When a pregnancy ends unexpectedly through a miscarriage, a woman's body may recover physically long before she heals from it emotionally. She may experience a range of intense emotions from guilt and sadness to anger and self-blame. If the pregnancy was undesired, its sudden loss in some cases could also bring feelings of relief.
A miscarriage is the loss of an embryo or fetus before the 20th week of pregnancy. The medical term for a miscarriage is spontaneous abortion. It can be a painful and traumatic experience for a woman to go through, and it's also hard on her partner who shares the loss and suffers as well. Both people are mourning the loss of a potential child, and the hopes and dreams that go along with it.
But the grieving process for each person can be different, and because couples may be hesitant to mention a miscarriage, they may end up feeling isolated. Bringing up the topic may make others feel uncomfortable or unsure of what to say.
Some people may react by saying, "You're still young, you can always have another," or "Thank goodness, the miscarriage wasn't further along," or "Maybe, it's all for the best."
These statements are potential conversation-stoppers, shutting down communication, said Kristen Swanson, a professor and dean of the college of nursing at Seattle University. She has researched the emotional consequences of miscarriage. These clichés may suggest to a woman or couple to get over the miscarriage or put it in the past.
"People get through a miscarriage, they don't get over it," Swanson told Live Science.
The majority of women find a point of resolution 12 weeks after a miscarriage, Swanson said. By about 12 weeks, if the good times in a day don't outweigh the bad, a woman should seek help for her pregnancy loss because her grief may be complicated by other things in her life, she explained.
Miscarriages are not a rare occurrence. One in five recognized pregnancies, meaning the pregnancy has been confirmed, end in miscarriage, Swanson said. But she pointed out that the actual number is considerably higher than 20 percent because this figure doesn't take into account the conceptions that don't go on to become a child.
Women's grief and miscarriage
There is a perception that a woman experiences less grief if she miscarries earlier in a pregnancy. But Swanson said that based on the research she has seen, the intensity of grief could be similar whether the loss happens in the early weeks of pregnancy or later on.
Although the intensity of grief may be the same, the difference is in the duration, Swanson said. When a pregnancy unexpectedly ends later on in a pregnancy, such as after 16 weeks or longer, a woman's grief may typically last a little longer.
"It all comes down to how intensely aware a woman was of her pregnancy," Swanson said.
Compared to similarly aged women, women who have had a miscarriage may be at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety symptoms in the years following the pregnancy loss, according to the American Psychological Association.
How men are affected
In her own research, Swanson found that men tend to grieve immediately after a miscarriage, and the resolution of their grief is generally faster than a woman's. She said it's not uncommon for a man to feel as though he's not only lost a baby but to some extent, he has also lost his partner.
When a man sees his spouse crying or feeling sad about the loss of a pregnancy, he may feel as though he might not know how to console her and make her feel better.
In addition, a pregnancy loss can put a strain on a relationship and intimacy. Some studies have suggested that one-third of couples who have had a miscarriage would say their relationship is more distant one year afterward, Swanson said.
Miscarriage is part of a range of childbearing experiences and stories of moving through it can be very varied, Swanson said. In the past, not much attention had been paid to how to support a woman through this transition, she said, but we're more attentive to it now.
When a woman receives safe and supportive care after a miscarriage — care that validates what she has been through and where her feelings receive a warm and gentle response — this can make a big difference to the way a woman moves through a pregnancy loss, Swanson said.
Tips for women coping with a miscarriage
- Know that a woman's chances of miscarrying again are the same as they were before the pregnancy loss occurred, Swanson said.
- The body may recover from a miscarriage quicker than the mind. Besides feeling better physically, a woman should avoid conceiving again before she feels strong enough to handle its emotional consequences, and a couple's relationship feels strong enough to deal with the anxiety of a subsequent pregnancy.
- A woman should give her body a chance to menstruate again before attempting to become pregnant.
- If a woman feels the need to cry about the pregnancy loss, she should make sure that she does. If a woman feels the need to talk about her miscarriage, she should make sure she finds someone to talk to who will be a good listener. Denying the need to cry or talk blocks two important parts of a natural healing process, Swanson said.
Tips for partners, family and friends following a miscarriage
As a result of her research on women and miscarriage, Swanson developed a caring theory. This five-step process can be used by a partner, family, friends and health professionals in caregiving roles.
- Knowing — Try hard to understand what it's like for the woman and couple going through a pregnancy loss and what this event might mean in their lives.
- Being with — Be available and attentive, and allow a person to go through their emotional process, Swanson advised. For a partner, this may mean holding a woman and listening when she is expressing her grief, so she feels valued.
- Doing for — Anticipate the small needs or kindnesses that may comfort a woman and make her feel safe, such as bringing her chicken soup, drawing a bath for her or buying sanitary pads if she is bleeding, Swanson suggested.
- Enabling — Help the individual get through this life transition by focusing on the event, being supportive, allowing and validating feelings, and giving feedback.
- Maintaining belief — Sustain faith in a woman's ability to get through this difficult experience. Maintain a hope-filled attitude toward the future and offer realistic optimism. Even if a woman may be falling apart emotionally, recognize that there is a strong and capable person beneath, Swanson said.
- The March of Dimes provides tips for women coping with grief following a miscarriage.
- The March of Dimes provides tips for family members and friends, as well as information about helping children to understand a pregnancy loss.