Our society allows women to be more emotional than men, both through displays of physical distress and in outward expressions of grief. Men and women do feel many of the same emotions when experiencing a loss, but how those feelings are worked through can vary greatly. It is almost expected that women convey their level of despair through observable behavior. Such grief displays are more socially accepted as the woman insists that her baby not be quickly forgotten.
A variety of behaviors may be observed as women cope with loss. While their partners may hide their distress in attempts to remain in control of themselves and the situation, women are often allowed to “fall apart.” Guilt, depression, and anger are met with tears, irritability, and sometimes even rage. While men may want life to return to normal as soon as possible, women find comfort in talking through their emotions, sharing their experience with others, and constantly thinking about their baby. A woman encounters great frustration and confusion if the pregnancy the couple spoke joyously about, once lost, is only met with her partner’s silence. In addition, if a man only focuses on the physical recovery of his partner, she may feel as if he doesn’t care about the baby they have lost.
Both a woman’s body and her perspectives begin to change soon after a pregnancy begins. Not only do her reproductive hormones begin to surge as her body prepares to carry their baby, but her self-defined identity begins to change. She is not only a woman and a partner, but soon a mother. This is, by many, the ultimate and defining characteristic of a woman. The loss of a baby destroys what she feels she has already become, even in the early stages of pregnancy. Many women have already started to imagine how their baby might look, how they might act and have perhaps already chosen a name. She may feel she has lost someone she has already known and loved.
Her expectation of adding the new role of “mother” is lost when a baby is lost. She may find it difficult to re-establish her previous identity as a woman and partner if she feels she has failed at all three roles. This leaves her struggling to regain some sense of who she is now. Very often, she feels emotionally empty where there should have been a glowing feeling of motherhood.
The open expression of emotions is more common in women, which may make it easier for her partner to understand she is in distress. However, the reasons behind her display of anger, depression, and guilt may cause confusion for her partner. We hope to open a door of understanding to the feelings behind a woman’s outward expression of grief and show others how they may assist her in coping with her grief.
One significant emotion that men and women have in common is their need for an explanation. The difference lies in their search for why they lost their baby. Wrestling with such questions privately is not how women conduct their search for answers. She will want to talk about the event. Many women will talk over and over about the loss, with their partner, friends, family, and support groups. Through conversation a woman is able to release emotions as well as attempt to sustain the memory of her baby in others as strongly as it remains within her.
Depression is a common emotion which accompanies any loss. The length that the depression remains, however, may become concerning not only to her partner, but to her as well. She may worry that her sadness is out of proportion with her loss, or may be concerned that others will feel she is overreacting. She may feel like she is going crazy, and wonder how much longer she can endure such pain. It is quite common for a woman at this time to feel physically and emotionally exhausted. There is a sense that she has been changed forever and nothing will ever be normal again.
Women often feel a strong sense of guilt with the loss of their baby. They feel as if their bodies have let them down - that they are unable to accomplish what other women seem easily able to do. They often feel as if they have let their partners down and have failed in fulfilling the couple’s expectations of a family. They may become fixated on determining a cause for the loss. Especially when no answer can be established, a woman may assume that something must be wrong with her, or that she caused the death of her baby in some way. The woman may even wonder if the loss of her baby was some sort of punishment.
One of the most difficult feelings for a woman to admit is that she is angry. This emotion may seem out of place while grieving. The desire to want to remember her baby as loved and the depression that follows with the destruction of her dream makes a woman feel as though she does not have the right to be angry. Some women worry that their anger is an implication that they resent their lost baby, when they are actually furious that they lost their baby. Regardless of how uncomfortable this emotion is, it is common in the grieving process. A woman may be angry at her healthcare provider for not doing more to prevent the loss.
Anger may often be triggered by a sense that no one understands her pain - that friends and family have moved on while she remains frozen in her grief - that the world continues to spin. Most commonly her anger is directed toward her partner’s lack of understanding, whether perceived or real. She may be furious that because he is not grieving in the same manner that she is, he must not care.
Thoughts and reflections of being alone during the grief process can also generate feelings of anger and abandonment. When her partner pulls away and isolates himself in coping with his grief, a woman feels that he has no idea or interest in knowing what she has physically endured. While she may have been left to deal with the events of the loss, he may have detached from the situation completely. The sense of abandonment may be enormous.
Although a woman’s expression of emotions are more evident, the factors behind her anger, sadness, or guilt may not be. She may be eager to discuss the death of her baby in order to make sense of what happened, but she may be at a loss for words in really explaining what she feels. Knowing this, it is important that couples have an open exchange at this time to better understand how to help each other.
Adapted from Coping Together. Info at www.copingtogether.com.