I went to multiple in-person support groups after my son died. It was something I needed, and I am grateful that The Compassionate Friends and Helping After Neonatal Death were available to me. When I became pregnant again, I was worried about losing this support when I started to show. I knew how triggered I was seeing blissfully pregnant women with their round bellies, and I didn’t want to make anyone else feel that way. Especially someone who was coming to specifically share their grief.
I thought I would stop going, but I couldn’t. I wore my husband’s sweatshirts, I hunched, I hid behind tables, I never hugged too tightly. When I started forming closer bonds with other grieving parents, I felt like I had to tell them before it was literally in their face (or I dropped off the planet with no explanation). I started working on a balancing act that I’m still trying to figure out. How do we balance grief, PAL, and being a good friend?
Being pregnant after loss is an intense, emotional experience. When PAL, it can be easy to focus completely on our own perspective and our own journey. It takes up so much mental, emotional, and physical energy that it can be difficult to think about how our PAL might make someone else’s grief work harder.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek support when PAL (you should!), and it doesn’t mean that your grief is less important (the loss of a child is devastating under any circumstances). All it means is that a family who is expecting a child after a loss is in a different place than a family who is not – and as loss parents we should take care of each other as best we can.
It’s not about you. We are the stars of our own lives, so it’s only natural to see ourselves as the center. In a time as trying and exhausting as PAL, it’s easy to forget that other people have needs too. It’s OK to be selfish when grieving and PAL, but we should still do our best to be gentle. Especially to our brothers and sisters in loss. What they need is as important as what we need. It’s not about you, personally, it’s about how your pregnancy may trigger someone you care about.
Don’t forget what it felt like. For many loss moms, the first days, weeks, months, and even year are the most intense. The grief is so new and raw, and so much time is spent trying to figure out how to make it through the day. It is severe and unrelenting in the beginning for many people. We all experienced it, but it can be hard to really recall the intensity and how overwhelming it was.
Your grief unites you, not your pregnancy. During PAL, grief plays a huge role. Moms need support for both their grief and their anxiety during PAL. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to find support for both in the same place, or from the same person. When talking with loss moms who are not PAL, try to focus on grief topics. Especially in the beginning, before your relationship is comfortable enough where you can ask if it’s OK to talk about your pregnancy too.
Consider whether your support is helpful right now. Sometimes the people we relate to the most are people going through what we are – at the same time. It naturally happens that people group together who are in the same life stage, and it happens with grieving, PAL, and parenting. If you are not in the same stage as someone else, you might not be the best support for them and they might not be the best support for you.
Know your audience. It’s OK to talk about your PAL anxiety. It’s OK to get the support you need. But be aware of who you are leaning on, and what they are going through. The best thing is to have a frank and open discussion about what is and isn’t OK to talk about, then honor it as closely as you can. If your friend keeps changing the subject or getting very quiet when you bring up your pregnancy, pay attention to these cues and save those topics for another time.
Avoid surprises. There’s nothing like a surprise pregnancy announcement right after a loss. It hurts, even when we are truly happy for our loved ones announcing their growing family. We have all experienced this, and we should be considerate to the people in our lives who are also living after loss. Instead of telling your friend face-to-face, consider an e-mail or text message so they can have a natural reaction without needing to censor it for your benefit. You can also consider mentioning that if your friend needs some distance you would understand.
Be considerate – especially online. Being face-to-face is a constant reminder to be empathetic. We can see the emotions of another human and can almost always tell when we’ve overstepped (or overshared). Online though, this is more difficult. Many loss parents find solace and support in online groups, and it feels natural to share their PAL journey with the same people. But it’s important to know if this topic is OK with the rest of the group. Is there a PAL-specific offshoot of the support group? Are pregnancy and parenting topics frequently discussed in the group? Do you need a content / trigger warning? Before you post that positive pregnancy test, think back to how you would have felt seeing that when you were still TTC, or not able to TTC. And if someone asks you to add a warning or remove your post from a loss-focused groups, try not to get defensive.
A subsequent child is not the only way to heal. A baby born after a loss is a beautiful, wonderful, happy thing. But living children after loss are not in the cards for everyone. Either by choice or by circumstance, it doesn’t always happen. Especially when talking to someone who is not expecting after loss, be aware of the language you use. Avoid saying things like, “I don’t know how I would go on without my rainbow” or “I was so depressed until I got pregnant.” Having the feelings you have is always OK, but be considerate to whom you express them.
A huge thank you to the mamas that contributed thoughts and ideas for this article: Aimee Waters, Erin Grote, LM, JG, JR, SS, AA, KH, TW, JI, JM, LV, KR.