Making Time for Grief During Pregnancy

Today we’d like to welcome guest author Dana Schwartz to discuss what she has learned from her experience grieving during pregnancy.  As some of you know, this topic is close to my heart because I lost my own mother to cancer when I was 12 weeks pregnant.  We’ve received quite a few emails from women discussing how happy-sad the experience of grieving while pregnant has been and so we know that Dana’s article will resonate with many. Dana is a fiction writer and essayist often drawn to themes of motherhood and death. She blogs at Writing at the Table and is currently creating a grief journaling course through The Gift of Writing. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter @danahschwartz.  

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Grieving while pregnant was never the plan. It rarely is. My husband and I had been talking about going off birth control in September, an idea we shared with my mother the winter before her death. She rolled her eyes, unimpressed. Looking back, I think she expected a more tangible announcement.

By the time our pregnancy test came back positive, my mom had been dead two months. UntitledI was gutted with grief, but I felt joy at the sight of those two lines. Cautiously at first, since I was now well versed in how quickly a life could be snuffed out. But joy nonetheless, which ran parallel to the deep river of sadness in my heart.

This was the first lesson I learned – that one extreme emotion did not negate or soften the other. Joy and despair existed simultaneously. Sometimes weaving together, other times sprinting side by side.

In one way, I was lucky to have my entire pregnancy to grieve my mom. In another, I was not, because I could never share my news with her. No matter when it happens, the intersection of grief and pregnancy hits hard.

Though it was challenging, I somehow knew to continue my mourning. If anything, the deadline of pregnancy encouraged me to grieve more deeply. I hope that my advice, gained through intuition and luck, trial and error, will help other women and couples traveling through pregnancy and grief. If anything, know you are not alone.

You Can Keep Grieving

I think some people expected my pregnancy to help “snap me out” of my grief, or at least, give me a boost forward. First of all, you don’t need to stop grieving because you’re going to have a baby. Secondly, even without grief, pregnancy hormones trigger tidal mood swings. It’s okay if some days you can’t muster up any happiness for your pregnancy, or if you resent it for taking time away from your grief. On the other hand, you may feel overjoyed and find your grief has waned. Either way, try to skip the guilt. You will cycle back and forth and round and round all the emotions. It’s inevitable, and healthy.

Find Your Release – Mentally and Physically

After my mom died, I wondered if it was possible to run out of tears. Apparently not. Don’t bottle up your feelings. Cry when you need to, laugh if the moment strikes. Be pissed off, be excited. The key is finding productive ways to release your emotions. For me, it was through writing and working out. I filled six journals in less than a year. Documenting my daily activities, scribbling down my dreams, and dialoguing with my mom helped me organize the rush of feelings.

Everyone knows working out is good for pregnancy, but it’s also a balm for grief. I made a play list of depressing songs – on purpose – and I’d run and cry at the same time. Pounding my feet on the pavement while thinking about my mom and baby helped connect the three of us.

Tune Out the Noise

I remember being feeling a little defensive about my pregnancy, and wondering if some people might think it happened too soon, or worse, that it was an antidote to my sadness. In grief, just like in regular life, people say things that feel hurtful, or you may not agree with their assessment. Maybe your pregnancy was planned, maybe it wasn’t. You don’t need to rationalize or explain your choices.

Use the Internet Wisely

It was 2007 when I was pregnant and grieving, and there were far fewer online resources about pregnancy than there are now. Pregnant women in general face an avalanche of advice and warnings, often focusing on what can go wrong. Be informed but not overly so. If you’re concerned that grief is affecting your pregnancy via depression or anxiety then by all means, tell your doctor, but don’t scour the internet for answers. On the other hand, the internet can be a great place to find commiseration from other bereaved mothers-to-be.

Seek Support – Before and After

During your pregnancy, try to surround yourself with people who respect (if not completely understand) your grief. Some friends and family may expect you to focus more on your pregnancy, but you get to do both and on your terms.

Set up a support system for after the baby comes. One of the best decisions I made was hiring a postpartum doula after the birth of my second child. For three weeks, a loving and kindhearted woman wore my baby and folded heaps of laundry while I napped, showered, and cried. In her company I felt understood and cared for – two things that I lacked with my first baby. She also bore witness to the flood of emotions that are released after childbirth, which for me, included a new wave of grief.

Trust Your Intuition

A well meaning friend kept urging me to watch a popular comedy that came out the summer my mom died. I know she was trying to help, but I didn’t want humor. Instead, I deliberately sought out melancholy books, movies, and music, all of which helped me grieve. Whatever your preferences are, trust them – for both your grief and your pregnancy.

