There are a few common themes I work with clients on and probably the most common and difficult one is the feeling of guilt women experience following a pregnancy loss or stillbirth. So much so that I have compiled a list of just some of the different possibilities:
Guilt that they weren't excited about the pregnancy when it was confirmed
Guilt that they had too many drinks in the first few weeks of conception
Guilt that they complained about morning sickness
Guilt that they didn't eat healthier or drink more water
Guilt that they didn't take the prenatal vitamins
Guilt that they didn't get enough sleep
Guilt that they didn't follow the doctor's orders exactly for bedrest
Guilt that there was something more they could have done
Guilt that they had done something in their past that makes them undeserving of a baby
The honest and hard truth is that most of the time there isn't a known reason why these things happen and your actions wouldn't have changed it anyway. And even if there was a reason, the facts remain the same, and feeling guilt is not going to bring your baby back.
Guilt stems from a feeling of helplessness.
After losing my twin girls at 32 weeks I had my own thoughts of guilt because I was grasping to make some sense and find some peace with what had happened. I wanted to take full responsibility because I mean, it is my body, right? So if I can't keep my baby alive who else is at fault? The helpless feeling consumed me and I was reaching for anything at all that could help me find a reason for this tragic event. I had given birth twice before to two healthy babies so what went so wrong this time? I had never felt a feeling quite like that before where I was so out of control of my own body.
"If I had some kind of warning I could have done something differently"
was something I said frequently as if I had any knowledge of how or why it happened or how to correct it, but I couldn't shake the feeling that maybe if I had more of a warning then some miracle procedure would have saved my babies. Once you lose your baby you replay the whole pregnancy over and over in your mind scanning every detail for the signs of how and when things started to go wrong. Since your last appointment did you do a hard workout or strain a muscle in any way? Did you take a tumble down a couple of steps that may have started the process? Did you eat something that didn't agree with you and made you sick? My mother and mother-in-law were of the generation that you can't hang up laundry or reach above your head or it would dislodge the placenta and you would lose your baby. I knew it was an old wives tale but after my loss it had me questioning if there was something to it. Your beliefs and guilt are only limited to your imagination and your brain goes to work trying to find a reason.
Then you follow it right up with all the things you should have done differently. I thought that I should have stayed home instead of taking the boys trick or treating the week before. If only I had done that, my twins would be here and safe. I thought I should have eaten healthier and not so much ice cream because maybe it caused them to have an allergy that took their life. This is exhausting and not helpful since the outcome is the same whether you can come up with reasons or not. None of these scenarios were true because there was a definite knot in the cord when they were born so no amount of staying home and inactivity or refraining from my nighty doses of dairy would have prevented them from their death, No matter how much my brain tried to make it true. Cue the helpless feeling again...
Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson told Women's Health Magazine of her recent miscarriage-“I felt like it was something that I did,” she continues. “I didn’t take care of the baby well enough, or I was stressed out too much, or I didn’t take the right prenatal vitamins.” She said the day she was told she was miscarrying she felt guilty like there was something she could do to prevent her loss. She worried that she had abused her body too much during training and her previous struggles with taking weight loss pills made her believe her body was telling her she shouldn't become a mother following her loss.
Guilt is so sneaky and disguises itself as facts if you're not careful! And no matter what shape, color, sex, or income bracket you are in it will take you out if you let it.
Pregnancy after loss is another time when guilt is present.
It's common for women to feel guilty after baby loss to struggle to bond with a subsequent pregnancy. It is usually grounded in fear of a repeat loss or another list of things they feel guilty about-
Guilty that they're moving on
Guilty that they're feeling joyful
Guilty that the time spent grieving will be taken up with a new baby
Guilt that the baby who lives will get to experience all the things the baby who died will not
Guilty for saying "this is my first baby" when it doesn't feel true but you're too tired to go into all the details
Guilty for having a preference for the new baby's sex
Pregnancy after loss can bring in so many feelings of guilt and make the loss mom feel like she's out of control of her body and emotions. So what can you do if you're feeling guilt?
Know that it's not your fault
There are so many complex issues that can happen with chromosomal defects and hormonal issues, implantation defects, and other biological issues that we could never control or change. Exercise, nutrition, caffeine, or sex will not cause you to lose your baby (or go into labor as some people try to convince you), and it is pretty unlikely that someone would unintentionally or intentionally cause their loss. If you are feeling like the Guilt Monster is in the house start to think carefully about the facts before you go all in. Sometimes we blame ourselves because it's easier to deal with and believe than some unknown, leave it up to the stars type of reason. I rationally knew that a casual night of trick or treating for a couple of hours did not cause my babies to die but it was easier to blame myself than believe that the tossing and turning my babies were doing caused a knot that I had no knowledge or control of and no way to stop it even if I did.
It's not your fault.
Sometimes terrible things do happen for no reason and there isn't a thing we can do about it. Try to think rationally about the facts you've been given- reports from the doctor or hospital, bloodwork, tap into your faith and approach your thoughts from a realistic point of view instead of the irrational thoughts that all end up with the finger pointing at you.
Just in case I haven't said it enough times yet- I'll say it one more time- It's not your fault. Believe it.
Give yourself grace
Make peace with the fact that you did everything you could and that there is no reason to feel guilt. Your body is designed to do whatever it needs to keep you safe and healthy. Unfortunately, this is one of the facts of nature that is hard to explain or understand. Be gentle and kind to yourself. Realize that you are exactly where you were meant to be for whatever reason. This is a thought that helps me in many areas of my life and is comforting when I can look back and connect the dots to where I am now. Did I ever think I would survive a loss like this? No. In fact, there were years when I was positive that I would never again feel true happiness and that there would always be this cloud over me that proved I was broken and damaged. I don't know if I can buy into the idea that my baby's loss made me a better person or enriched my life but I will agree that the important areas of my life like my marriage and motherhood were never again taken for granted because once you experience something like this, you love your people harder and cherish the good times more than you ever thought you could. It is possible to connect the dots of your past and realize how it got you to where you are today even after a tragic event like a baby loss. And you deserve to give yourself the grace and compassion you need to relieve any guilt that may be standing in the way of future joy and happiness.
You're not alone
Find your people. Talking about what you're going through can have such a healing effect and you will soon realize you're feelings are more common than you think. Talking about it helps you process your feelings and allow yourself to feel the grief, tears, anger, and anything else that tends to come up following a stillbirth loss. I couldn't talk about it enough to anyone who would listen. It was the only thing that helped me try to make sense of it. If you can't find someone to listen, scribbling it out on a piece of paper will be just as effective. Write it all out, then throw it away- be rid of those thoughts. Ask for help from those close to you and be sure to be aware of any longer-term or deeper depression symptoms that start showing up. Sleeplessness, lack of energy, or general personality changes are a sign that you may need to talk to your doctor
I hope this is helpful since guilt is probably the first emotion we have after suffering our loss and it is the one that stays with us the longest. If you would like more information about this topic or how I can help you check out my website at jennifersenn.com, and be sure to download your free 3 video series on how to cope with the loss of your baby HERE.