Dealing with the Due Date After Loss

[Post originally written for and posted on ConceiveIVF.com’s SS&FE blog, August 2020: https://tinyurl.com/stuznbam ]

“I wanted to find a way to remember her, to celebrate her short life, and to tell the world that she had been here and that she was loved. After all, isn’t this what we all want for our babies gone-too-soon?” ~ Liz Mannegren

The baby that we lost because of an ectopic pregnancy would have been due on my husband’s 40th birthday. This left me deeply conflicted and confused about how to deal with it all. For one, I’d wanted to do something to commemorate and honour our angel baby. At the same time, the last thing I wanted was for our loss to overshadow this significant milestone in his life. I’d planned to throw a big party to celebrate him and for him to spend the day surrounded by friends and family. I wanted him to know just how much we all loved and appreciated him. My husband had refused. He didn’t want a party. He wanted a simple beach gateway, just the two of us. 

I felt guilty about it for a long time. It was hard not to feel responsible for the situation. So, initially I resisted his request. I tried my best to convince him that we needed to have a big celebration. Still, he refused. In the end I accepted defeat and we booked a week long gateway at one of his favourite coastal cottages. Strangely, from the moment we arrived there, it became increasingly clear that it was actually precisely what we both needed. As my body relaxed and my breath synchronized with the calming rhythm of the waves, I quickly came to appreciate my husband’s wisdom and foresight. We didn’t know how we would feel on the day, but this was our happy place and was bound to offer us both some kind of healing and refuge.

When the day arrived, we did our best to find a healthy balance between celebrating my husband’s life and honouring that of the baby we’d lost. We accepted that even though we were enjoying our happy moments, there was a thread of sadness too. Our day began with a surprise sunrise picnic that I’d planned. We got to watch the sun ascend over the ocean as we enjoyed some good coffee, some fruit, cocktail snacks, and of course, a slice of birthday cake. After enjoying our little breakfast picnic alongside the stunning display that the morning sky offered, we headed down to the beach for the day. 

We could not have asked for better weather. It turned out to be a spectacularly sunny day. The late spring weather whispered to us that a sweltering summer was on its way. Down at the beach, I felt like a child again, frolicking in the waves and surrounded by a vast expanses of blue. The tide was in, so we took full advantage of the salt water pools, swimming and floating about. When we’d tired ourselves out, my husband and I found a nice quiet spot on the shore to settle down and soak up some sun. The beads of seawater speckled across my arms evaporated quickly. My heart was calm and every muscle was at ease. We sat in silence for a while, just watching the waves and sipping on the cathartic essence of the sea. Settled in our spot with sand between our toes, my husband and I spoke for a long time about the baby that we’d lost and how our ectopic pregnancy loss affected us. Then, we gathered two gull feathers that were close by. We each held a feather in our hand and set the intention to release whatever we felt most shackled by. The feather represented the things we felt ready to let go of. I focused on releasing the hurt, the guilt, the self-blame and the emotional weight that kept me stuck. When we were ready, we set our feathers free into the wind. We watched as they blew off into the mid-morning sky, carrying with them the things that we no longer needed. It was a lovely symbolic exercise that somehow felt like a positive step forward.

In addition to our private little beach ceremony, just before we left for our trip, we had had a tree planted in an indigenous forest in remembrance of the precious baby soul that we didn’t get to meet. The tree planting was part of a reforestation programme to restore certain parts of a 10,000-year-old forest landscape near the coast, so it seemed like a nice way to honour their memory. The thought of this tree growing and living for years to come gave me comfort. It satisfied the strong need we had to make sure that our baby’s presence wasn’t forgotten.

In an article by Bettina Rae, yoga instructor and author of ‘Watering the flowers: A guide to find healing and hope after losing a baby’, she says that “You definitely won’t feel like celebrating this date, but it’s important to find a way to honour your baby in some way. Every mother will be different in what she thinks is the way to commemorate her baby.” It is a very personal thing that needs to resonate with and feel right to you. Very importantly, remember to be kind to yourself. It isn’t an easy time, so allow yourself to practice self-care, as well as self-compassion. 

