For an event of this magnitude and complexity, there is no right way to feel. Just as a woman's emotions are fragile and turbulent when her hormones shift and change during pregnancy, they are just as fragile and turbulent when her hormones shift again after a pregnancy loss. This can take time, and as her brain chemistry undergoes changes it's important to understand she sometimes truly "can't help" the way she feels. A woman (or couple, but this post will use the singular pronoun "she" for consistency) who experiences miscarriage cannot expect to feel any one way. She will feel things she never thought she could feel.
Those who wish to support women who have had miscarriages should be aware of and understand the whole spectrum of emotions a woman experiences so as to provide the best care possible. Understanding the five stages of grief can be helpful when walking through a loss with someone, but often a person doesn't land somewhere on a pre-determined scale. Sometimes her emotions are all over the place, and it is important to affirm that they are valid. She doesn't need medication to "get right" again, and she doesn't need to toughen up. These emotions are all natural and acceptable for a woman to feel about her miscarriage.*
This is the standard emotion people think of when a woman miscarries. It is a primal, human emotion, and one with many facets. It is so, so, so much more than sitting in a darkened room crying alone. If a woman miscarries and is obviously grieving, it is important to understand that she is likely also feeling any number of emotions from this list. If a woman miscarries and is not obviously grieving, it is also important to accept that she simply may not feel sadness or that it is only a smaller piece of her feelings as a whole.
This emotion is listed first after grief because it is much more common than people might think, but it is likely the least "acceptable" emotion when it comes to miscarriage. Just like those who must care for loved ones over months as they slowly pass from life, relief often comes mingled with other emotions when a difficult or stressful pregnancy ends in a loss. Perhaps she just wasn't ready to have a baby. Perhaps the situation surrounding this pregnancy was difficult and delicate and she's relieved that it's not a problem anymore. Perhaps she had complicated health issues from the moment pregnancy began and it's a relief not to medicate every day or wear giant pads every day or feel like her body has been invaded every day. This is the emotion that a woman who wanted a pregnancy would least expect to feel, and one that inspires feelings of shame when she does.
A woman may feel like a failure, both as a woman and a mother. She's ashamed at her body's inability to carry a baby to term. She may feel like the one, special thing a woman's body was made to do didn't work for her and she is less of a woman because of it.
She took a sip of her husband's beer last night. She tripped and fell last month. Yesterday, she drank three cups of coffee. She forgot her pre-natal vitamins three times last week. These thoughts and more go through a woman's head when she miscarries, threatening to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. Though the facts and figures say otherwise, a woman can still feel that she is somehow to blame for her miscarriage.
This can be a major emotion for women who are religious or have a strong system of beliefs. A common pattern of belief: God gave her a child and a promise and then snatched it away for no reason; now she can no longer trust God or her religion because of such an intimate and personal betrayal. This emotion can be anything from temporary to permanent, and the religious teachings of her faith can heal these feelings or exacerbate these feelings; however, this in no way invalidates the fact that she feels betrayed in a very real way.
No matter how a woman may feel about her pregnancy, few things can spark such a feeling of helplessness as a miscarriage. There's no technique or medication to stop what her body is doing. If she isn't in a hospital there's no medication to dull the pain or help her function normally as it happens. There's no amount of wishing or mental force of will that can prevent what is already happening. This feeling can last well after the physical event of a miscarriage is over and often morphs into other emotions.
Like grief, anger is another primal emotion that many women feel during and after a pregnancy loss. It could be a direct result of what she's been through, or it could be a secondary emotion caused by the people, events, or situations surrounding her. She could feel angry about what she has been through. She could feel angry about injustices around the world regarding pregnancy and reproductive health. Her anger could be the byproduct of her feelings of betrayal or helplessness. She could be angry at her spouse or partner for acting/feeling/speaking/caring incorrectly. Her anger often has no easy resolution, for it stems from circumstances she cannot control or unintentional slights from those around her.
Pregnancy and the addition of a child is a major life change for a woman, even if she meticulously planned and mapped out such an addition. From the moment that extra line appears on the pregnancy test she's imagining all the ways her life will change. Even if she loses the pregnancy the next day and nothing has outwardly changed, she's already imagined a different life for herself in a very real way. For some women, this can take on an enormous weight after miscarriage, and her pre-pregnancy life suddenly seems pointless, meaningless, unfulfilling, or empty. She geared herself up to climb a mountain, but suddenly the mountain is gone and she's still standing there with all her gear and no reason to use it.
