Guilt and anger after a stillbirth
Many women feel they have failed as mothers. They feel responsible for what has happened because their body let them down and they didn’t give birth to a healthy baby.
It’s not unusual for bereaved parents, particularly mums, to become obsessed with their own, their partner’s or their other children’s health. Your own mortality can come to the fore – if a tiny baby can die so can anyone. This reaction usually fades with time – if it doesn’t and you are struggling to manage the anxiety, talk to your doctor or health visitor.
With time, some mums also feel guilty when they start to feel a little better, as if they’re not honouring their baby or ‘forgetting them’.
Anger is a very natural part of grief. Many parents direct this towards the hospital, and at other times to-wards friends and family. For some women it is a generalised anger at the undeservedness and injustice, ‘Why me?’
All the feelings we mention here are normal. However, if you start to worry about how you’re feeling, please try talking to your GP.
Dads and partners - coping with grief
The information on this page is for both parents, but it needs to be acknowledged that dads and partners can be forgotten after a baby is stillborn. As everyone looks to the mum who carried the baby, it’s easy to overlook the fact that dads and partners need time and space to grieve too. People may grieve differently. With some people expressing less emotion, it is easy to assume that ‘they are OK’.
Some people find it difficult to express their emotions and their feelings can get locked up. This can be misunderstood as indifference to the loss of their baby.
Many partners take on the role of protector in the family; supporting their wife or partner and not allowing time for their own grief. It is not unusual for some to take on the practicalities and keep themselves busy.
You will both need time and space to grieve. This may happen after the funeral if there is one, or possibly many weeks later.
"I had to go back to work straight away. It was a good distraction. I ran a lot and I kept doing that. I signed up for marathons. Running got me away for a few hours at a time and gave me a way to switch off. I wasn’t right for at least six months after. I was functioning but I was on autopilot. I wasn’t myself. People might not have noticed too much."
Keith, who lost his son Owen at 38 weeks (Read Keith’s story here)
Read more about supporting each other as a couple.
Getting help to cope from friends and family
Family and friends may want to rally around. Some parents will appreciate this, others might find it exhausting. This is a time to be honest about what you need.
Practical help can be invaluable, particularly in the early days when you’re recovering from the birth. If you have trusted friends or family and are able to cope with having them around these are things they can help with:
- home cooked meals
- filing and responding to messages of condolences
- looking after other children.
For other people, however, keeping busy can be part of the healing process.
It might help to circulate our page on 'How to give support' to friends and family who want to know how they can help you.
After the birth
Most women will agree that the emotional pain is infinitely more difficult to bear than the physical discomfort of giving birth. But don’t underestimate how your hormone levels rapidly change after the birth, and post-natal mood swings and tears are normal, regardless. These hormonal changes might make your grief even harder to cope with in the early weeks and months.
You will also have to cope with the physical effects of giving birth. You will bleed heavily for the first few days after the birth, you may have painful stitches or after-pains (as the uterus contracts back to its normal size). Your breasts will produce milk and this can lead to painful engorgement. Talk to your midwife about how to manage your milk coming in.
The physical side-effects of giving birth can be very difficult to cope with and it can feel like nature is play-ing a cruel trick on you.
Read more about coping with the physical effects of a stillbirth
"For me one of the most awful things was my milk coming in. I was sadly unable to take any medication to stop it, so I was told to compress my breasts with tighter tops to try and stem the supply."
The hospital will tell your GP, community midwife and health visitor what has happened so they can offer you care and support once you are home.
If you haven’t heard from your GP within a few days, phone your surgery to arrange to see someone. You might want to ask your GP to put a note on your record so it is immediately obvious to anyone you deal with in future what has happened.
Although it may be difficult and heart-breaking, it is important to ensure you attend all your post-natal appointments. It might help to call your GP and find out in advance of appointments what will happen so you can prepare yourself.
Read more about postnatal care after a stillbirth
You may have physical reactions to your grief. Heart palpitations, shaking, chest pains, diarrhoea, butter-flies in your stomach and sickness are all common.
It is important to try to look after yourself after the birth. You may not feel like eating or drinking but you need to try to keep physically strong to cope with the emotional trauma.
