I lost my breath. Stunned beyond words, I froze as I learned that a friend and her husband I lost my breath. Stunned beyond words, I froze as I learned that a friend and her husband

Fetal Death at Full Term: How Do Couples Cope?

sad-coupleI lost my breath. Stunned beyond words, I froze as I learned that a friend and her husband lost their baby in utero at full term. In that moment, my mind attempted to refuse such a tragedy. “No! That is not possible!” I thought. My spouse and I stood in our kitchen in full embrace, silent. Even as I write about this tragedy, my heart aches.

How do you, as a couple, transcend such an experience? All of your hopes, dreams, and longings for a baby, parenthood, or siblings to your older children are lost, unexpectedly, before your baby even emerged from the womb. How do you carry on? How do you thrive again?

This complicated grief process is unique for each partner. For certain, you will never be the same person or couple again. An experience such as this transforms you permanently. Here are some guidelines to help you make sense of your relationship in the context of this profound loss.

  1. The grieving process will riddle you with a range of emotions. One moment, you might feel enraged; the next moment, sad and vulnerable; the next day, withdrawn and lonely, interspersed with moments of conscious strength and a we-can-get-through-this attitude. Ride these waves out and expect them of your partner. They may not always make sense to you.
  2. Predict the unpredictable. The early grief process is a highly disorganizing state physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You can easily lose track of time, days, events, and people. There is no set timeframe for how long this can go on, but know that it is temporary.
  3. Do not personalize your partner’s actions. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. When the unfathomable occurs, when your greatest fears are realized, you may not treat each other optimally. While this is not an excuse for mistreatment, it’s important to remember the context to help you depersonalize your partner’s reactions to grief.
  4. Stay connected. Even if one or both of you needs to take “alone” time, do so in a way that does not leave your partner feeling abandoned. Express your needs for time by yourself, but always come back and be present to each other. Ask your partner, “How are you today?” Look into his or her eyes. Do your partner’s words align with his or her spirit? Do not assume that he or she is doing OK or better than you. Ask, ask, ask—and then ask again.
  5. Express your feelings. When you express your grief, you give permission for your partner to do the same. One of the greatest gifts you can offer each other is the time and space to share all of your feelings. No need to resolve your partner’s grief. Simply be present to it and listen with a loving heart.
  6. Turn to your families, friends, and larger community. I cannot imagine a greater time to ask for help than when you lose your baby. Most people around you want to have some sense of making a situation like this “right.” While they cannot change the circumstances, most humans will want to contribute to your healing during such a tragedy. Let them. Allow yourself to be humble and ask for help when you need it.
  7. Give each other time to heal. There is no easy answer. No explanation. No quick fix. No overnight resolve. There is time. One day at a time, one hour, one minute, one breath at a time.

From the moment of conception, you have become parents. Parenthood produces terrifying love, a love greater than yourselves. You probably had no idea that you could love this deeply. With great love comes the potential for great loss—at all stages of life.

While many couples can survive such an event, some relationships suffer greatly. There are many variables as to why. A professional therapist can help you understand what may prevent you from reconstructing your relationship and your life. Seek help when you find it too difficult to manage on your own.

This winter, I attended the graveside service of this sweet baby. I prayed that I would have the strength, courage, and wisdom to be fully present to my own grief. My prayers continue. May parents everywhere who have experienced this profound loss find peace, faith, and love within and around them.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Kaye F

    March 30th, 2015 at 11:29 AM

    I cannot even begin to imagine the pain that couple must feel when this happens, much less even understand how you make through this process. I think that this would be something that could take such a huge toll on your relationship with one another, that if you are not strong together at the core that it could threaten to ruin it.

  • Rhea

    March 30th, 2015 at 1:00 PM

    You cope with the help of a whole lot of caring friends and family members in your life. This is not something that any couple should have to go through alone, and if you have good people in your life then they can help you get through this. It is good to go through the grieving process together, understanding that we all go at our own pace when it comes through getting to the other side of that grief… and that that is okay. I think that if the two of you can make it through this together you will find that your relationship actually can become stronger than you would have ever thought that it could be.

  • Stefan

    March 30th, 2015 at 3:49 PM

    These are the things that can tear you apart, both on a personal level and even just being an outsider looking in.

    It seems almost unfathomable that there are any parents who ever have to suffer the loss of a child.

  • jillian

    March 31st, 2015 at 10:45 AM

    At a time like this a couple must be able to rely on each other for support. It would be my tendency to look inward and try to find all of the answers there but there would be no good answers. I know that a weakness of mine is that I tend to shut other people out and choose to deal with things on my own but in a situation like that you must be willing to let others in and help you through that oh so dark time.

  • KateC

    April 27th, 2015 at 6:55 AM

    I lost my baby one week shy of full term in 2012.

    Here’s my feedback:

    I ESPECIALLY love “Give each other the benefit of the doubt.” My husband and I came together with incredible synchrony during our crisis and made the decisions that had to be made together. We were very lucky for that. But as soon as it was over, once our baby was dead and gone and we were home from all the doctors, facing our everyday lives again, that togetherness evaporated. We went our own separate ways in grief. It felt so lonely and awful at first, but our grieving differences ceased to hurt me so deeply when I finally realized that my husband and I are different people who needed different things in the wake of our loss. Just because we were different didn’t mean that I was wrong and he was right — or vice versa. It is just that grief is inherently lonely work. That revelation helped me give my partner the benefit of the doubt more often, which helped us regain a level of comfort and companionship again, despite our continued differences.

    I also like the idea of #4: Stay connected! But in my relationship, this had absolutely nothing to do with talking things out, and everything to do with cultivating unspoken connection. Touch was very important. Intimacy was very important. Every time we tried to talk about our feelings, we ended up fighting, but when we just shut up and hugged it out (or kissed, or made love, or whatever) then I felt connected again.

    I flat-out disagree with #5, because even though I really needed to share my feelings, my husband really needed not to hear my feelings all the time. Most times I tried to talk about my feelings, it ended very badly, with fighting and feelings of isolation. This ties in to give-your-partner-the-benefit-of-the-doubt. If talking isn’t working, take that as what it is. It isn’t an insult. It isn’t a deficiency in your partner. It’s just a difference. Respect your partner enough to figure out something else.

    Which brings me to #6… absolutely turn to your friends, family, and even strangers to help support you in whatever ways your partner can not. I need to talk everything out. My partner needs not to hear it. When I finally started reaching out to friends and family (who wanted desperately to help in any way they could), I found a vast reserve of patience and love and compassionate listening. It would be completely unfair to expect my husband to provide the listening that a couple dozen close friends have offered, and when he fell flat, it drove us apart because it made me feel (unfairly!) disappointed in him. Our partners do not have to be all things at all times in order to be worthy of our love. Cast a wider net. Draw support from all corners of your life. People really do want to help. If they don’t know how, just TELL THEM. I promise that almost all of them will appreciate the guidance in a way that your spouse, who is grieving his own grief, can not.

    Love to all the fellow parents in this position. I know some of what I said isn’t what people want to hear. We want our partners to be with us in grief, and my experience is that they simply can not be. That doesn’t mean they can not continue to be with us in friendship, in marriage, in family, in love. Patience for partner and patience for self are imperative to help a couple grow through these hard times.

    I wish you all of that.

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