Another Pregnancy After a Baby Dies

QUESTION

Dear Experts,
Last year we lost a baby girl to SIDS at the age of 3 months. Now, I am 5 months pregnant. We are both excited, but scared. We worry it will happen again. Also I feel guilty about having another baby. What could we do to help alleviate some of the stress?

ANSWER

We are so sorry that your baby daughter died of SIDS. This type of sudden and unexpected death can be such a devastating shock, and a horrible loss. Our hearts go out to you.

The stress and emotions you're feeling during this pregnancy, though quite burdensome, are normal and common among bereaved mothers and fathers. Some of your stress can be alleviated just by knowing that you are not alone. You may find it helpful to plug into a "subsequent pregnancy" support group on the Internet, or in your town. There, you can commiserate with other parents who are navigating the same emotional landscape. Sharing your journey with other bereaved parents can offer comfort and camaraderie.

In general, getting the support you need -- whether through a group, friends, family, professional counseling, journaling, meditation, physical activity, reading self-help books, or whatever feels right for you -- can relieve stress when it helps you manage your worries and move through your grief.

Managing Worries
For many parents, fear is a dominant theme. Your worry that "it will happen again" is a natural result of what you've been through. You're not blissfully naïve any more, and what was once taken for granted -- the health and safety of your children -- can seem elusive.One way to cope with your worry is to separate anxiety from fear. Anxiety is the worry that arises from your imagination and past experience, which means that those worries are in your mind and memory, and are often unrelated to current reality, or what is actually happening or likely to occur right now. Fear, on the other hand, is the worry that arises from what you're actually observing or the real risks you're taking in your life currently, which means these worries are based on present reality and need to be attended to.

For instance, when you're feeling anxious at the thought of SIDS happening again, this bears no relationship to whether SIDS will actually occur, and you can know that those worries are simply a part of your grief and that right now, in this moment, your new baby is safe. But, if you are observing known risk factors for SIDS (or any other danger), then you know that your fear is based on what's really going on, right now, in front of you, and you can try to take preventive action.

Still, part of dealing with your worry is also knowing that some things are simply beyond your control. One way of coping with these feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty about the future is to take a wondering attitude, so that rather than clinging to a specific outcome or hopes about this new child, you step back from the grip of anxiety, and think, "I wonder what this new baby will bring into my life?" This wondering attitude embraces the idea that life unfolds, and sometimes all you can do is roll with the punches and have faith that you will survive. Like many bereaved parents, you can emerge from your grief feeling stronger, because you know that if you can survive this loss, you can survive anything. Over time, you can also find a balance between your feelings of vulnerability and your optimism for what the future will bring.

Moving Through Grief
Although worry can dominate your experience of this new pregnancy, the underlying cause of your stress is the fact that you are grieving. Grief is sorrow, of course, but it also encompasses fear, guilt, anger, powerlessness, and other painful feelings. For instance, you mention feeling guilt about having another baby, and this can be a part of your grief that taps into the profound bond you feel with your baby girl. It can be so challenging to look forward and invest in a new baby while you're also looking back and longing for the daughter who died. And even though you're excited about the child growing inside you, at times, you may be flooded with grief and memories of your pregnancy with your daughter, and her birth, her life, and her death. Significant experiences, dates, or times of year can be triggers for your grief. This mixture of hope for the future and sorrow for the past is an unavoidable part and even healthy part of your grieving process- and subsequent pregnancy.

Because grief is an unpredictable rollercoaster, you may feel as if you are moving backwards at times. But sorting through and experiencing your feelings is a way to move through them, and over many months, you'll notice that your grief will soften, and the painful times will become less intense and less frequent. And by allowing yourself to experience your grief over your precious daughter, you are emotionally freer to experience your positive feelings and investment in your next child. As you are grieving, you are also healing.Your grieving process also aids the gradual process of letting go of what might have been, adjusting to what is, and embracing the "heart-level" relationship you can have with your daughter. As you turn toward this new baby, you will find out that there is room in your heart for both of these children, and welcoming the next child does not mean you have to turn away from your baby girl. Indeed, it can be in honor of her memory that you move forward and devote yourself to your next child.

-- Debbie and Mara
The Crisis Pregnancy Expert Team

Davis and Stein

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D. and Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D. are the authors of Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey, a 2004 National Parenting Publications Awards "Gold Award" winner. They also collaborated on Parent: You and Your Baby in the NICU (2002), as part of the nationwide March of Dimes NICU Project. They.ve been invited to regularly contribute to Advances in Neonatal Care, a neonatal nursing journal; their first article appears in Spring 2005. They are the founding members of Partners in Perinatal and Pediatric Consulting, which promotes developmentally supportive care for babies and parents, as well as collaboration between families and health care professionals.

Dr. Stein is a clinical psychologist in private practice, specializing in the emotional aspects of coping with crisis and adjustment around pregnancy and parenting. She is regularly invited to lecture and give workshops on these issues throughout the country to conferences of physician and nursing groups, doulas, and lactation consultants. Since 1997, she has been consulting with organizations and providing training to health care providers, guiding their efforts to improve the level of psychological support and developmentally supportive care to families during and subsequent to perinatal crisis.

Dr. Davis is a developmental psychologist, researcher, and writer who specializes in perinatal and neonatal crisis, medical ethics, parental bereavement, parent education, and child development. Dr. Davis is the author of four books for bereaved parents, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart (Fulcrum, 1991; 1996), Loving and Letting Go (Centering, 1993; 2002), Fly Away Home (Centering, 2000) and Stillbirth, Yet Still Born (PILC, 2000). She is also on the Board of the Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death Alliance (PLIDA.org) and is regularly invited to write articles for professional periodicals and parent support materials.