Many women felt it was very difficult to leave the house, but if you feel able to do so, parents often report that once they went out they felt that being outdoors in the fresh air helped.
"It's almost like I created a time capsule, which may be seen as unhealthy to some, but I find it so therapeutic. I spent a long time after the birth just sitting playing every minute of the labour and delivery and the following 12 hours over in my head because I didn't want to forget how I felt or what happened, as if I did start to forget it would mean I would also forget Chloe. I had to take that pressure off myself to stop my panic attacks, and so the memory box has really helped with that. When I do sit and look through it I am taken back to those feelings, and honestly sometimes I really need to just sit in that and feel it wash over me again. But then when I have had my time looking back through everything I can put it away and focus on my day to day life again.’"
Diane, who lost her baby Chloe at 40 weeks (read Diane's story here)
You may be more prone to viral infections, such as colds. You may feel physically exhausted.
Sleep may be difficult for a while. You might have vivid dreams and nightmares.
Do not hesitate to get in touch with your GP if you feel you need extra support with the physical effects of grieving.
"I suffered from ptsd and nightmares for several months after my stillbirth. At night I would lie in bed reliving what had happened. I learnt to write my feelings down which acted as a release."
"The grief was overwhelming. I suffered horrific nightmares, and although family and friends rallied around, nobody could penetrate the bubble of heart and gut wrenching ache. I learnt to ‘act’, to do the bare minimum to simply survive my daily routine."
Share your feelings
Talking to close and trusted family members or friends about your feelings and your experience can bring comfort.
Most mothers also felt that talking to other women who had experienced a stillbirth was very helpful and reassured them that their feelings were normal. It can also make you feel less alone.
You may find that crying and talking about your baby are good ways of releasing feelings. You may want to tell your story over and over again. This is normal and you should follow this instinctive urge to talk as it helps you come to terms with what has happened. Don’t be afraid to mention the name of your baby who has died.
Other parents however find it hard to express their feelings or talk about their baby.
"Sometimes you just don’t know where to start, or find it too hard or horrifically sad."
It might be helpful to write down what happened and how you feel each day. You may want to draw or paint, write a poem, keep a diary, create a web page, set up a blog or make a scrapbook.
SANDS, a support charity, can put you in touch with other parents who have had stillborn babies and will be happy to listen and talk.
Get support to help cope with the grief
A bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife may be able to help you with paperwork and funeral planning.
You might also be able to access bereavement counselling through your GP.
There is support out there, but it will differ depending on where you live. Sometimes you need to explore all your options to find the best one for you.
Knowing the difference between postnatal depression and grief
Some mums suffer with postnatal depression after a stillbirth. You might also show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after the terrible ordeal you’ve been through. Talk to your GP if you are worried about your feelings and reactions.
The main symptoms of postnatal depression are very similar to the symptoms of grief so it is not easy to tell them apart. If you have had a previous mental health issue though you are more likely to suffer from postnatal depression so you or a close person should be on the lookout.
- a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
- loss of interest in life, no longer enjoying things that used to give pleasure
- lack of energy and feeling tired all the time.
Other symptoms can include:
- disturbed sleep, such as having trouble sleeping during the night and then being sleepy during the day
- difficulties with concentration and making decisions
- low self-confidence
- poor appetite or an increase in appetite (‘comfort eating’)
- feeling very agitated or, alternatively, very apathetic (you can’t be bothered)
- feelings of guilt and self-blame
- thinking about suicide and self-harming.
If, after about six months, you are still struggling to cope with everyday life, consider getting some professional help, which you can discuss with your GP.
You can talk to our midwives on Tommy’s free PregnancyLine 0800 0147 800. Open 9-5, Monday to Friday. The midwives on the line have received training in bereavement care and welcome calls from parents who have lost a baby. We also have a baby loss support group where you can connect with other people who have lost a baby.
These organisations may also be helpful for you:
- Saying Goodbye offers support, advice and a befriending service. You can also attend Saying Goodbye ceremonies across the country.
- The Child Bereavement Trust has support groups, offers counselling and lots of online resources. They can help siblings through a bereavement.
- Twins Trust is the Twins and Multiple Births Association for support with losing a multiple birth baby.