Create a Legacy Before

Besides keeping a journal, I also went out of my comfort zone and got a little crafty. I collected photographs and made a scrapbook about my mom, documenting my parents’ marriage, my birth, and childhood. Inspired by this, I decided to also make a photo album of just the two of us, with the intention of one day sharing it with my daughter. Think of ways you can create tangible memories of your loved one. It doesn’t have to be Pinterest worthy, just a physical manifestation of your love.

Create a Legacy After

If your loved one would’ve been part of your baby’s life, don’t let death end the relationship. Talk about that person to your baby. Start early on. Call them by the name your child would’ve used. When they get older you can explain what happened. Young children are usually quite accepting of simple explanations, such as: “So and so died. That means you can’t see them again, but you can look at pictures, talk about them, and keep them in your heart.”

Some mothers keep their grief to themselves. My mom rarely spoke about her father, who died when she was eight. I can only assume she did so partly to protect me from such terrible sadness, but I wanted to know about him and how she coped with such a loss. It might have helped me with my own.

Parting Words

When the baby arrives, your grief will not stop. This may come as a relief or a hardship, but it’s the truth. Having a new baby is all encompassing, and for a while, you’ll be in survival mode. You may go days without grieving, you may grieve even more fiercely. I remember feeling a secondary loss, a strange sort of guilt, for losing touch with the all-encompassing nature of my grief. It might have helped to know it’s okay to step back, or compartmentalize it temporarily.

Just don’t ignore it. Check in with your grief when you can. This may seem impossible, especially in the early weeks, but even a few minutes of writing in a journal or taking a short walk can help.

There is a moment I will never forget in my daughter’s infancy. After what felt like hours of crying – hers – she finally passed out. When I looked down at her beautiful peaceful face, I saw a glimpse of my mother. Though no longer in my life, a piece of her was in my arms.

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March 28, 2017

21 responses on "Making Time for Grief During Pregnancy"

  1. im 34 weeks pregnant and i lost my mom on christmas day.. she’s lives in a different country and i cant even travel to see and hug her for the last time.. im trying to be strong for my baby but it is so hard..

  2. My brother passed away on 11/23/2018 and I am 20 weeks pregnant losing my brother has been the worse thing that could ever happen I loved him with all my heart and he took pieces of it with him sometimes I feel like I can’t go without him he was only 37 and died from drug overdose and I wish I could have helped him out more if God would have gave me a second chance I would have been there more he was my first best friend my everything and all I do is cry all day I can’t stop I see his pictures and I cry I hear a song and I cry when dose this pain go away and am I making my baby feel all this pain and sadness I just can’t seem to get my life back together without him.

  3. I just lost my sister a month later found out I was exoecting. I am not very well off as i help out with my disabled parents who have a hard time living healthy. This place is not fit for a baby. I am considered homeless. I had a good carreer going but lost my job have ptsd receiving help where needed fighting the temptation to drink not being able to eat properelly. Im so worried for the future and take it out on my partner. I need all the help and prayers in the world it seems. Its the first baby in the family and i have no symptoms i barely feel pregnant. I already feel like a bad mother. Im so dysfunctional and lost.

  4. My 18.5 year old son passed away on March 24, 2018. I am 25 weeks pregnant with his baby brother and have another son who is going to be 13 this week. My eldest son suffered in pain and illness all his life but also knew and was happy that he was loved so very much by his family. It is beyond heart-breaking to even think about the life without him, but I have to take it day by day and also focus on the 13 year old and my unborn baby. I am devastated but today I opened up the curtains in my living room for the first time in 8 days and let the light shine in. I am grateful to you for giving me encouragement at this time of grief with your writing.

  5. My son would have been a year old on April 18th, 2016, but he passed away when he was only 3-days-old. In a matter of 10 minutes, he went from a perfectly healthy, full-term baby to struggling for his life because of a very difficult delivery. I am now almost 6 months pregnant with his little sister. Thank you for your acknowledgement that “one extreme emotion did not negate or soften the other,” as that has truly been my experience. I think it is also important to note that grief has no time limit, and that sometimes the newfound joy can also heighten the grief you thought was becoming more manageable. Because of expecting her and all the memories and love that we will share, I repeatedly face that I will not share that with him. Because of the joy and love I feel for her, I remember the joy that was taken from me with my son. In strange ways, I also feel grief for my daughter…grief that she will never grow up with her big brother (though she will know about him), grief that the joy I feel at expecting her is tempered by her brother’s loss (and how unfair that seems for her), grief that she will be born to a mother that is fundamentally different from the woman I was when I first gave birth to her brother (though my own mother argues that she believes I will be an even better mother to her because I know what it is to lose a child and will, perhaps, appreciate all of her milestones more acutely), and grief that I might ever make her feel that she was a “replacement” or “fix” for her brother (though I know that she could never replace him, just as he could never replace her, and that the joy at having her cannot fix me missing him). My goal is to LET both the joy and the grief co-exist, to love both my son and my daughter with all that is in me, to remember and to go on living the best life possible for my whole family.

