I recently watched the Netflix series Firefly Lane, based on the book by Kristin Hannah, and was pleasantly surprised to see how they handled pregnancy loss–specifically, the loss of a pregnancy that was not planned or even wanted initially.
Spoiler alert: Tully Hart (played by Katherine Heigl) is a 43-year-old talk show host with a fair amount of fame and fortune. She has always prioritized her career over all else (with the exception of her friendship with Kate Mularkey, played by Sarah Chalke). So, when she finds out she is pregnant by her casual boyfriend, Max, she is not exactly excited. But, over time, she warms up to the idea of motherhood and starts to envision how her life will shift in a new direction. Then, immediately after marrying Max, she miscarries.
The show does not gloss over her miscarriage experience. Her pain is on full display. She is an emotional wreck (understandably). She breaks down in front of her studio audience on her first day back to work. She breaks up with Max. It’s all very…real.
While we have seen more and more about pregnancy loss in the media, there is very little about the emotional pain of losing a pregnancy that was associated with ambivalence. And the fact is that there are many women in this situation.
According to the CDC, about half of pregnancies are unintended. About a quarter of these pregnancies will end in loss. In All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss, my co-authors and I dedicate a section to the grief of losing a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted or planned. If you are in this situation, here are a few things to remember:
1.You are 100% allowed to be sad.
In All the Love, my co-author, Meredith Resnick, writes about “the whiplash effect of something unexpected seeming like a guarantee, and then that surprise being violently taken away.” She says, “You are left coping with the nature of the pregnancy and the equal shock of losing what you hadn’t planned for. Both events are destabilizing to the core.”
This whiplash effect is what’s so painful and disorienting — you’re pregnant, you’re starting to envision your life going down a certain path (even if it wasn’t the path you had pictured previously), you’re planning, you’re preparing. Then, you’re not. It takes a while for the brain (and heart) to catch up to reality; it takes even longer for acceptance.
Your grief may take you by surprise. It may overwhelm or frighten you. You may be frustrated with yourself, wondering why you can’t “move on” and “get over it.” Unfortunately, losing a pregnancy, even a pregnancy that wasn’t 100% wanted or planned, can come with a wide range of complex emotions. There is no “right” or “wrong.” Sadness, anger, relief, acceptance — it’s normal for these different emotions to crash into each other on a daily basis following a loss like this.
2. Other people may say the wrong things.
Having lost four pregnancies myself, I’m all too aware of the barrage of “wrong things” people say. If friends or family knew you were ambivalent about the pregnancy, they are even more likely to say the wrong things: “You must be relieved” or “Well, I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” There may be the implication that it shouldn’t be a big deal because you weren’t pining for a child. Even your partner may imply this.
The truth is that society has a very low tolerance for ambivalence. We like things to be black and white; the gray area of this type of loss is confusing (for the griever and the people around them). People may be eager for you to move on. They will want to think it’s easier for you to move on than it might be for others. The things they say may make you feel like you don’t have a right to your grief. Please know that you do. What others say to you is a reflection of their own discomfort with ambivalence and grief.
3. You did not cause this.
It’s very common for women in this situation to think that they “brought on” their loss. In her memoir, Poor Your Soul, Mira Ptacin talks about exactly this: “Are you sure this isn’t your fault? You weren’t really that happy about the pregnancy in the first place. What if you willed this to happen? What if you did this with your mind? I can just see it: Pregnant woman eliminates unborn child by telekinesis. A baby killer.”
In some ways, it can be easier to blame ourselves than to accept the more frightening reality that these things just happen. As Meredith writes in All the Love, “Thoughts alone did not end your pregnancy. The temptation to believe that they did may be a way of trying to package an explanation for something that cannot be explained.” We are wired, as humans, to ascribe reasons to things: I lost this pregnancy because I did not want it enough. Going along with this is a belief in our own power, our sense of control. It is scary to realize we have so little.
4. Be kind to yourself.
Losing this baby may hurt in ways you never imagined it would. You may carry guilt about the ambivalence you felt about the pregnancy. This is human. In fact, according to a national survey, nearly half of people who had a miscarriage said they felt guilty (and 41% thought they had done something to cause their loss).
If you find that you are beating yourself up for your loss and having a hard time managing your feelings, consider reaching out to a therapist. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some tips:
- If you plan on using insurance, visit your insurance provider’s website to find help in your area.
- You can also visit PsychologyToday.com/us/therapists to find a therapist, psychiatrist, treatment center, or support group near you.
- Community counseling centers, which are typically nonprofit and funded with donations and grants, often offer sliding-scale fees.