Infant loss and the following pregnancy

June 2014 Feature Suzanne O’Rourke The Perinatal Mental Health NZ Trust recently hosted a one-day seminar in Wellington to hear from American academic Joann O’Leary on ‘Infant Loss and the…

Infant loss and the following pregnancy Archdiocese of WellingtonJune 2014


Suzanne O’Rourke

The Perinatal Mental Health NZ Trust recently hosted a one-day seminar in Wellington to hear from American academic Joann O’Leary on ‘Infant Loss and the Pregnancy that Follows’ – Dr O’Leary presented some complex issues clearly and sensitively.

Four Greenstone Doors Charitable Trust support counsellors found it useful to hear how the death of a baby during pregnancy affects behaviours in a subsequent pregnancy, for siblings and the wider family as well as for the parents. The research highlighted the need for greater understanding of perinatal death and for parents and family/whanau members to be better supported in their grief.

Dr O’Leary PhD, of the University of Minnesota talked about the shock parents feel when they are ‘unable to complete the tasks of pregnancy’ and the blame they assign to themselves, their doctors, God and the world. Few people recognise the extent of its impact and the increasing pressure on couples to ‘make a decision’ when scans or tests reveal something out of the ordinary.

‘When we got to the hospital I was numb.’

Acknowledging that a child is lost when a pregnancy is ‘interrupted’ is important. The maternal identity a woman holds for that child does not disappear; she carries it with her throughout her life. Less understood and acknowledged is the strength of the father’s identity. Support is often focused on the mother’s loss, leaving the father’s grief largely unrecognised.

Little wonder then, these complex layers of blame, anger, grief and sadness can set up a ‘perfect storm’ of emotion which impacts the whole family and is carried into subsequent pregnancies.

‘Being pregnant again is the biggest reminder of the greatest loss a mother will ever experience.’

Dr O’Leary is well qualified to speak on the clinical effects of pregnancy loss, but it was clear in the conversations during the day, even the most experienced medical professionals can use language which masks some uncomfortable truths.

‘Interrupting a pregnancy’ sounds gentler than terminating or aborting, but it means the same. Similarly, ‘multi-foetal pregnancy reduction’ is the clinical practice of terminating one or more babies, in favour of the remaining sibling(s).

Accepting the death of a child under any circumstances and attending adequately to the grief it brings is hard. Grief is more complicated if the issue of being an active participant in the termination of that pregnancy has been camouflaged. With the desire to be sensitive comes the risk of separating people from a profound truth – the child who has died remains an important part of the family. When the language used by professionals directs people away from the reality of what is lost, the grief story itself is incomplete.

‘Grief that is not resolved is buried alive and may come back to haunt you many years later.’

Families carry the consequences of many shortcomings in medical ‘best’ practice and it is important they know they can be helped with their grief – no matter how profound, Dr O’Leary said.

For Catholics working in this area of pregnancy support and grief counselling, responding with a loving, open, Christ-centred attitude is the key. There are many causes of perinatal death and everyone who has experienced such loss needs to be treated with the utmost compassion.

Dr O’Leary spoke of the necessity to create a relationship for the grief process to do its work. This is the work of grief counselling and bereavement support.

For more information, email or call Wendy Hill on 027 254 9222.

A memorial service for those who ‘lived the shortest lives’ is to be held at Ss Peter and Paul Church, Knights Rd Lower Hutt on Saturday 21 June at 3pm.