The Grief and Trauma of Pregnancy Loss

When my son Zachary was stillborn in 1988, it was unimaginable that I would survive or that time really would pass and take me away from that pain and turmoil. But, time has moved ahead, and recently, I’ve been looking back and writing about the 28 years since Zachary. I wanted to see if I could find traces of him and of the life-changing experience I shared with him.

The long view has been so enriching. One learning I hadn’t put into words before seems obvious from a distance. I can see how grief for a stillbirth or miscarriage or any other pregnancy loss or infant death comes riddled with trauma. At first, grief and trauma are intertwined, but as time passes, the differences between them become more apparent.

By grief I mean the overwhelming sadness, rage, despair and longing of the loss. And by trauma, I mean the shock, horror and unexpectedness, the rupture in the natural order of things that a baby’s death is. Trauma is the profound threat to life and soul experienced by grieving parents.

Our grief for our lost children usually runs its course and leads us to a new relationship with them. There may be occasional periods of sadness, but they don’t tear us out of the present. Trauma, however, can persist because it is stored in the oldest part of our brains where the only agenda is survival. In an effort to protect us from similar dangers in the future, the old brain preserves details of a traumatic loss experience. Those stored images and feelings can be triggered regardless of the amount of time that has passed. 

I’ve found that echoes of the trauma of losing Zachary show up in varying degrees of intensity. For instance, there is a traffic light just before the turn into the hospital where I delivered Zachary. These days, when I pass that spot, the present cracks open to reveal the past, and the feel of that original drive to the hospital 28 years ago engulfs me. For seconds or minutes, it is just me and that deep, warm red beacon on a cold November night.  

Usually the trigger’s effect will come and go quickly and the present reasserts itself. But, occasionally, an encounter with a trigger becomes a flashback. I had such an experience two years ago. I’d made a contribution to a local senior center that was offering paving blocks inscribed with donors’ names. I chose to have Zachary’s name etched on the paving stone. I went by one afternoon to see the installed stone and the sight of his name transported me instantaneously back to the week after his death. This wasn’t a memory with buffering distance. Zachary had just died. Terror and panic set my mind and heart racing. My legs felt weak, dread enveloped me. The late afternoon, gray sky seemed to be closing in on me. I wanted to run away. It took a while to breathe through the onslaught of feeling and sensation and regain a foothold in the present. Flashbacks don’t happen only in war zones.

Sometimes trauma is mistaken for grief, and I wonder if repeated traumatic triggerings contribute to that feeling of “never getting over it.”

For myself and the clients I work with, I believe that triggering, especially at flashback strength, creates unnecessary suffering. When traumatic effects occur, our minds and bodies need soothing. Fortunately, today’s psychology offers many ways of managing trauma so that it does not interfere with life or with our ongoing connection to our deceased children.

Emma Mellon, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Berwyn, PA. An excerpt from her new book, “Still Life” is available here.

The Stories of Grief

In 1989, when I began working with parents who’d had a stillbirth or a miscarriage, the most surprising thing for me was the fact that such losses were still happening. I was shocked to hear that words like, “We’re so sorry, we can’t find a heartbeat” still passed between physicians and devastated parents.

It had been a year since my son Zachary was stillborn, and without realizing it, I had assumed that these tragic deaths were a thing of the past. That assumption was my brain’s way of helping me to feel safe in the world again: such heartbreaks were no longer happening. I’d seen the worst and now I had little else to fear from life. Order had been restored to the world.

My assumption, unconscious as it was, is an example of how the mind attempts to process a trauma like miscarriage or stillbirth. Of course I knew that stillbirth and miscarriage still occurred. But logical thought is just one of the mind’s languages. In an effort to help me absorb the loss and feel safe in the world, my deeper mind comforted me with a story. And though I eventually outgrew the story, for a while it had helped me along in my recovery. 

Body Resources: Breath

There’s breathing, and then there’s breathing.

Most of us breathe just enough to get along. This shallow, upper lung breath uses only about one-third of our lung capacity. It keeps us alive and woven into the fabric of all breathing creatures and objects, but that’s about it.

And then there’s deep breathing, which utilizes the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle that forms the floor of the chest cavity and the ceiling of the abdominal cavity. Expanding down toward the pelvis and contracting back up to the ribs, the diaphragm draws air into the lungs and expels it. Watch a baby sleep, and you’ll see her belly rising and falling. That’s diaphragm breathing. Not only does the diaphragm draw air into the chest, it directly or indirectly massages the stomach, liver, pancreas, intestines and kidneys.

Deep breathing connects us to our deeper selves, and it increases the efficiency of our organs and systems, helps to balance emotion and reduce stress, and can neutralize negative emotions and increase available energy. And it feels good.

Making the transition from shallow to deep breathing can be very frustrating. We’re trained to favor tight pulled-in bellies. I have felt, and heard from others, the sensation of a band dividing the upper and lower bodies. This “band” blocks diaphragm breath, and restricts us to the upper third of the lungs. But patience and practice can dissolve the band and increase mental clarity, health and pleasure.

Body Resources: Attention

It still amazes me how many resources we carry around in our own bodies to help us cope and thrive in daily life.

For instance:


We can move our attention, our awareness, around like the beam of a flashlight.  Where it is at any time is a choice, though it is hard to acknowledge that sometimes. 

I direct my attention toward filling the dishwasher—the feel of plates, the sound of glass touching the rack, the look of silverware clumped in its compartments. Attending to elements of the task creates ease and the satisfaction of sensory information flowing in to the body.

On the other hand, as I fill the dishwasher, I can direct my attention to a belief I have that I shouldn’t have to be doing this. As I attend to the barrage of thoughts that follow, I feel put-upon, resentful, annoyed, and impatient. My attention is on thought rather than the concrete encounter with this task.