What helped you deal with a due date or anniversary of a pregnancy loss? How did you decide to honour your baby? The grieving process is different for everyone, so if you’re feeling uncertain about how to approach this difficult day, here are some ideas on how to honour your baby: 

  1. Light a candle. Take some time to reflect, grieve and process your loss. Write a letter to your baby. Talk about it with your partner, and give yourself the space to acknowledge and release whatever you need to.    
  1. Release a balloon. You can plan a small ceremony to release a balloon (or a few balloons) together with your partner or a close friend/family member. If you like, you can read a poem or say a few heartfelt words and then release the balloon.
  1. Get a piece of jewellery. You can get a special necklace, pendant, a charm or bracelet as a way to remember you baby. Some people choose an angel wing or a heart shaped pendant, others choose a gemstone for their particular birth month. If you like, you could also get a piece of personalised jewellery made in memory of your lost baby. 
  1. Plant a perennial plant or tree. Plant a tree or plant in your garden or have one planted at a nature park depending on what works best for you. Certain plants have specific meanings, some flower at particular times of the year. For instance, amaryllis where my grandfather’s favourite flowers. Shortly before he passed away, he got a few amaryllis bulbs for my grandmother to plant. She gave me a few of her bulbs to plant in my garden. These bulbs always bloom in September. September happens to be my grandfather’s birthday month, and the same month when he passed away. So whenever my amaryllis bloom, I think of and feel close to him.  

Creating Space to Grieve After Early Pregnancy Loss

Grief Releasing Ceremony

There was something about the rumbling thunder and the gloomy grey rain-soaked days that seemed to mirror the heaviness in my heart. Hurt and an overwhelming sadness permeated everything. As much as we’d tried to comfort one another, we just didn’t know how to move through the grief. I realised that I needed emotional assistance, so I began taking steps to get support.  In doing so, I came across a book by Zoe Clark-Coates called ‘The Baby Loss Guide’. In this book, Clark-Coates suggests having a ‘grief release ceremony’ or private memorial of sorts to honour the life of the baby that would have been as a way to bring closure and acceptance for you and your partner. Open to any advice that could guide us through the mourning process I discussed the idea with my husband. We decided that a release ceremony seemed like a worthwhile exercise for us to do.

So, one night we sat down together at our dining table. He held my hand as we took a few deep breaths to get centred. Doing our best to navigate the waves of emotions that seemed to be rising to the surface, we took turns to share what we were feeling. When we were ready, we each put pen to paper and individually wrote a letter to our baby. It was a pretty emotional experience. I poured my heart out, expressing how much I loved, wanted and missed my baby. I wrote about both my hurt and my gratitude for the few weeks of joy this pregnancy gave me before it all fell apart. Once we’d written the letters, we then went out onto the veranda where my husband and I lit some floating candles. We placed the candles in a bird bath full of cool water before gathering a few beautiful rose and orchid flowers.  We held each flower with the intention to release our grief and honour the life of our baby as we set them down into the water amidst the floating candles. 

It was moving and sad all at once, yet we both noticed how therapeutic having this ceremony was for us. In the days that followed my husband and I discussed the shift we felt in ourselves since that evening. It gave us closure and we’d felt a little lighter. 

The whole thing made me realise something. When you experience an early pregnancy loss, whether a miscarriage or an ectopic loss, you don’t always know how to process the pain and resultant grief. Couples usually don’t share the exciting news about their pregnancy until they’ve passed the 12 week mark. So, when a pregnancy loss happens, they go through it alone, uncertain of how to give context to the devastation they may feel. 

Writer, Lauren Patterson, discusses this in a poignant article titled Miscarriage and the 12 Week Rule: Carrying grief alone (https://www.scarymommy.com/miscarriage-12-week-rule-carrying-grief-alone/) where she highlights that there is a general protocol followed when a loved one dies – condolences are offered and there is a funeral service where respects are paid and the life of the deceased is celebrated. Unfortunately, we don’t have a process like this when it comes to early pregnancy loss. When no one knows that you were pregnant, your loss goes virtually unacknowledged and as a consequence you may even struggle to give yourself permission to grieve. In the end, you’re left bereft and carrying unresolved sorrow. This isn’t made any easier by the fact that topics like miscarriage and ectopic pregnancies are not spoken about much, something that contributes to the shroud of secrecy, shame and feelings of isolation for couples going through a loss.   