    • Melissa, thank you for your post. I am currently trying to become pregnant. I lost my 15 month old daughter 5 months ago to epilepsy. I very much want to have a child, though I am terrified of the grief I know I will experience during the pregnancy, and probably forever more. Maybe we will be better moms since we have lost, I don’t know.

  6. I am 12 weeks pregnant. The day I found out I was pregnant was also the day that my Dad died very suddenly. Within minutes my whole life changed in ways I had never imagined. Thank you for sharing your story, your grief, your healing. I have many people in my life who have lost a loved one, and just as many who have been pregnant. What I don’t have are the stories of those of us who have stood, or are standing, at these two thresholds simultaneously. I crave these stories lately. I crave camaraderie in this mystery. Do you by chance know of any books or other readings?

  7. “This was the first lesson I learned – that one extreme emotion did not negate or soften the other. Joy and despair existed simultaneously. Sometimes weaving together, other times sprinting side by side.” Yes, so beautifully captured and expressed. Profound joy, exquisite sorrow co-exist.

  8. This is a gift for others who have been through this and want to know others have been there too and for those in the thick of it now. And of course so well written.

  9. In October, as I continued to grieve my 28 year old daughter, who we unexpectedly lost on 6/22/15. from diabetes complications, my oldest daughter tells me she is pregnant. So many mixed emotions, not my usual unabashed joy at the prospect of a new grandchild. Now Auntie Laura will not be here for this new little one, one more thing she will miss. Life is going on, our family is growing, but she is not here. As happy as I am, I am filled with sadness. I don’t want to say anything, but I am praying they name her Laura, or some variation. I don’t want to hurt my daughter by not being totally involved in her pregnancy this time, but it is just so hard. Thank you for this article. Once again, gives me guidance to deal with this on my own timeline.

    • Gloria, thank you for sharing your story here. It makes absolute sense that your joy of becoming a grandmother is dulled by the death of your daughter. I’m so sorry for your loss. I can imagine it must be terribly hard to support and celebrate with your daughter while still mourning your other child. Do what you can to take care of yourself and your grief. I’m glad this article resonated with you.

  10. Dana, what a wonderful way you have in guiding women through what is a bittersweet time. I can only imagine what the experience must have been like for you and others going through something like this. In reading this I am sure so many others will now be able to find solace and comfort in your words of support that you offer here.

    • Thank you all so much for your comments. I’m very glad my story and this post resonates with you, and at the same time, I’m terribly sorry for the losses you’ve endured.

      • Sorry, Kristen, I didn’t realize I could respond individually! Thank YOU for this comment and for all your support 🙂

  11. You have described what I support and educate grieving parents on every day- your description of your journey/self-care epitomizes loss of a child, a partner or a parent or even the waves associated with the loss of a pet or valued friend. THANK YOU- I have already sent it off to a few currently pregnant wonderful moms I support!

  12. My boyfriend passed away when I was 3 months pregnant with our first child. We were both in recovery from drugs and alcohol and he had a relapse and died of an overdose in a hotel room. He had been acting weird for only a week and the last conversation we had I told him I thought he was using again and I would leave him if he didn’t change. He promised he wasn’t using and he would change when he got back from this work trip. The next day he was found dead. The grief I felt was so overwhelming because it was so sudden and it took months to find out the entire truth of what happened. I felt no joy or connection to my baby. I felt he had totally robbed me from that joy. My relationship with God was strengthen as I prayed for my heart to be heeled and the strength to forgive and accept what happened. I leaned on women in my program and talked about everything going on in my head. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. My son is now 7 months old and the good days now outweigh the bad.

    This past week another man I know passed away. As I went to comfort my friend his girlfriend, I could feel her pain and how lost she was. I remember when my sister was going back home after David had passed I looked at her in envy and said I wish I could leave here and go back to my normal life. It has now been a year since David passed. I now have a new normal life with our son. My heart broke as I saw the place in grief where my friend was at. When you life is turned upside down and you don’t think you can move on. My journey in grief was so painful but I have grown so much. Being pregnant was so hard because all I wanted to do was share that with David. I look back now with such gratitude because he gave me the greatest gift of my life#

    • Mandy, I’m so sorry for your loss. That must have been such a hard time for you, and really still must be, since your son is only 7 months old. But I’m glad to hear the good days are outnumbering the bad, and I hope you continue to speak about your loss and connect with others who understand. Thank you for reading and this comment.

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