The loss of a child during the latter half of pregnancy or the first year of life, known as the perinatal period, affects nearly 50,000 new or expectant mothers each year in the United States. When a stillbirth or infant death occurs, a medical evaluation is performed in hopes of determining the cause of death. Scant effort, however, is typically devoted to the emotional aftermath of these losses.
The grief experienced after losing a child during pregnancy or infancy can be particularly isolating for the surviving mother. Few obstetricians or pediatricians have been trained to provide grief support to parents following the loss of a baby. And family members often struggle to provide support.
There are two reasons for this. First, few will have experienced a similar loss and the empathy that might come from it. Second, few, if any, will have established the same emotional bonds with the child at such an early time. Even the surviving father may struggle to understand the mother’s intense grief.
Perinatal loss may also trigger mental illnesses, in particular, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of depression overlap considerably with those of grief, making it challenging to distinguish the two. If the surviving mother is experiencing feelings of emptiness or worthlessness that are not even briefly comforted by warm memories of her child or her pregnancy or if she is experiencing thoughts of suicide, then she is likely to be experiencing depression.
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The nightmares, flashbacks and extreme anxiety that accompany PTSD following perinatal loss may lead women to avoid a wide array of anxiety triggers, including future attempts at conception or even being around children. Women experiencing symptoms of depression or PTSD should seek a mental health evaluation.
Fortunately, there are both peer support and mental health services available to help women. First Candle, MISS Foundation and Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support all provide online access to information and other resources.
If you’ve suffered the loss of a baby and need help, services are available in South Florida, including several chapters of The Compassionate Friends, a peer-support organization with local support group meetings, and the Women’s Reproductive Mental Health (WRMtH) program at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System, which provides psychiatric evaluation and treatment to women experiencing depression, PTSD or other disorders following a pregnancy or infant loss.
Jeffrey Newport, M.D., is a psychiatrist and director of Women’s Reproductive Mental Health at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.