Miscarriage is death before life. Often times, it is death that only one person feels or even knows about, and carries alone.”

 ~ Lauren Patterson

Coming to this understanding motivates me to keep sharing my experiences. For one, talking about the tough things creates awareness and understanding so that people feel less isolated in their struggles. In addition to this, raising the sensitivity around what women go through when they experience early pregnancy loss also ensures that they are better able to access the kind of support that they need to move through it all.  

Give Yourself Space to Grieve and Release

Have you experienced an early pregnancy loss? How did you create space for your own healing? What helped you process your grief?

Going through such a traumatic experience will naturally have a significant emotional impact on you. The initial days and weeks are the hardest. On some days, the grief of your loss is completely debilitating. Other days you may find it easier to breathe. Don’t hesitate to seek out counseling if need be. Give yourself permission to take it one day at a time, moment to moment, bearing in mind that you’re grieving the loss of your baby, and perhaps the trauma of a loss of certain physical aspects which represent a part of your fertility too (a fallopian tube, or ovary, or both tubes) in the case of an ectopic pregnancy loss. Healing is a gradual process where your need to allow yourself room to process your experiences and work through the various stages of grief as they surface. 

As I found in my own case, a closure or grief release ceremony as suggested by Zoe Clark-Coates is a worthwhile and therapeutic exercise to help bring some level of emotional relief. 

And when the going gets tough and you can’t see a way forward, ask yourself: 

‘What is the most healing or nurturing thing that I can do for myself right now?’ 

Then focus on taking that small step for the moment until you have the strength and presence of mind to move forward.

[Post was originally written for and posted on the ConceiveIVF.com’s SS&FE blog October 2019: https://tinyurl.com/ebcb4b6 ]

Perimatrescence and Embodying the Mothering Heart

It’s strange territory, this desertland between maidenhood and motherhood. I suppose it was ingrained from an early age that one stage naturally and effortlessly follows the next. Yet, here I stand, longing to make that transition, both ready and eager to enter an elusive place, the door to which remains tightly shut. So, I rest on the periphery, a wandering nomadic drifter waiting my turn. I am lost in an eternal dance of emotion, shifting between hopefulness, grief, frustration and fear. Some days I feel strongly that my time is coming soon and I will be a mother. Other days I am impatient and not so sure it will ever happen for me. 

I recently came across the word ‘matrescence’. According to clinical psychologist, Aurélie Athan, matrescence, a term coined by Dana Raphael in 1973, is described as: “The process of becoming a mother”, and it is “…a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond.” 

Athan adds that “the exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompass multiple domains –bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual– and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence. ” 

It was fascinating to discover a reference that encapsulates the transitional experience that a woman goes through when she becomes a mother. Many cultures observe and honour the formative transitions that we encounter as we grow through our various life stages. There are rites of passage around birth, adolescence, marriage and death. The repertoire of significant developmental passages expands as our society progresses. Yet, even within these encapsulations, there are still certain micro-experiences or life stages that remain overlooked. As a result, we find ourselves on the periphery of a defined life stage that we had expected to step into, but haven’t been able to. Our identities become confused, we feel displaced in a society that rarely reflects the space we see ourselves in and thus struggle with our sense of worth and belonging. I’ve found that this is particularly true when you grapple with subfertility and pregnancy loss. It raises a burning question:

What happens when you are stuck in the process of becoming, but never actually become (at least not yet)

