man playing guitar with granddaughter

Grieving on Mother's Day

May 08, 2020 | UCI Health
Woman sad about her miscarriage

Mother’s Day, a celebration in so many homes throughout the nation, can be a bittersweet or even downright saddening experience for women who have lost a pregnancy or baby to miscarriage, stillbirth or death in the days immediately after birth.

Women's reactions to such losses cover a wide range of emotions, but for those who have a highly desired pregnancy, it can be devastating. And despite how commonly it occurs —miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy — we rarely talk about pregnancy loss in our society, which makes the experience more isolating.

“It can be incredibly difficult for the women who don’t already have living children,” says Dr. Tabetha R. Harken, a UCI Health obstetrician-gynecologist and associate professor in the UCI School of Medicine.

“In their hearts and minds, they may already feel like a mom and they love that pregnancy or that baby. It’s especially painful because our society often doesn’t acknowledge that.”

A sadness that lingers

These feelings may be compounded if women worry that they did something to cause the loss, or if they are unable to have children in the future.

“It’s very painful because some desperately want to be moms and they got very close to it,” says Harken, adding that most women are able to have another pregnancy and successful birth, but they suffer from anxiety and sadness until that happens.

Mother’s Day may also be difficult for women who have living children but have also experienced a loss, she says.

“It’s really bittersweet because they are excited about the children they have and they get to celebrate that. But they may miss that pregnancy or baby and still think about it frequently.”

In ways, it can be especially difficult for women who had a miscarriage in the earlier months, before many people knew about the pregnancy. Since they were not viewed as moms-to-be, their loss and its importance goes unrecognized.

“Regardless of what stage women are in gestation, some of them have a vision of what their baby would have looked like and what they would have been like with the baby,” Harken says. “Some have even named their baby and talk to their baby.”

Isolated in grief

When these women are asked if they are mothers, or how many children they have, it can be awkward for them to mention the baby they lost. If they do, people often don’t know how to respond and it becomes a conversation stopper, which makes these mothers wary of bringing up the subject again. That leaves them more isolated in their grief.

Harken recalls a patient who described a “beautiful experience” with co-workers after losing a pregnancy. It happened early on but her office mates knew about it because she suffered terrible morning sickness, and then the sickness ended. They shared with her their stories of similar loss or of friends they knew who had been through it.

In that way, she says, the mother knew her co-workers recognized her maternity and made her feel that she had been through a shared experience. It’s a technique others can learn from if they hear about a mother who lost her baby before even getting to take the infant home from the hospital.

“What can help a lot is just normalizing what the women say and saying it back to them. Whatever words they use, people can say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard that’s common, how are you doing with that?’ If they look like they’re struggling, say, ‘I’m so sorry, I can imagine this must be very hard for you.’ And ask if they have someone to talk to about it.”

Avoid cheery advice or blame

Never encourage a woman to look at the bright side after a profound loss. Responses such as “You’re young, I’m sure you’ll be able to have children” or “It’s common, you’ll get over it” make the mother feel that her experience is being minimized. “That can bring some women to their knees,” Harken says.

Even worse is making women feel that the pregnancy loss is their fault by saying they shouldn’t have exercised or shouldn’t have eaten this or that. Sadly, such comments are commonly made, and Harken finds herself spends a lot of time with patients dispelling those myths.

Friends can provide support with Mother’s Day by asking if there’s anything they can do to help recognize the day. The bereaved mother may cry, but that’s not a sign the wrong question was asked. Instead it may be just what she needs to release her feelings to someone who understands the depth of her loss.

Some women recover fairly quickly from a miscarriage or loss of a baby while others may carry the grief with them for many years. Harken was treating one woman after a miscarriage and went out to the waiting room to talk to the patient’s mother. The mother burst into tears over a loss she, herself, had suffered over 20 years earlier.

“For some women, acknowledging that they are moms is very important,” she says. “I think women begin seeing themselves as a mother at different points in their pregnancy. They need people they can talk to. They need to know they’re not alone. And they need to be allowed to grieve."

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