Recognizing Miscarriage as an Occasion for Grief - Press "Enter" to skip to content

Recognizing Miscarriage as an Occasion for Grief

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There is a tendency to pathologize this grief, Dr. Hiefner said; if a 5-year-old died, no one would think it was comforting to say, “Oh well, you can have more kids, you’re still young,” but such messages are often offered to people after miscarriage and stillbirth, and they may be criticized if their grief persists.

Dr. Nsoesie was the senior author on a 2019 study of discussions on Twitter of miscarriage and preterm births that traced women’s accounts of their experiences and their stories of grief, including their misgivings about insensitive treatment they felt they had received. “People would say, oh, you’re going to have another baby — clinicians, too,” she said.

Because couples who have experienced a miscarriage may be more susceptible to subsequent separation and divorce, Dr. Hiefner said, her research is now looking at what helps some stay together, “what helps them navigate it successfully as a couple.” And that includes accepting that your partner’s grief may look very different from your own. In a study of couples published earlier this year, she wrote, “the emergent themes create a picture of resilience after loss in these couples, in which the shared nature of the loss was a crucial aspect of the experience.”

Miscarriages and even stillbirths were lost or hidden losses for most of human history, perhaps in part rendered invisible by the volume of grief and anxiety that surrounded the deaths of babies who had been born alive but did not survive to grow up. Many died soon after birth, and many more in the first months of that dangerous first year of life; as recently as the early 20th century, more than 10 percent of the babies born in the United States didn’t make it to their first birthdays.

Babies’ deaths were so taken for granted in the 18th and 19th and even early 20th centuries that many biographies, especially of the fathers of those infants, pass them by in a paragraph, or even a footnote. And there was also the ever-looming specter of maternal death; many women’s obstetric histories, right up through the beginning of the 20th century, were fraught with loss and danger. Even today, maternal mortality in the United States remains up to three times higher for Black and Indigenous women than for white women.

Miscarriages do occasionally make it into biographies, but usually because they are medically dramatic and threaten the life of the mother. Mary Shelley lost a pregnancy in 1822, and her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley had to pack her in ice to keep her from bleeding to death. But when it comes to her emotional health and her grief, her biographers have to deal with the ramifications of losing her baby Clara, who was born premature and died at the age of 8 days, her next daughter, also named Clara, who died as an infant, and then her son William, who died at the age of 3 and a half. Of her five pregnancies, only one child, Percy Florence, lived to grow up.

Infant mortality dropped across the first half of the 20th century in the United States, and became even lower in the decades after World War II, as the baby boom got underway. But miscarriage remained a topic that was not much discussed in public, and certainly, the emotional implications of losing — and mourning — a pregnancy were almost completely ignored not just in public discourse, but also by the medical profession.


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