The silent grief: Challenges faced by couples after stillbirth or neonatal death

neonatal death
Expecting and New Parents / Mental Health

The silent grief: Challenges faced by couples after stillbirth or neonatal death

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June is Stillbirth and Neonatal Death month in the UK.

The loss of a baby through stillbirth or neonatal death is a profound and heart-wrenching experience for any couple to face. There were 4,870 baby deaths in the UK in 2021, of which 2,866 were stillbirths and 2,004 were neonatal deaths.

This traumatic event brings with it a cascade of emotional, physical, and relational challenges. While the impact on the mother is often more visibly acknowledged, fathers also endure significant grief and emotional turmoil.

Understanding the unique and shared struggles of both partners is essential for coping with grief and finding the necessary support and resilience during this harrowing time.

The woman’s experience

For the mother, the loss of a baby can be overwhelmingly devastating. Physically, she endures the rigors of childbirth only to be met with the absence of her child. This physical ordeal is compounded by the sudden hormonal shifts that follow pregnancy, often intensifying feelings of despair and grief.

Emotionally, mothers grapple with a profound sense of loss, guilt, and sometimes shame. Many mothers internalise the event, questioning their bodies’ abilities and blaming themselves for the outcome. The anticipation and attachment that developed during pregnancy are abruptly severed, which can leave behind feelings of sorrow and unfulfilled dreams.

The societal expectations and pressures can further complicate a mother’s grieving process. In many cultures, the focus is heavily placed on the mother’s capacity to bear children, which can exacerbate feelings of failure and inadequacy after a stillbirth or neonatal death. The lack of open dialogue about such losses often leaves mothers feeling isolated, as if their grief is invisible or minimised by those around them.

The partner’s experience

Fathers, too, face significant emotional and psychological challenges following the loss of a child. However, their grief often manifests differently and can be less visibly acknowledged by society. Men may feel an intense need to remain stoic and supportive, suppressing their own emotions to be the pillar of strength for their partner. This societal expectation can lead to an internalisation of grief, resulting in feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Emotionally, fathers may struggle with feelings of helplessness and frustration. The protective instinct to safeguard their family clashes with the reality of their powerlessness in preventing the tragedy. This conflict can lead to intense anger and confusion, further complicating their grieving process.

The pressure to “move on” or “stay strong” can prevent men from seeking the support they need. Society often neglects the father’s grief, which can result in a lack of adequate support systems tailored to their unique needs. This lack of recognition can hinder the healing process and contribute to long-term emotional distress.

Same sex couples

For same-sex couples, the challenges can be even more complex. The societal and cultural biases they may already face can compound the difficulty of their grief. Additionally, there may be specific dynamics related to their path to parenthood, such as adoption or surrogacy, which can add layers of complexity to their mourning process.

Both partners may have been deeply involved in the pregnancy, whether through conception planning, medical appointments, or shared anticipation. Their loss might not only be of the child but also of the dreams and hopes tied to their unique journey of becoming parents. Separately, the partner who did not carry the child may feel a grief that is compounded by feelings of helplessness and exclusion from the physical aspects of the loss. Societal recognition of their grief might also be limited, as traditional gender roles can obscure the validity of their mourning experience.

Shared challenges and relational strain

The shared grief of losing a child can either bring a couple closer together or drive a wedge between them. Communication becomes key, yet it is often severely impacted by the intensity of their individual grief. Couples may struggle to understand each other’s ways of mourning, leading to misunderstandings and feelings of resentment.

The emotional toll of such a loss can affect a couple’s intimacy and physical relationship. The mother’s physical recovery and the emotional trauma both partners endure can lead to a decreased desire for physical closeness. This can be misinterpreted by one or both partners as a lack of love or support, further straining the relationship.

Moreover, the societal expectation for the couple to “try again” can create additional pressure and anxiety. The fear of experiencing another loss can overshadow any future pregnancies, making it difficult for the couple to fully embrace hope and joy again.

Navigating the path to healing

Healing from the loss of a child is a long and complex journey, requiring patience, understanding, and support. Open communication between partners is essential for navigating this path together. Couples are encouraged to share their feelings and experiences honestly, even when it is painful or uncomfortable. Recognising that each person grieves differently and respecting those differences can foster mutual support and empathy.

Seeking professional help, such as counselling or therapy, can be incredibly beneficial. Therapists who specialise in grief and loss can provide coping strategies and facilitate conversations that may be difficult to initiate on their own. Support groups, both in-person and online, offer a sense of community and understanding, allowing parents to connect with others who have endured similar losses.

For both mothers and fathers, self-care is vital. Allowing oneself to grieve, honouring the lost child in personal ways, and finding healthy outlets for emotional expression can aid in the healing process. Couples should also be gentle with themselves and each other, recognising that healing is not linear and setbacks are a natural part of the journey.

Looking ahead

The loss of a baby through stillbirth or neonatal death is a profound tragedy that affects both parents deeply, which is why we promote stillbirth and neonatal awareness month each year.

By building awareness and acknowledging the unique and painful challenges those affected face is the first step in providing the support needed to navigate grief. Through open communication, professional support, and mutual empathy, couples can find a path to healing and resilience from this tragedy, and we can all be there to support them.

We’ve listed below some organisations we’d recommend, if you’d like to seek further help and support: