During pregnancy, certain medical issues beyond the woman’s control can lead to the death of the child before it is born. The baby will die, for example, if a woman has a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or an ectopic pregnancy to mention a few.
A miscarriage happens when a pregnancy ends prior to 20 weeks, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A stillbirth occurs when the baby is already dead at birth after a pregnancy of at least 21 weeks. When a pregnancy develops outside of the womb, typically in one of the fallopian tubes, it is called an ectopic pregnancy. Because of the ectopic embryo, the pregnancy will end in miscarriage. So as result, we often hear the term “Perinatal loss” or “Pregnancy loss” to describe a mother who did not carry her baby to term or a baby who dies shortly after birth. Do those words accurately describe the impact of these medical issues on a mother?
I was attending a Post-Partum Support International training when Dr. Joanna Cole a psychologist at Penn Hospital stated that she preferred to use Perinatal death as opposed to perinatal loss. She stated that one “loses” something that they misplaced. That difference in the choice of words really struck me. Then, I remembered that after I had my miscarriage, when sharing my pain, well-meaning loved ones and cherished friends would say things like: “I am sorry that you lost the baby”. Upon hearing those words “you lost the baby”, something did not sit right with me. However, I could not understand what was bothering me. These caring and compassionate individuals were trying to express their sorrow for me. But I could not quite articulate what was getting under my skin. I remember pondering the question “How did I lose the baby”? Yes, my doctor provided me with some scientific explanation but that did not diminish my discomfort around the term “baby loss”. Here we are years after my miscarriage when I was at that training with Dr. Cole that I finally understood how the term “pregnancy loss” was wreaking havoc in my mind and heart.
Many women react differently when hearing the term “baby loss” after a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy. For some, that term may convey the wrong message as they are grieving their babies. Like me, they did not “lose” their babies as if they had birthed them and could no longer locate them. For that reason, many parents may rankle at the word “loss” when it comes to the end of the life of a baby.
So, why is terminology important?
1. To accurately describe what took place: A death occurred!
The truth of the matter is the baby died! When I had my miscarriage, my baby died! I know the term can be jarring to many and even to me at times. However, I recognize the healing power of facing the truth of what took place when a miscarriage occurs. I have learned to embrace the need to say perinatal death instead of loss. Facing that truth helps with the grieving process. The baby was not sleeping or misplaced. She is not coming back.
2. To respect the parent’s feelings and dignity: Precious to the Lord is the death of his loved one.
Facing the truth that their baby died will help the parents with the grieving process. Often, well-meaning loved ones want to appease the mother’s feelings by pointing out her possibilities of future pregnancies. By doing so, they overlook that this mother’s baby just died; that is where her focus lies. Consequently, that part needs to be acknowledged and mourned with her. The mother is trying to grasp the enormity of the baby that she wanted and would never hold in her arms. For a woman who has perhaps been trying to conceive for years, that death can be searing. The sooner parents in that situation process that finality and its implications, the better they would be able to navigate the grief and move forward. Feeling discomfort towards terminology does not help the parents. So, it is appropriate to describe what happened to better support the parents.
3. To properly grieve a beloved soul: Acceptance of the reality of death
The goal of grieving well is to help integrate the deceased baby into the lives of the parents by encouraging them to name the baby and to participate in the rituals of the church. Our Catholic faith believes that life begins at conception and so the baby in the womb is a soul that families can entrust to God once they died. That aspect will also give hope to the parents knowing that their baby is in the care of the One who is just and compassionate.
For me, choosing to refer to my miscarriage as the death of my daughter, Thérèse Myriam, was healing for me. I was able to share with family and loved ones the priceless gift she was and still is by sharing her name with them. Secondly, my faith has been a great consolation knowing that I can ask her to pray for our family.
What warms my heart as I think of Thérèse Myriam is that she is my greatest intercessor as she contemplates the face of our Heavenly Father, the Great Redeemer who will make all things new one day.
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Margalita is a wife, mother, and Catholic psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in working with women who feel heartbroken and devastated after a pregnancy loss. Learn more about her here!