is rarely shared. How the expectant mother and society view this tragedy is likely to influence our perceptions and behaviours surrounding it.
While everyone acknowledges that the death of a child is one of the most devastating life experiences, the loss of an unborn baby rarely evokes the same amount of sympathy and understanding for the parents. Perhaps it is on account of the misconception that a pregnancy lost in the early stages is easier to come to terms with than a later loss or stillbirth. Being considered medically common also undermines its impact.
However, research shows that the loss of a baby, at any stage, can affect both the woman and her family for a very long time.
Studies reveal that women who have had a miscarriage are at risk for depression and anxiety for at least three years.
An American Psychological Association article also highlighted a study showing that mothers who delivered a child around two years after the perinatal loss may struggle to manage their needs.
A woman who miscarries at a later stage of her pregnancy may have a funeral or memorial service to grieve, but expressing grief is less acceptable at an early stage or when an IVF procedure fails. The lack of validation and support during this loss can affect all aspects of a woman’s life including her self-image and close relationships.
A majority of women are tormented by guilt. Self-blame and feelings of inadequacy can cause a deafening silence about the loss. While this is typically a coping mechanism, women still need to be reassured that it is not their fault. This reassurance must come both from medics and family members.
Often in Indian and South Asian families, a miscarriage can result in finger pointing. Culturally, it is also not a subject that is openly discussed. Instead women are expected to get on with their lives and produce an offspring as soon as possible.
Most miscarriages occur because the fetus isn’t developing properly not because of routine activities or a “curse” that primitive thinking attributes it to. But this doesn’t absolve women of the blame or shield them from insensitivity and grief.
One Indian lady was told by her mother-in-law that it was a good thing as they didn’t want any “deformed” children in the family. Ironically, the senior had been through three miscarriages herself.
The big difference between then and now lies in the support that is available to both the man and woman experiencing the loss of an unborn child. Mental health experts encourage couples to take advantage of support groups where they can freely express their feelings, get advice on how to channel their emotions and start healing.
As Meghan Markle pointed out most women feel that they will never recover from this loss. While it will not be completely forgotten, with support and time the pain can dull, and the likelihood of coming to terms with the loss is also higher.
Having said that, every person responds to trauma in their own way and at their own pace. While validating the loss is important so is respecting the way a woman may choose to grieve.
Some may choose to talk about it to family and friends, others may take some time off work and the social circle to grieve privately. And there are some who may choose to find a project to occupy themselves.
The important thing is not to let the loss of an unborn child become the elephant in the room.
Often the silence and lack of empathy may be unintentional. Many simply don’t know what to say, or are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, they instead say nothing. But acknowledging the loss and the feelings surrounding it without trying to provide a silver lining or comparing situations is critical. A compassionate touch can help make the connection and create a safe space for the grieving woman to feel validated and share her feelings.