Since October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month – which aims to bring more acknowledgement and recognition to the grief, stress, and hardship parents experience after a miscarriage or the death of a newborn baby – we decided to share three stories of loss to contextualize this unique, and challenging maternal experience.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20,000 infants died in the U.S. in 2020 before their first birthday – that’s approximately 542 deaths for every 100,000 live births. Another 24,000 babies are stillborn in the U.S. each year. When taken collectively, the annual incidence of stillbirth and infant deaths is approximately equivalent to the number of deaths by suicide. Not to mention that as many as half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage.
“It is an underappreciated and often unrecognized type of loss, particularly for mothers,” says Evermore founder Joyal Mulheron. “Like other forms of loss, miscarriage or the loss of an infant can often create compounding hardship and accumulating stress for the parents. However, over recent years, these losses are receiving increasing attention.”
Hollywood has produced at least two notable films on pregnancy loss. “Roma,” which swept the awards circuit, and “Pieces of a Woman,” which earned Vanessa Kirby a nomination for best actress from the Academy Awards. Both films contribute to the growing recognition that these losses are deserving of social and legal support.
We sat down with both Vanessa Kirby and Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn, who both starred in the 2020 film, “Pieces of a Woman.” The film follows Martha, a young mother whose life changes irrevocably when her home birth ends in an unimaginable tragedy — her baby is stillborn. Played by Kirby, Martha is forced to navigate difficult relationships with loved ones — and her own emotional journey — as she learns to live with the grief of losing her baby.
“Whatever Martha’s feeling is unknowable to everybody else, and as much as she needs and wants to reach out to other people, I think it’s so colossal that she doesn’t know how,” says Kirby. “I think that’s the frustration that people around her feel, that they can’t get in touch with where she’s gone. Because I think even she doesn’t know.”
As seen in the film, a miscarriage or stillbirth can be a very personal experience — one that can be hard to communicate to anyone who hasn’t experienced it themselves. Although this grieving journey is unique for every mother, there’s often a feeling of isolation for mothers who experience the death of their babies.
“Even though this is a deeply painful movie, we kind of hoped that it would make people feel less alone with the magnitude and the solitary nature of deeply grieving someone,” says Kirby. “The nature of it is having to go through it alone, having to navigate through time, space, and reality, when your reality is completely different and has been shattered. You have to pick up the pieces and try and reform them.”
“Pieces of a Woman” breathes new life into this complicated issue and exposes viewers to an authentic account of the internal and external experiences that mothers must face after losing a baby.
In addition to the emotional toll of such losses, losing a pregnancy or infant is often physically taxing for women, who may experience pain and discomfort from pregnancy loss, or the toll of labor and delivery, only to be followed by the grief of losing a child whose arrival had been joyously anticipated.
Gina Mathias, who lives in Maryland, couldn’t escape the feeling of guilt after her experience with stillbirth. She felt personally responsible for the death of her son — after all, she’d been carrying him and felt she should have been able to feel if there had been complications with her pregnancy.
“Ultimately, I was the only person responsible for Forrest’s life,” says Mathias. “At the end of the day, I was his mother and I was supposed to protect him.”
Miscarriages and stillbirths are often unexpected and unexplained, which can leave mothers and their families with an ambiguous loss to grieve, and with few answers for why the loss occurred.
“It’s really hard living with not knowing why your child died,” says Mathias. “If there was something that you did wrong, if there was something you could have done to prevent it.”
To further complicate the experience, many medical providers are not trained or equipped to aid mothers and their families with the nuanced, emotional challenges of miscarriage, stillborn death, and the death of an infant.
After Mathias’ stillbirth, she was brought to the maternity ward with other birthing mothers. “All around us we could hear other women giving birth and their crying babies,” says Mathias. “And that was just too much.”
Recent data from the CDC show that the U.S. infant mortality rate has continued to disproportionately impact Black women and their families. In 2020, the infant mortality rate for Black babies was nearly 11 deaths for every 1,000 live births, which is double the rate for White babies.
Although it happened more than 30 years ago, the stress and pain of losing two children is still a fresh wound for Jackie Williams, a Black woman and bereavement doula who lives in Maryland.
“It’s like a wound that you’ve put a little dirt over, but if a strong wind blows, it’ll blow the dirt away and that wound is resurfaced,” says Williams. “On the dark days, I felt really alone and I felt as though, with [my daughter] Carolyn, I blamed myself for her death for years and years.”
Williams was 20 years old when she lost Carolyn only about five months after her birth. This experience was devastating for a young mother with little access to resources, and Jackie says she became so consumed with the death of her daughter that she began to contemplate taking her own life.
“At that point, that was my lowest,” says Williams. “I wondered — if I take enough pills, I could just die without any pain. Because I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to hurt.”
Williams struggled for years with the grief and pain of losing her daughter until she made the decision to seek out a therapist. The pure act of being able to talk with someone about her experience provided her with the support she needed to begin her healing journey.
Although therapy helped change the trajectory of Williams’s life, there is still much more that can be done to improve the support and care for women who are grieving the loss of a child.
“The deep bonds of motherhood do not simply stop when your child dies,” says Mulheron. “It’s not uncommon for mothers to want to continue parenting their child in death too. This is why we are working to expand legislation and develop other tools to support mothers and families in the aftermath of loss. The nation is woefully behind and there is a lot more work to do.”
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