In May 2010, I felt like my life had come together beautifully. I was in my first year of residency, I had a young son at home, and I was 22 weeks pregnant with my second child.
It was a wonderful pregnancy. My baby would give me big, bouncy kicks, and everything was healthy. At the same time, it was also a challenging year, career-wise. There were long stretches of time where I was on call every four nights, and I had just finished up a month of ER shifts, which were physically and emotionally demanding. But through it all I reminded myself the baby was healthy, and my life was happy.
I had no idea that anything was wrong until I got to my anatomy scan 22 weeks in. Once the sonographer started, I knew something was off. I said, “The baby isn’t moving, am I right? I see there’s no heartbeat.” The stenographer said she needed to get the doctor. I just started crying. Then, my husband and I had to talk to the doctor about next steps. It felt surreal.
More From Women's Health
I had two options: have a dilation and evacuation (D&E), where the baby is removed surgically through the vagina, or deliver like you would with a healthy baby. I chose to deliver the baby. I couldn’t do anything else for her, but the thing I could do for her would be to deliver her and give her a burial. I also was very adamant that I wasn’t leaving the hospital the day of my scan. I was visibly pregnant at that point and couldn’t stomach the idea of walking around, looking like I was carrying a healthy baby when I wasn’t.
That Wednesday night, I was admitted and induced. But somewhere over the course of Thursday, I developed a high fever. I just remember being so cold, covered with blankets and still feeling like I was freezing. I had an infection of my amniotic fluid—and the cure for that was delivery.
All I knew was that I fervently wanted to go home to my son. But the delivery took a long time, and labor progressed so slowly. I was feverish and in and out of sleep the whole time. Eventually I delivered, and that was the moment I discovered she was a girl. I had always wanted a daughter. We named her Maia.
We buried our daughter about five days later. My family is Jewish and, in Jewish tradition, we couldn’t have a funeral for her because she wasn’t born alive. But we could have a burial, and she was buried in a Jewish cemetery.
I didn’t do a particularly good job of allowing myself time and space to cope afterward.
I was running on fumes and just trying to survive at that point. The grief came in waves. We ended up not knowing why we lost Maia, and that’s the case more often than not with this type of late pregnancy loss. In some ways, it was liberating because we didn’t learn of some genetic issue, but it was scary not knowing what it meant for future pregnancies.
I took two weeks off of work after losing Maia but, in hindsight, I probably needed more time to adjust. I threw myself back into my work and, while that was a good distraction, it's obvious to me now that I was definitely struggling.
I eventually went back to my medical rotation, but it was clear I wasn’t okay. I had a lot of anger. To give an example, as an intern, the hospital put lunch money on a card for us. I remember breaking down one day when my card wasn’t refilled. I called the office and let out some choice words, adding that my baby was dead and I just wanted to eat lunch, and it was the least they could do for me. I feel terrible about that now, but I never seemed to run out of lunch money after that.
I think part of the reason why I went the distraction, throw-yourself-into work route was because I didn't want to face the heartbreaking and exhausting emotions I felt after losing a baby I assumed I would be having. And society doesn't exactly encourage women to do so.
There is a stigma attached to women who go through pregnancy loss, and especially how we grieve.
After losing Maia, I decided to become a perinatal psychiatrist. After everything that happened, I was looking for something that I could be passionate about, for a way to help women who have gone through a similar journey as me, as well as those who deal with postpartum depression and fertility struggles. This field pulled me in.
A topic that comes up a lot in my work now is this issue of women taking on blame or culpability over losing a pregnancy. As a culture, we blame women. We do not support women. I've heard women say, "My body failed me." But your body didn't fail you, and it's important to remind women of that. In my work now, I see just how crucial it is to help women after a pregnancy loss so they don't need to try to pretend like it didn't happen.
Then there's the massive problem of some people going as far as judging and policing women for how they choose to grieve after a pregnancy loss (like the way Chrissy Teigen took a more public approach to sharing her experience when she lost her third pregnancy recently). I couldn't believe some of the feedback she received from commenters hiding behind their computers, condemning her personal process, as if there's a right and wrong way to mourn.
A reminder to all: There is no rulebook for grief and pregnancy loss, whether it's an early miscarriage or stillbirth.
The most important thing about healing is to be able to be yourself in as many aspects of your life as you can, whether that's by being an open book, or continuing to devote time to your hobbies, or crying it out to a loved one—and to not hide from your truth. At the same time, some people are more private and prefer to be that way. I kept my loss very private for many years. All of these approaches are valid.
We cannot fall into the trap of holding ourselves responsible for not doing enough or doing too much during the pregnancy (women still get criticized for exercising too much, drinking a bit of coffee, or any number of things during pregnancy!)—or for not doing enough or too much in the event that we have to grieve it. The shame associated with pregnancy loss is profound, and completely unjustified. So let's do a better, more thoughtful job of making pregnancy loss and grief a normal, accepted part of our dialogue, no matter what that looks like.
"The shame associated with pregnancy loss is profound, and completely unjustified."
For women who feel comfortable sharing their stories, that may mean talking to friends about their loss, or writing down their story, sharing it with others, and not feeling that they need to apologize for it. For those who are more private, writing down your story and keeping it for yourself can still be beneficial. It helps bring the story out of your brain, where it can fester and grow into a monster.
When asking for support, I always encourage transparency and details. For example, “I would love a night off of cooking dinner, and your lasagna is the best,” or, “I know you’re a great reader—any recs that would take my mind off this for even a few hours would be much appreciated."
I urge women to grieve in whatever way feels natural for them. Being able to bring your true self to your grieving process, whatever that is, is so important. Every story counts, every baby counts, and being able to find closure is an incredibly important part of the healing process following grief.
I eventually got pregnant again, but not without going through subsequent losses. But I gave myself permission to just grieve however my mind and body needed.
The first time I had a healthy pregnancy again was eight months after we lost Maia. I now have four children. But I also had several miscarriages since the loss of my daughter. No two losses are the same, and they can all hit differently, depending on a variety of circumstances.
After going through an early stillbirth, it wasn't that I was protected completely against the grief of miscarriages, but I did feel I had a different perspective. My experience was that, once I had been through an infant loss, my miscarriages didn't necessarily carry the same weight. And that was okay too. Again, no rulebook.
Grief is different for everyone and it's important for us, as a culture, to understand that. Until we learn to support women after a loss, they will continue to struggle even more than they already are.
Tamar Gur, MD, PhD, is a perinatal psychiatrist and researcher at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.