It seems we are powerful and powerless at the same time. The choice of where to direct my attention determines what I experience, more than the task itself does. Even though there are so many things we do not have control over, we can create our world, moment to moment. 

The Golden Fish

          In an old fairy tale, a fisherman catches a small, golden fish that speaks to him and asks for its life. The man throws him back into the sea, and the grateful fish offers to grant a wish. The fisherman thinks about it, and then tells the fish he has everything he needs. His wife, however, has many wishes. She repeatedly sends the fisherman back to the fish with demands for more and more wealth and power.

          I remembered the fish as I was considering how to teach my clients about a technique I use called Brain Spotting, or BSP.

          A development from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, BSP focuses the client’s attention on a spot in the visual field that connects with trauma stored in the brain. By holding attention on that spot and observing thoughts, feelings and physical sensations as they arise, the client’s mind/body system can process and resolve trauma. BSP can also be used to build and deepen resources like confidence or even to master behaviors like a backswing or a musical performance.

          I’ve done hundreds of BSP sessions, and I have experienced the method myself on many occasions. And while it isn’t scientific language I’m using, I have to say BSP is like standing on the shore and talking with the golden fish.

          When the rational self has been unsuccessful at thinking or willing a problem away, it’s time to try a different approach, to consult with another aspect of our intelligence. Like the fish, a brain spot is a different animal that connects us to a world unencumbered, instinctive, more fluid and less plotted. It’s an underwater part of us that is wise and trustworthy in a vaster way than our dry land selves. It solves problems differently in ways that seem haphazard or even magical. But it is the most ordinary of magic.

Coming Home to the Body

It’s a primitive urge, the need to come home, and though we make many homes for ourselves over a lifetime, they’re all secondary reflections of the archetypal home: the body.

Yet, our relationships with our bodies have come to focus almost exclusively on improving them: making them stronger, thinner, younger. We’ve exchanged body as home for body as project. We’ve objectified our physical selves, and in the process, have made ourselves homeless.

Troubles with self-image, self-esteem, weight and health are laced with that homelessness. Without a conscious relationship with body, we drift toward either paralyzing angst or a relentless, multi-tasking drive. With no body, we are indeed, nobody. We live in thin air, in ideas about reality, rather than in reality. Our pleasures are blunted. Advertising, cultural ideals, and medical advertising and intervention prescribe the terms of our interactions with our physical selves. We play hide and seek with death and are left unprepared for its arrival. We believe that the lightening-quick intellect is the model for how life should proceed: fast, linear, rational. And the body…, well the body should just catch up.

The story of how we became homeless straddles philosophic, economic, political, cultural and religious spheres. The more important question is, how do we get home?

The Journey into Body

Drop into the body. Let your awareness take a tumble from the control tower in the skull, out into the wilds of torso and limbs where additional intelligences thrive. I suggest this trip into the wilds because the body's resources are, for our purposes, boundless. Far beyond the kind of thinking we identify with our brains.

It's not that easy a shift, from brain to body. For me it is an ongoing learning because I have deep allegiance to brain-thought. The drop into somatic awareness seems, at first, like a detour, a delay and a step down from the superior intelligence we've come to identify with brain.

I've noticed that it is a long stretch for my clients, too. But the answers to the big questions—Why am I sad? How do I get past this problem? What do I really want in this life?--the answers to these queries are most quickly found when brain can observe and take seriously the body's intelligence, and sort the memories, impressions and emotions that stir when we put a question to our whole selves.

Involving the body's many intelligences not only offers better solutions to problems, it also enhances emotional and mental stability.

Practice thinking with brain and body. Consider an issue and notice your body's response as well as your brain's. Take that response as valid information in the matter. Factor it in. See how things will be different.

Body Intelligence

I didn't see the black ice, but that must have been what I stepped on. And then, I was lying on the icy blacktop, still clutching the greyhounds' leashes. They waited while I laid very still checking whether my parts still worked. Fortunately they did.

Tho it was a long time ago, I remember this fall very clearly. It was an embodied moment. The brain in my head didn't have time to get involved. As my feet left the ground in a Rockett-style kick, thought stopped and I belonged to my body in a way I've rarely belonged before. My intelligent body felt the mid-air suspension, and as I fell back, my torso twisted to land on my side rather than my back. 

Though I had no intellectual memory of the tumble, for hours I felt the motions of the fall in my body. My body  was explaining to my brain what had happened, and so the story I'm telling is second hand information. My body knew before the brain in my head did what was happening and what to do. 

The fall wasn't any fun. But the automatic response of my body is comforting to recall. Body is an ally I often overlook.

What Does My Dream Mean?

That’s always the first question. But, sorry. There is no standardized meaning. Dreams can’t be interpreted once and for all because they are many-faceted, their images rich in associations. To begin to understand a dream, spend time with the images the same way you would with a person you want to get to know.

Using your imagination—that other way of knowing—step back into the dream without the pressure of having to find a “meaning.” Hang out there, watch it unfold. Study the characters, including your dream self. Learn what’s important to each, how they treat each other. Try on the emotions in the dream. Practice holding various points of view shown in the dream. Feel what it’s like to be each of those characters. Notice who and what you draw away from, and wonder why. Have frank conversations with the dream characters and listen to their responses. Allow yourself to be touched in whatever way the dream touches you.

Spending time with the dream alters us, just as developing relationships broadens us. We begin to consider attitudes and behaviors that were not part of our consciousness. Our emotional palate is enriched; new ways of relating suggest themselves.

Bring new awarenesses from the dream into waking life. By practicing and integrating them in the daylight, you are becoming more whole.