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Stillbirth: an invalidated loss

The anticipated birth of a much wanted and loved child is a magical time in a parent's life. "What will my little girl do when she grows up?" "Will our son have my eyes or hers?" There are so many hopes and dreams bestowed on the child before he or she takes that first breath outside the womb. In most instances, the parents have already established a strong bond with their treasured child by viewing their little one on ultrasound or feeling the child move and stretch in utero.

However, 28,000 babies past 20 weeks gestation in the United States alone will not live outside of their mother's womb. At the very moment that the parents learn that their child has died from stillbirth, life as they knew it is irrevocably changed.

"Cheryl, I'm sorry, but the baby didn't make it." "I wailed, "No God! Why?" over and over and over again. My world was spun into a whole new dimension. My heart felt emotions I never knew existed. My life as I knew it was forever changed." ~ Cheryl, the bereaved parent of Madison Marie, describes her pain upon learning that her daughter had died from a placental abruption.

One in every 116 babies delivered is a stillbirth. These are sobering statistics, which many parents are unaware of. There is still a taboo in the United States about discussing the fact that so many babies die from stillbirth. Many obstetricians do not bring it up and parents don't want to imagine that it could happen to their child. No one is comfortable talking about the subject of stillbirths, even the medical community, and expectant parents don't realize how common it is.

Why did this happen to me? Is it my fault?

The first question usually asked, when parents are confronted with the fact that their baby has died from stillbirth, is "why?" Not only is the mother devastated by the knowledge that all her hopes and dreams, wrapped up in a precious bundle of pink and blue, have died, but she is often under the heart wrenching assumption that she is somehow responsible for her baby's death.

"Why did it happen? I asked myself that same question for the following five months. I did not smoke during pregnancy. I did not drink or do drugs. I did not have high blood pressure. I was not involved in an accident that would have caused forced trauma
on my abdomen, so why?" ~ Cheryl

In approximately 60% of stillbirths the cause of death is unknown. The second leading cause of stillbirths is a knot in the umbilical cord or the cord is wrapped tightly around the baby's neck. This is followed closely by placental abruptions, where the placenta prematurely tears away from the wall of the uterus, depriving the baby of oxygen.

There are currently studies underway that may prove that the leading cause of stillbirths, in late term babies, may be compression of the umbilical cord while the mother sleeps. This could be a major breakthrough in stillbirth research which, like SIDS "Back to Sleep", will show a positional cause for this devastating loss.

Until recently, it was theorized that nothing could be done to prevent stillbirths. However, as more research progresses, this is not always shown to be the case. With proper monitoring, through daily "kick counts", extensive use of ultrasound and non-stress tests to screen for high risk pregnancies, conditions that lead to stillbirth can be recognized early and steps taken to prevent it.

How are stillbirths recognized by each state?

Bereaved parents who experience loss due to stillbirth experience a unique type of grief. They often feel their loss is not validated as their baby never took a breath outside the womb. This point is made evident when looking at how stillbirths are recognized by each state.

Some states offer nothing to acknowledge that a baby was born in cases of stillbirth. Other states have a Certificate of Stillbirth and a few offer what is known as a Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth. The difference between the two is that the Certificate of Stillbirth acknowledges that the baby died in utero, and is basically a death certificate. Whereas, the Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth acknowledges that stillborn babies were indeed born. This gives many bereaved parents a sense of comfort knowing that their child is recognized as having been real.

The grief experienced by the parents when their child dies is indescribable in its intensity. It is as devastating to parents whose child never survived a minute outside the womb as it is for parents whose child lived to be twenty years of age. The death of a child is a nightmare from which the bereaved parents feel they will never awake. It is a possibility that many parents never prepare themselves for, if it were even possible to prepare oneself for a psychological earthquake of this magnitude.

Your life can still have meaning and purpose

The resolution of grief brought on by the death of a child is long and full of many pitfalls along the way. It is not uncommon, in the early stages of grief, for the bereaved parents to wonder if they will actually survive such a devastating loss. Although their lives will be forever changed, it does not mean that they cannot go on to have a life that has meaning and purpose.

Talk with others who have experienced this kind of loss

Many who lose a child from stillbirth find solace in joining support groups like Compassionate Friends where they are connected with others who have experienced the same type of loss. It is not at all uncommon for bereaved parents to believe that no one could possibly understand the depth of their pain.

By knowing and talking with other bereaved parents, some of whom may be further along in their grief resolution journey, they come to feel that their loss is somehow survivable. It is also comforting to talk with others who know first hand all the intense emotions they are feeling. "I understand" are very powerful words to those who grieve.

Other ways to cope with the pain of stillbirth

Others cope with their grief by writing their deepest feelings and thoughts in a journal. This gives their pain a voice and allows them to view their progress and setbacks as they learn to live in a world without their child. It is also therapeutic to make scrapbooks, with pictures of ultrasounds, poems, and other items included to remember their child.

Above all else, it is crucial that the parents hold, bathe and dress their child before letting the baby go. Bereaved parents are often uninformed of the importance of spending time with their child. It is a great source of regret if time is not spent touching, holding and examining every part of their baby before allowing the child to be taken away. This memory will last a lifetime. Once the opportunity passes it cannot be revisited.

"I watched the parents hold the child, caress him, rock him, and give him a name. They knew he was dead, yet they gave him a life. He really did exist. He had been a part of their lives. He was not a "thing." He was their son, and they loved him dearly." 
~ Margaret, Social Worker

Many who lose a child will suffer from the devastating effects of depression. To cope with their intense feelings of grief, they may need to seek the help of a mental health professional. The counselor should be proficient in dealing with the unique needs of bereaved parents. A compassionate counselor will help gently ease the parents through their grief onto the path of acceptance and resolution.

If you are at the beginning, take heart - there is evolution...

Coping with the devastating loss brought on by stillbirth is long and difficult. It may not seem possible, in the initial stage of grief, that life will ever hold meaning again. This is a self-deception caused by the immense pain brought on by such indescribable grief.

Although extremely difficult and painful to endure, one day the bereaved parents will wake up and realize that the pain is not as intense. They may even find they are able to laugh and smile again without feeling guilty for enjoying life when their child was deprived of this. Grieving parents' existence is irrevocably changed by the loss of a child. However, life can be rich, full, and hold deeper meaning as they consider the lessons learned and hold to their hearts forever the many gifts their child left behind.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Children: coping with the death of a child section helpful too.

You may also find The National Stillbirth Society useful.

Visit our Amazon store to find books on coping with stillbirth.

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