You desire to be a mother. You embody some of the attributes described within the definition of matrescence (i.e. immersed in your pre-conception journey, or you’ve experienced a pregnancy followed by the loss of that pregnancy). Though you may not have physically become a mother with live babies yet, you have entered that space mentally, emotionally and psycho-spiritually. It’s honestly such a complex space to inhabit, particularly when you’ve lost a pregnancy and although you see yourself as a mother to that angel baby, society tells you that you are not. It  becomes especially difficult to make sense of what your identity is and which spaces you fit into as you mature as a childless woman who is still trying to conceive. For instance, I am swiftly approaching 40, and I’ve begun to question whether I am still entitled to my desire to experience a healthy full-term pregnancy and have a baby of my own. There is this underlying fear that somehow I will have skipped a stage in the feminine lifecycle, going from being the young married woman straight to becoming the childless crone, and the years in between these two stages being rendered invisible because they have not been defined by motherhood in the way that I’d expected. It is a weird thought to reconcile in my mind, being fully aware that I am no longer a younger woman and may soon enter a stage of my life where I shift into perimenopause and then menopause.   

So, I’ve been asking myself – How does one navigate this territory in the interim? This tricky place of peripheral connection to motherhood? Also, considering that the partial or what I’ve taken to calling ‘perimatrescence’ triggers not only the desire to have a baby, but also awakens the need to express and share your nurturing or mothering qualities – How do you give yourself permission to nurture or embody your ‘mothering heart’, so to speak? In other words, how do you express the energy of the wild mother archetype in daily life while you are still journeying towards motherhood?

When I speak of the ‘mothering heart’, I refer to your inner mother, the part of you that feels called to tend to and nurture life. I wasn’t sure how to articulate this feeling in the initial years of my fertility journey, but with experience and education along the way, I’ve learnt that mothering is not limited to the physical gestation of a child, but also emerges on an intuitive and emotional level. The desire to mother, nurture and act as caregiver manifests differently for each individual – e.g. playing a loving role in a child’s life, sharing your wisdom and insight through guiding or mentoring others, as well as through the desire to uplift and help people or things (animals, plants, projects) to grow and thrive. When a woman has a baby, she expresses those things naturally, offering her child the love, care and guidance that they need to grow up happy and healthy. However, when you’re struggling to conceive, you don’t have the opportunity to embody these aspects of yourself in the manner you’d wished to. So sometimes, because of the uncertainty around such roles, feelings of shame, fear of judgement or because of the emotional pain of not having your own baby, there is a tendency to suppress some of these qualities and the underlying emotions that accompany them. I noticed this tendency in myself during those early years of trying to conceive when I harden myself out of fear. Ironically, the inner work that came with years of struggling and overcoming the grief of pregnancy loss taught me how to soften, surrender to and embrace my inner mother. 

Exploring questions around how to embody that motherly energy while navigating perimatrescence has revealed some profound insights to me. It has enabled me to consciously create the space to allow aspects of myself to emerge and to channel the somewhat latent mothering energy constructively. Giving context to the archetypal inner mother and recognizing how she shows up in my life at present despite me not having children yet has been a healing exercise for me. I discovered that doing so connects me more deeply with life because I am affirming parts of myself that would otherwise be discarded or exiled. There is so much power in acknowledging, loving and nurturing these wounded parts of ourselves, giving them life and a place to transform and exist in different ways.  

How to Embody Your Inner Mother 

With this in mind, here are a few ideas that I’ve found helpful with regards to embodying the inner mother as you journey through perimatrescence:  

Mothering Yourself First: This is one of the key lessons that subfertility has taught me. Mother yourself, tend to your own needs and practice self-care. Listen to your body. What is it asking for? What does your soul crave? And what is the most healing thing that you can do for yourself right now? Nurturing yourself is a good way to tap into your inner mother. Remind yourself that you are your future baby’s mother, so caring for yourself is one way of working on becoming the kind of parent you wish to be to them. Connecting with your inner mother also deepens your relationship with your inner child. This creates the opportunity to re-parent yourself, address unhealed wounds and to give yourself the love, experiences and things that you feel were missing from your own childhood.  

Affirmation: “I am a mother to myself first. My inner mother lovingly cares for and supports my soul’s needs. When I connect with this gentle mothering energy, my inner child heals.”

