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.
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. I 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 even 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—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—and working out. Everyone knows working out is good for pregnancy, but it’s also a balm for grief. I made a playlist of depressing songs—yes, 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 feeling a little defensive about my pregnancy; 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. 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.
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. Then, 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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