Why grieving a first-trimester loss can be so complicated

Louise sadly lost her first baby at 11 weeks, before going on to bring home her rainbow baby Ella. In this blog, she explores the complex and intense emotions of dealing with first-trimester grief and how it’s easy to diminish and difficult to understand if you haven’t been there yourself.

Guest blog by Louise

It was 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon and I was standing in the bathroom at work with my knickers around my ankles. 

This isn’t the beginning of a cheesy romance scene: this is an example of a very real situation that 1 in 4 women can find themselves in. I remember looking at the pink smear on the loo roll in confusion, then feeling a crushing wave of fear hit me like a tsunami. At that point, I was 11 weeks pregnant. My 12-week scan was in a few days, and my husband and I were talking of nothing else but seeing our beautiful baby’s heartbeat on the ultrasound. Like many parents-to-be, we were unaware of the heartache that would unfurl over the following days. 

It’s estimated that a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage, with 85% of those losses happening in the first trimester. Grief hits hard at any point and it can feel as though your life is collapsing around you. In the first trimester that grief comes with a myriad of other emotions which can be complex and complicated to unravel, and some women really struggle to tackle it until months or years later. Many grieving mothers will hear phrases like ‘at least you know you can get pregnant’, ‘don’t worry, it’ll happen again’ or ‘at least you already have one child’ from well-meaning friends and family. And it isn’t that those thoughts don’t cross our own minds - they do - but first-trimester grief is easy to diminish and difficult to understand if you haven’t been there yourself. 

Speaking to other parents who have lost babies helps a lot, but shows in stark clarity how many different emotions can run through you in the weeks and months following a loss and how common those feelings can be: 

Pain. The painfully obvious one, right? This can be physical as well as emotional. It can feel like your heart is being shredded beneath your ribs while your face remains stoic and blank. It can manifest in screaming and sobbing, collapsing to the ground, unable to see or speak.  

Blame and guilt walking hand-in-hand. Every form of guilt imaginable. Guilt for that one cup of coffee, for complaining about feeling sick, for staying up too late, for lying on the wrong side, for buying a babygrow...

Foolishness. This one is extremely difficult to work through. Many mothers who lose their baby early on feel foolish. Foolish for getting excited, foolish for thinking it would all work out. For thinking they would be part of the mummy club in a few short months. Foolish for following all those mummy bloggers on Instagram only to have to complete the painful process of unfollowing them all because the pain is too great.

Jealousy. This can make you feel like a horrible person, believe me. You want to be happy for friends and relatives as they announce their pregnancies or have their babies, and you are, but there’s an agonised part of you that just wants it to be you and asks relentlessly why it isn’t. 

Fear. And this is one that usually permeates any subsequent pregnancy, even right through to labour. The soul-numbing fear that this won’t be your first loss, that you’ll be subjected to this same crushing grief over and over again. This fear destroyed my pregnancy with our rainbow baby. I dreaded every scan, made bi-weekly visits to my midwife’s consulting room to hear the heartbeat so I knew everything was okay. I monitored kicks with military precision. And our baby didn’t feel safe until she was in my arms.

Failure. It can feel as though your body has failed you. And that can be extremely hard to come to terms with, even when everyone around you tells you otherwise.

And one big one: you can be left feeling like a fraud

Many parents who lose a baby before 12 weeks never got a chance to see that baby on an ultrasound. They never saw the blurry little kidney-bean shape that should have become a snuffly, wriggly baby for them to cradle. They never heard the whoosh of a heartbeat crackling through a speaker. For many parents experiencing a first-trimester loss, the first time they see their baby is on the ultrasound scan that tells them there is no heartbeat. No sign of life. No development. Or, in some cases, nothing there at all because the miscarriage has already happened during the bleeding that brought them to the hospital. So there is an element of it not feeling or being truly ‘real’, and you find yourself grieving for something intangible, for the promise of hopes and dreams rather than something physical to see, touch, and hold tight. That can cause a lot of pain and isolation as bereaved mothers attempt to work through it.

That list isn’t complete, far from it. But it’s a glimpse into the emotional minefield that can follow an early miscarriage. 

Something else that adds to the complexities of recovering from a first-trimester loss is that in most cases, hardly anyone knew about the pregnancy. We live in a society where it’s seen as bad luck to share a pregnancy announcement before 12 weeks, or that it shouldn’t be shared in case things don’t work out. What that line of thinking does is isolate bereaved parents. Friends may not have known about the pregnancy - so how are you going to find the words to tell them about the loss and ask for support?

I had shared our exciting news with my nearest and dearest, so I had their shoulders to lean on after the fact. But I was one of the women who would find recovery long and traumatic.

Physically, I recovered. I went back to work. My body moved on - mostly. Many trauma therapists believe that the body remembers even if the mind forgets, but that’s a topic for another time. But emotionally, I was destroyed. I felt hollow, like a plastic doll of myself was walking around, doing all my usual day-to-day activities while my mind and soul were elsewhere. They were back in the hospital room watching my own blood paint the floor. They were in my living room, talking about baby names with my excited husband. They were in the children’s shop where, where days before, I had bought a tiny babygrow in a moment of pure joy. And the worst of it was that nobody around me could see that. I looked present, I acted present, they assumed I was present. Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc. A colleague at the time even uttered the words ‘I didn’t even consider the emotional ramifications’. You can imagine how that felt. Everyone told me I was looking well. I thought I’d never feel well again. 

Some women do bounce back. And I know how easy it is to look at them and wonder why you’re being affected by your loss so deeply while others seem to have got over it and moved on. But everyone grieves differently, especially when that loss isn’t clear-cut. 

That day at work, when I instinctively knew I was going to lose my baby, I walked out of the bathroom and back to my desk. I helped a colleague with an IT issue. I made a phone call. Because pretending it wasn’t happening was so much easier than accepting what was about to come. 

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