It is estimated at least 10-20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and about one in three women report having had a miscarriage. While miscarriage is common, it doesn’t make it any less heart-wrenching for women to experience. The friends, family, and clients I’ve worked with as a therapist who have experienced miscarriage have said that it can be one of the most painful experiences of their lives. That is why it can be so confusing if and when a woman eventually has a successful pregnancy and delivers her “rainbow” baby—a term for a baby born after a miscarriage, because after a storm, or difficult time, came a rainbow, something beautiful and joyful.
What I hear from loved ones and clients, and what I read in the stories of other mothers’ losses and stories of new hope, is the strangeness of feeling the sadness of their loss and the joy for their living child. In many cases, the living child wouldn’t exist had the previous pregnancy not ended in miscarriage, which can add a layer of confusion to the already confusing feelings of having a rainbow baby. As a therapist who has worked with women experiencing miscarriages and subsequent births, I’ve helped women hold these seemingly opposing feelings to honor the life of both babies with the following suggestions.
Honor the other babies
We live in a world that often promotes the idea that grief can be a process that is eventually “finished.” Contributing to this mentality is the popular notion that there are stages of grief. While we may feel like we go through different stages, or ways of feeling about a loss, the word “stages” is sometimes felt to imply that at some point the grief will be gone—that we will have totally grieved. While certainly the intense pain felt initially after any loss can lessen over time, the various feelings that grief elicits can come up at expected and unexpected times throughout our lives. Sometimes, a known trigger can leave us in a puddle of tears, but other times we are just going about our daily lives and all of a sudden the pain washes over us like a sudden tidal wave.
Contrary to the idea that grief can be finished and eventually packed away, grief actually can be (and usually is) woven into our day-to-day lives and narrative. Incorporating your child into your life rather than trying to “get past” this loss can help honor the painful feelings you will inevitably have. Whether it’s their due date, conception date, or the day you learned of the gut-wrenching news, consider picking a date on which you can honor the baby that was miscarried, whether just once or every year. Whether that is a celebration of his or her life or participating in a small but consistent ritual or activity in the baby’s honor, this can help you make sense of the painful and confusing feelings surrounding your miscarriage. I know some parents who have created a grave for their baby and bring flowers to it every year on the date they’ve chosen to celebrate.
You can also make this baby a part of your daily life. This may include praying regularly to your “angel baby” as some parents call them, if your faith inclines you to do so. You can choose to name this baby, if you haven’t already. Or, you could frame pictures of yourself when you were pregnant with this child (even if you weren’t showing) or the baby’s ultrasound if he has one. These daily reminders and rituals help to name the grief and put it out in the open. When grief is concealed and never spoken of or acknowledged, it can become that much more powerful and painful. Dealing with our grief in this way works with the ongoing nature of grief and can be very healing.
Celebrate the baby in your arms
If there is any silver lining to come out of the terrible and tragic experience of miscarriage, it is that you know what a gift life is. You are sure not to take for granted the child in your arms. You cherish and appreciate your living child(ren) in a way that mothers who have not experienced a loss perhaps cannot.
Some moms feel guilty about celebrating their living child’s life, feeling like in some way it diminishes the life of their miscarried baby or makes him seem less important. To the contrary, celebrating the baby in your arms shows that you know what a precious gift life is. Experiencing the unfathomable pain of miscarriage puts the inevitable struggles of having a baby (sleepless nights, less alone time) into perspective and can make it easier to weather them with joy and gratitude . