Trigger warning: This article contains content the refers to death, babies who have died, miscarriage, termination and child abuse.
Please also note that all the references here to grief also impact on the men in our lives. For simplicity, I have focused this article on women. However, I know that men are also affected by grief and loss in all its forms.
I know that the sound a mother makes when she loses her child is universal. It is the same sound for every woman. A deep guttural cry that comes from the deepest parts of her and rises and gives no relief. I will never forget that sound nor the loss of all hope that comes when a mother is immersed in the sudden reality that she has lost her child. This moment is painful and is beyond description.
When I began working at the hospital as a social worker looking after people touched by trauma and tragedy, I was often called into the birthing unit. In fact, it astounded me just how hard it seemed in this modern day to get a healthy baby to arrive on planet earth. I am certain that the average person has no idea the number of babies who do not complete the journey between conception and birth. I know that my view is skewed and for every baby that has passed away there are many more that arrived successfully. However, the number still astounded me.
I have never quite felt the same again after I watched for the first time an eighth-month-old baby take its last breath. I felt a difference within me that was intense and lasted for many days. Even as I felt the effects of that experience, I was acutely aware that I was the lucky one for I had only witnessed the loss and not lived it.
But not all loss is so obvious. Grief is not only present after death. There are many places where motherhood is tied to grief. And it is this link that needs acknowledging. Once we acknowledge the presence and impact on ourselves of grief and loss; then we can find steps to take to nurture our feelings and find some form of healing.
I do not believe that acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself denounced her model of grief where the final stage was acceptance.
In my experience working with many mothers over the past 23 years, I do see a form of adjustment where they can find a new normal. Those women have shown me that finding a form of peace is possible.
My clients have shown me that life is not the same again. It can’t be. Sometimes through the greatest of tragedy people find the strongest clarity about so many aspects of their life and in this way; they discover a form of peace that did not exist before.
Recognising the many ways that grief can appear in a mother’s life is something I am drawn to do.
It is important to acknowledge just how grief can appear in a woman’s life as a mother. Once we acknowledge its presence, then we can take steps to begin to heal and find some peace at a time where peace feels so impossible.
14 ways mothers can feel grief and loss
- Women grieving the death of their mother where there is a healthy relationship. This is described as painful yet uncomplicated grief.
- Women grieving the death of their mothers where there is an unhealthy relationship. This is described as a form of complicated grief.
- A mother who has lost her adult child. Any time a child dies before their parent, then it is against the natural order of things. This fact alone makes the loss unbearable. Any death that is against the natural order of things has its unique pain as there is also a sense of confusion, disorientation and a sense of injustice that accompanies this form of loss.
- A mother who has lost their child when it is a baby or a child/teenager. The younger a child is, the greater the sense that their life was stolen from them. All deaths that occur at this age are due to a tragedy, so the parents are dealing with the traumatic loss as well as the grief. Again, this type of loss is full of a sense of injustice and shock.
- A mother who has lost their baby during birth. This is a form of loss that is again very indescribable, and that is from my perspective as someone who has only witnessed this. When a woman goes into labour, she expects a healthy baby to be the result. We all do. This experience of loss also has a thick layer of shock and disbelief with it as well.
- A mother who has miscarried a pregnancy. Many women who experience the loss of a baby in utero will then take with them fear that their body is not capable of carrying a baby to full term. The anxiety that flows onto subsequent pregnancies can be understandably intense.
- A mother who has lost her baby in utero due to a medical termination. This is a complex form of grief as these parents are given a diagnosis, a prognosis and then a “choice”. This form of grief is complicated by the fact that they feel a deep sense of guilt and remorse and often judgment from family and friends about their decision. I have worked with many parents who have been faced with this ”choice” and I always support and prepare them to not only find their way through the pain but to also develop a healthy set of boundaries in their relationship with others, so as to protect themselves from the substantial amount of judgment that people will express. As I say to those grief-stricken parents, it is easy to make a judgment when you hold the luxurious position of not having to make such a decision yourself in real life.
- A woman who has decided to terminate the pregnancy. The level of sadness, loss and grief that can come with a decision to terminate is significant and natural. I am pro-choice for many reasons. There are many mothers and fathers who for decades later feel the grief that comes with terminating a pregnancy. There is just that little twinge when they think of it. I feel deeply for these people as they can unnecessarily be carrying around a feeling of shame that simply does not belong to them.