This is a nebulous emotion, and pregnancy loss can start a woman down a slippery slope: Was she really meant to have children? Is she actually ready for this? Is fate/God/her body trying to tell her something? Is her current relationship or relationship status what she really wants right now? Is her current job what she really wants right now? Is she really meant to be a mother if she savors wine and sushi again? Is she a terrible person because she really hasn't felt much after her miscarriage? The start of something big and then its subsequent removal causes every woman to have questions, and the feeling of self-doubt is quite universal.
This is a tricky emotion to name, and I almost listed it as unhinged, but it's often more subtle than that. It stems from the hormonal fluctuations a woman feels during a miscarriage and its aftermath. Just as in pregnancy, her emotions can swing radically and unexpectedly, often with negative results. Or perhaps she simply just doesn't feel like herself and thinks her normal emotional range has been hijacked. She very often has no idea where an emotion came from, and small things can suddenly trigger intense emotions she's not prepared to feel. This state of being can take weeks to even out as her hormones settle back into their pre-pregnancy state.
Despite how common pregnancy loss actually is, a woman often feels alone and isolated after a miscarriage. Many women feel like they have no one to talk or share with. Perhaps no one knew she was pregnant, and now it's all too much to reveal. Perhaps no one seems to care about what she's been through. Or perhaps she has friends who care, but she has already talked to them and doesn't want to keep bothering them. Perhaps someone, when trying to help, rattled off a lot of facts and figures, and now she feels like nothing more than a statistic.
The woman who has been through a pregnancy loss is well-aware of her loss for months and years afterward. When a newly pregnant friend wants early pregnancy advice, the grieving woman doesn't get called. When women compare stories about morning sickness she doesn't chime in because it's either surprising or awkward (or both). When women talk about labor or contractions and share stories she doesn't speak up because even though she's felt contractions her product at the end was a bloody mass rather than a crying baby. While that sounds a bit dramatic, feelings of isolation and exclusion are quite real and lasting. Even subsequent pregnancies of her own can be difficult for her to talk about with others who aren't aware of her previous pregnancies. That first-time-mom advice on morning sickness can be hard to digest for a woman who has no living children but has experienced morning sickness multiple times already.
Some women struggle with this more than others, but this emotion can be one of the longest-reaching after a miscarriage, especially there is a lengthy amount of time until she's pregnant again or if she never does become pregnant again. Seeing other women who are pregnant or who have children can become increasingly painful, especially if another pregnant woman is as far along as the grieving woman would have been. Hearing other women comment on the difficulties of motherhood is frustrating because the grieving woman just wants to be part of the club. Celebrating a friend's new pregnancy or supporting a friend through a surprise pregnancy can be especially hard when the doctor confirms the grieving woman's hormones are at a 0 or she's just taken another negative pregnancy test.
When a woman already feels the weight of her age or current health status, a miscarriage can add enormous pressure onto her shoulders. Now she'll have to wait, at minimum, nine more months. Now she'll be thirty-seven when she could possibly have a baby. Now she absolutely must start that medication she was putting off for pregnancy, pushing back the next time she could try to get pregnant. Or maybe she feels any combination of the previous emotions on this list and all she knows is she felt good when she was pregnant and all she wants is to be back in that place again. Maybe her relationship is falling apart and another pregnancy would repair the strain caused by miscarriage.
Sometimes a woman simply feels nothing when a pregnancy loss occurs. This can range anywhere from a fleeting feeling of numbness to a complete lack of problems or issues due to miscarriage. Just like the feeling of relief, this is an emotion that is difficult for people on the outside to accept. Despite the intense range of emotions felt by many women after a miscarriage, the loss of a pregnancy does not inherently demand a massive outpouring, and the absence of such does not (in itself) indicate anything. It does not make her any less a woman or a human being.
*As with anything, there are times when a person's feelings or lack of feelings come from actual chemical imbalances or mental illnesses that threaten their health and lives. Those are a separate, mental health issue that requires medical treatment and should be viewed as such. This post is not about those issues.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of emotions, but it is a good place to start when it comes to understanding the complexity of miscarriage and its effects on a woman. Accepting that a woman feels more than "sad" can lead to better support and care.
Well continue exploring pregnancy loss next week. Until then, keep it real, y'all.