Recovering Emotionally After Stillbirth

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Losing a baby to stillbirth is incredibly painful. After dealing with the initial emotional shock, you may experience conflicting and intense feelings as you adjust to the unexpected reality of life without the baby that you were eagerly anticipating.

Not only does your body need time to heal physically, you also need time and care to heal emotionally. Below you will find some things that may help you cope as you work through the grieving process.

In the Hospital

An estimated one-third of stillbirths have no known cause, occurring in otherwise normal pregnancies. You may have gone to a routine prenatal check-up only to be given devastating news, followed by an emergency trip to the hospital for a labor that you weren't anticipating.

Once you have given birth to your baby, there will be a few things you'll be dealing with before you go home.

Seeking Answers

What happened to my baby? Was there anything that I did to make this happen? Will it happen again? While some cases of stillbirth are unexplainable, there are a number of things that your doctor can do to help you determine a probable cause.

It may be difficult to answer questions about your personal and family medical history while you're dealing with the loss of your baby, but knowing what happened can be helpful psychologically by allowing you to have closure.

Before you go home from the hospital, your doctor may order blood, urine, or thyroid tests to determine whether your health had any impact on your pregnancy. They may also test the placenta, umbilical cord, and membranes to check for abnormalities, as well as conducting tests of your baby's chromosomes to check for genetic conditions such as Down syndrome.

You will also be given the option of having an autopsy performed on your baby. If you consent to one, it can provide valuable information about the cause of the stillbirth. You will have control over the extent of the autopsy, and you may deny consent for any part of the examination that you're uncomfortable with.

A 2011 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that a postmortem medical examination enabled doctors to determine a "probable or possible cause of death in 76% of cases."

Dealing With Guilt

Some people experience guilt after a stillbirth, feeling that if they had done something differently, the outcome might have been better. Just as with miscarriage, however, most of the time stillbirth is not anyone's fault.

Birth defects and infections in the mother and/or baby cause a significant percentage of stillbirths; these causes are unavoidable and can happen unexpectedly.

Talking to your healthcare provider about the options for discovering the cause of your stillbirth can help you prepare for the future and set your mind at ease.

Saying Goodbye

You will be given as much time to spend with your baby as you want before leaving the hospital. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of spending time with them, that's ok too—do what seems best to you, and remember that everyone deals with the loss of a baby differently. Don't feel pressured into doing anything you are uncomfortable with.

If you choose to spend time with your baby in the hospital, you may want to hold them, sing them a lullaby, dress them in a special outfit, keep a lock of hair, or take pictures. While this may feel strange at first, these activities can make precious memories that you will treasure in the future.

The hospital can also give you the baby's ID bracelet and include their handprints and footprints on their birth certificate.

Acknowledging Your Partner's Grief

When your own emotions are so intense, it can be hard to remember that your partner is dealing with the same loss that you are. People can show their grief in very different ways, so it can be difficult for them to know how to support each other.

Having patience, listening, and respecting each other's personal grieving styles is the key to finding your way through this loss together.

Making Adjustments

When you are physically ready to leave the hospital, you will be discharged to go home. There are some things you may want to consider as you prepare to settle back into life without the baby you were looking forward to welcoming.

Coming Home

Understandably, it can be very painful to come home from the hospital after a stillbirth. You may feel like you've lost your last connection with your baby. You also may be reluctant to face all the baby things you've prepared at home.

Trust your instincts and be kind to yourself; only you know what will be the most helpful. If you want to have trusted friends or family members go to your house before you get there to remove all the baby items, let them know. But if you don't want that to happen, it's important to communicate that too before you come home.

The Grieving Process

Studies have shown that the emotional trauma caused by stillbirth can have a far-reaching impact on parents' lives, but the outcome is greatly affected by how people deal with their grief. The grieving process has five identifiable stages—denial, anger, bargaining, sadness/depression, and acceptance—which people pass through at their own pace.

These stages are not always predictable, and you will likely experience a multitude of other emotions as well. But knowing what to expect and giving yourself permission to take as long as you need to grieve your loss can really help.

Stillbirth can be a difficult topic for many people to discuss, and grieving the loss of an unborn baby is unfortunately something that is hard for people in many cultures to understand.

You may feel like you can't be sad around others for fear of making them uncomfortable, but you have every right to grieve your loss. Grief is personal and unique, and it manifests in multiple ways—physically, emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually. How you experience grief, and how long you grieve, will be your own journey toward healing.

Expressing Yourself

Grief can be overwhelming and all-consuming. At first, it may be hard to talk about how you feel because so many emotions are flooding your mind.

On the other hand, you may feel numb inside and not know what to talk about. Give yourself the time and space you need to work through your feelings, either alone or with a loved one or counselor.

While talking to someone can help you clarify your emotions, you may also find comfort in a more solitary activity. Consider trying one of the following:

Each of these activities can help you get in touch with your feelings while also creating a special memento of your child.

Letting Others Help

Your family members will want to help you, and while it may be tempting to pull away from everyone at first, the support of your loved ones is invaluable. Even if you're not ready to talk, let them help you out with small tasks around the house.

