Healing After Miscarriage and Infant Loss: A Social Worker’s Tips

October 12, 2017 1:00 PM

Losing a baby to miscarriage or shortly after childbirth is a unique, unfamiliar and painful type of grief. How to foster support and healing.

For parents who’ve experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss, the grief can be debilitating.

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“Many women and partners who have had these devastating losses feel isolated,” says Margaret (Maggie) Mieras, LMSW, a clinical social worker at Michigan Medicine’s Briarwood Center for Women, Children and Young Adults. “Sometimes loved ones don’t know what to do or say to give them comfort.”

Grief and emotions associated with the loss can be triggered when a mother sees a child in a store, when she has a friend or family member who is pregnant, or when she approaches her expected due date or the anniversary of the loss of her baby.

Couples may experience more conflict because of different coping and communication styles.

Further, daily stressors in life and relationships may compound the effects of grief and increase the emotional pain that parents feel. These factors may also increase the likelihood of stress-related illnesses, such as headaches, obesity or heart disease.

Which is why Mieras says seeking help to manage grief is so important.

A different kind of grief

“The death of a newborn is not the same as the death of an adult where you have decades of shared memories,” Mieras says. “This is a loss of dreams and expectations for the future.”

It’s also a loss that friends and family may not acknowledge in the same way as with an adult. Often, there may have been initial support, but that changes as time passes.

Mieras also notes that there’s a misconception that the five generalized stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — are universal.

“Although some people experience all of those stages, others don’t. Grieving is an individual experience, and there is no right way to grieve,” she says. “Processing grief depends on coping style, personality, life experiences, significance of the loss, a person’s faith and other factors.”

Finding healing

Mieras suggests that a trained professional can be particularly helpful in the healing journey.

“A professional will have experience supporting different types of grief and can help find ways for you and your partner to heal based on your own unique circumstances and personalities.”

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Still, trying to force someone to see a professional is not helpful and can be further isolating. Different types of support may be more appropriate for different individuals. Support groups can also be therapeutic for many parents.

As such, Michigan Medicine offers a monthly support group for anyone affected by miscarriage, stillbirth, early infant death or other loss.

“For some people, private therapy can be intimidating. For others, coming to a support group very quickly after a loss can be emotionally overloading. Others may need to process their grief privately. The most important thing is to understand that there is help out there to support you,” says Mieras, who also facilitates the U-M support group.

A woman’s childbirth provider can often recommend support groups or professional therapists skilled in perinatal or reproductive loss.

Supporting loved ones

Mieras offers additional suggestions for those coping with miscarriage or infant loss and the loved ones trying to support them: 

Reach out. Even if you aren’t sure what to say, connect with your loved ones. It’s OK for family and friends to admit that they don’t know what to say to the grieving woman or couple. Mieras says, “Tell them that you’re sorry for their loss, or say the words ‘I don’t know what to say.’”

She suggests, however, avoiding clichés.

“Using some common phrases such as ‘everything happens for a reason’ may be comforting for some families, but more often it is not comforting to the mother,” she says. “The loss is heartbreaking, and often there is no reason or explanation.”

Take their lead in acknowledging the loss. When a loss first occurs, women and couples may prefer to acknowledge their baby in private or public ways. It is best for family and friends to respect the woman’s or couple’s wishes and acknowledge their loss as they do — privately or publicly.

Every October, Michigan Medicine offers an annual Walk to Remember and Tree-Planting Ceremony for families to gather and remember pregnancies and babies they have lost.

“It’s a beautiful and respectful commemoration. For many families, this type of opportunity can be very healing,” notes Mieras.

Make your support known. As people grieve, let them know that you want to provide support. Ask them what they need. Volunteer to bring meals, watch their other children or just go for a walk together. Parents may not be able to grieve or share with family and friends at certain times. It’s OK to give them time and space, says Mieras.