Playing a Positive Role in Children’s Lives: I’ll start with the disclaimer that being around children affects each person differently depending on the circumstance or the emotional space you may be in. There will be times when you are okay with it, when you are super excited to be an aunt or be asked to be a child’s godparent or guardian. And there will be times when you feel triggered because it reminds you that you don’t have your own. There is no shame in that and it is okay to set boundaries whenever you are feeling vulnerable. 

That said, if this is something that you’re comfortable with, then enjoy your opportunities to play a positive role in a child’s life. Spend time with your nieces and nephews. Enjoy the chance to babysit for friends. Volunteer at a children’s home. Sponsor a child’s education. 

I personally love getting to interact with children. I love being called ‘Auntie Jodi’. I love listening to their stories. Their curious questions, ponderings and the interesting conversations that they spark can make me laugh for hours. I love getting to spoil the kids in my life too. Babysitting is always a fun adventure for my husband and I, and it is also good to know that it is one small way that we can support the parents who in many cases have very full lives, demanding careers and are doing all they can to keep the balance and raise their kids at the same time. It also feels special to know that there will be a time when that child will call on me for support or advice and I would have something of value to offer them. 

Mentoring Younger Women: If perhaps you find yourself at a stage of your life where you have amassed a body of knowledge, life experience and feel fairly empowered and confident in most areas of your life, then there’s a good likelihood that you have an incredible amount of insight that younger women who are still finding their feet could benefit from. Is contributing to a younger woman’s development by mentoring them something that you would consider? There are various ways you can do this – Formally or informally. Offering career guidance or moral and personal development advice. Spending time with an individual or working with a group of young ladies. Dedicating time and expertise or sponsoring courses and resources. Choose something that resonates with you. I often think of the kinds of things that I wish someone had told me or helped me prepare better for when I was younger. It feels good to be able to offer that to someone else who is still learning and building the foundation for their future. Women still face unfortunate barriers in both their professional and personal lives due to unequal gender biases. It is so necessary for girls and young women to have as much support as possible to dismantle inequalities and encourage them to progress to their fullest potential. You may be in a unique position to contribute that vision.       

Nurturing Life in General: When I was recovering after my ectopic pregnancy loss in 2019, I saw just how beneficial it was for my mental health to surround myself with life and things that were thriving. During that time, spending time in nature and turning to horticulture therapy formed part of the practices that nourished my wellbeing. Writing about this in my book, Mending Softly – Finding Hope and Healing After Ectopic Pregnancy Loss, I highlighted that: 

“…   tending to garden life brings with it a sense of inner peace and joy that my life would be empty of otherwise. Perhaps it feeds that natural desire to create new life and the satisfaction of seeing things growing and thriving. It offers the breathing space to anchor oneself in the present moment and to feel held by the mothering energy of nature.” 

Nature, plants, pets and fur babies reinforce a life-affirming connection to something beyond ourselves. In addition to that, ask yourself – What is thriving in my life right now? What answers come to mind? Your marriage, your work life, your friendships? Make space for whatever makes you feel alive and fulfilled. Pay attention to what and who makes you feel like you are growing as a person. Appreciate, celebrate and nurture those things.

Balancing the Mothering Energy

As you give yourself permission to embody this mothering energy, it is also important to be discerning about how you do so and to protect your space. Be mindful not to mother others in an unbalanced way. When we give too much of ourselves we end up depleted, burnt out or feeling used. Set healthy boundaries for yourself, and always lean back into the practice of mothering yourself first when you are feeling out of sorts. We have to remind ourselves not to become an emotional dumping ground for others. There will be times when people may feel entitled to have access to you, your space and time simply because you do not have your own children yet. Remember that your responsibilities, stresses and interests may look different to that of someone else, but they are yours. You don’t have to feel guilty for focusing your time on what is important to you, for rest when you are tired and for prioritising your goals and interests when the moment calls for it. Balance is key to maintaining your mental healthy and general wellbeing. 

Journaling Prompts: What has your experience of perimatrescence been like? What gives you a sense of place or belonging in the context of this transitional life stage? How do you express mothering energy or embody your inner mother?