You're physically and emotionally exhausted right now, and they'll love the chance to feel like they're being helpful to you. Let them get involved to the extent that you feel comfortable.

Remember, they're going through their own grieving process too, even though it's not as acute as yours. It's okay to ask for help when you need it.

The emotional recovery from stillbirth can be slow and difficult, but using the resources around you—both professional and personal—can make your journey a little easier.

Taking Care of Your Physical Needs

Even when your world feels confusing and sadness makes ordinary tasks like eating and sleeping difficult, it's important to take care of your physical needs. Your body is vulnerable as you're recovering from all the hormonal and physical changes of pregnancy in addition to grieving the loss of your baby.

Eating nutritious foods, being active, and getting enough rest are all part of staying physically healthy so you can focus on your emotional health.

Honoring Your Baby

There are some special ways you can remember your little one, helping yourself and your family to get through this loss and hold your baby's memory close in the years to come.

Naming Your Baby

Giving your baby a name is a great way to honor them as a person. In addition, you and your loved ones may feel more comfortable talking about your loss if you have a name for your baby.

While some parents prefer to use a name that they were already considering during pregnancy, others choose something that represents their loss, like Angel, Heaven, or Star. Settle on a name that you'll feel comfortable saying out loud and that represents all that your baby means to you and your loved ones.

Funeral Planning

Depending on your local laws, you may be required to choose a funeral home. This does not mean that you must have a funeral for your baby, but it's certainly an option.

Funerals are an important part of saying goodbye to loved ones when they pass on as adults, and you may find that a funeral for your baby helps you and your family do the same when you've had a stillbirth.

Many funeral homes offer no- or low-cost funerals for children and can offer you a wide variety of options for your baby's final resting place. You may be comforted by making these choices for your baby.

Looking Ahead

As the first waves of intense grief pass, you may feel periods of numbness or even depression. Although the sharp pain doesn't last forever, the lingering sadness that can follow is very real.

Everyone deals with the grieving process differently. Your outlook, past experiences, and support system will all play a role in how you move through the emotional experience of losing your baby. Eventually, though, you will be able to move forward and look to the years ahead.

Signs of Depression

Sadness and tears are a normal part of the grief of stillbirth, and there's no time limit for the grieving process. Depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) are more common in mothers following stillbirth, according to a 2016 study.

It's good to be aware of mental health changes and signs of postpartum depression, including:

  • Appetite changes (eating too much or too little)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive crying
  • Feeling angry, irritable, and/or restless
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Isolating yourself
  • Not doing activities you once enjoyed
  • Physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches
  • Thoughts about death, suicide, or harming oneself

If you are unsure whether you are still going through the normal grieving process or are dealing with depression, talk to your doctor or a counselor for support and advice.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

Seeking Help

Many parents of stillborn babies find comfort in pregnancy loss support groups. There are excellent resources both online and in person to help you through this time. Ask your doctor or nurse for a list of local organizations.

If you feel like your normal sadness is becoming something more serious, such as clinical depression or anxiety, don't be afraid to seek professional help.

Future Pregnancies

Eventually, you'll decide whether you want to have more children. The choice is deeply personal, and it's all yours. If you're going to try again, you'll know when the time is right. It doesn't mean that you've forgotten your stillborn baby, only that life continues—no matter how precious the life is that you've lost.

Talk to your doctor when you're ready, especially if the cause of your first stillborn was something that could be repeated in a future pregnancy.

Keep taking good care of yourself, and recognize that another pregnancy could come with some of those surprising moments that make grief stronger again for a time. Communicating with those around you will help.

Long-Term Coping

Grief can be a long process, and you will always hold the memories of your baby close. There are no deadlines, and you shouldn't feel tied to any schedule. Take as much time as you need and know that some days will be better than others.

There will be times when grief may sneak up on you in the middle of a period when you thought you were doing fine. Holidays, anniversaries, baby showers, and seeing other pregnant women are a few common triggers.

Just be kind to yourself and remember that this is all normal. Share your feelings with someone you trust and know that more good days are around the corner.

A Word From Verywell

The loss of a baby through stillbirth is devastating, and you may feel like there is no way past the pain at first. Know that you will heal, though, and there are people around you who love you and want to help with your healing.

You will get through this and be able to move on to brighter days ahead, holding your baby's memory close always.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Stillbirth.

  2. National Institutes of Health. Placental, pregnancy conditions account for most stillbirths.

  3. Burden C, Bradley S, Storey C, et al. From grief, guilt pain and stigma to hope and pride - a systematic review and meta-analysis of mixed-method research of the psychosocial impact of stillbirth. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016;16:9. doi:10.1186/s12884-016-0800-8

  4. Gold KJ, Leon I, Boggs ME, Sen A. Depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms after perinatal loss in a population-based sample. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2016;25(3):263-269. doi:10.1089/jwh.2015.5284

  5. National Institute of Mental Health. Perinatal depression.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Czukas, RN, MSN
Elizabeth Czukas is a writer who who has worked as an RN in high-risk obstetrics, antepartum care, and with women undergoing pregnancy loss.