- A woman who could never conceive. As someone who has experienced unexplained infertility for four years, I can assure you that no amount of “relaxing”, taking a holiday or letting go can help. Not being able to fall pregnant can be a very intensive form of real grief. Well, it was for me anyway. It is again a form of grief that is unrecognised by the mainstream.
- A mother who was forced due to circumstances to give her child up for adoption. The grief felt in this experience can be traumatic due to the lack of knowledge as to what happens with their child post adoption. Also, even if the woman feels it is her ”choice” to adopt her child, it is against the natural order of things, so the mind and body respond accordingly. This form of grief is complicated as the person to your knowledge is still alive, yet just not with you.
- A woman whose mother may still be alive, however the relationship is not healthy. Therefor their life is full of a form of grief that comes when you are aware that the relationship that you desire to have with your mother is not possible, even though she is alive and physically available to you.
- A mother who is unwell and dying and who is faced with the formidable task of helping her children to prepare for the fact that she is dying. This experience is beyond description yet there are mothers that are doing just that right now. I am in awe of these women who for their children are navigating this experience right now. It is possible to find your way through this time. It is all about the way the story is told and the love that is conveyed. It is recognised though that eve the best story teller cannot protect her child from the grief that is to come. They can only prepare them the best they can.
- A mother who has lost her fur baby. The impact of the loss of a pet is underestimated by everyone except those who have loved and lost their pet dog, feline friend or another kind of pet. The connection between human and animals is extremely deep and strong, and so when I am working with people who have lost their pet I talk to them in the same way that I do when I talk to parents who have lost a child.
- And then there are the lucky ones who simply have to deal with the ongoing pain of feeling like they are never enough for their children and have the pain of watching them get older and leave the nest. Parenting brings many joys, yet it is a process of gradually letting go of one of the best treasures you will ever have in your life. And that pain is very real.
3 steps you can take to gently nurture yourself through any form of grief
After working with over 400 deaths at a hospital ED and then in my work as grief therapist I have learnt many things about death, dying and grief. I have learnt that it transcends culture, class and personality. I have learnt that nothing can protect you from it and that every day you get to be mother with a healthy happy child is the sweetest and purest blessing. I have learnt that motherhood is not to be taken lightly nor for granted.
If you have a child that is healthy, happy and with you, then you are one of the lucky ones. Fortunately, there are many “lucky ones’. Yet for those mothers that are suffering loss, here are three gentle steps that I offer to you; humbly so, that may be helpful to alleviate and sooth your grief.
1. There is no right or wrong way to grieve therefore everything you are feeling, thinking and doing is completely understandable
There truly is no right or wrong way to grieve, only your way. It often times begins with a reaction, a form of numbing and then from there it may take many forms. Deep sadness, anger, fear, regret, anxiety, despair and then many of those feelings once again. There is no model of grief. Not really. There are just a series of emotions, memories and sensations that you may feel in any order and in any combination.
2. You may experience your grief physically
Sometimes people are surprised that they can experience their grief via a series of physical sensations or as an illness. Just recently I was talking to a woman who’s sister had died and she was telling me that she had “not cried yet” and that she “had to be strong for everyone else.” After exploring with her any changes she had noticed in her mind, feelings and body since her sister’s death she began to describe some pain and a tingling sensation that she was experiencing in her legs.
If you are feeling any changes physically then it is important to go to your doctor and have these reviewed. However, please also be aware that we often express our distress through our bodies. This is why as a therapist I encourage my clients to use their body’s to give comfort to themselves during grief.
Heat packs can be applied to tension felt in the shoulders or across your chest that may feel heavy with emotion. Splashing water across your face has been scientifically proven to reduce a feeling of stress and using all of your senses to see, feel, hear and taste and smell nature when out for a walk improves your mental state in that moment.
When we can acknowledge that any form of emotional distress including grief can be a physical experience then we can use our body to help alleviate our distress. Using your five senses, the power of breathing, mindfulness mediation, sleeping and eating well are all ways that we can help ourselves through the grief process.
3. Please do not grieve alone, check in with someone who cares.
Whilst I know I have just stated above that it is okay to find your own way through grief, the only exception to that is I encourage you to reach out and get support as it is through connection with others that we can find healing and support. Humans are social creatures and while periods alone may be really helpful, ultimately there can be great comfort found in finding your way to comfortably connect with another.
Whether it is attending a support group, calling a helpline or attending a therapist, do what you need to feel connected. If you do not know where to begin then please begin a conversation with your GP or look up your local Women’s Health Centre as they often have so many great resources for women navigating their way through many different experiences.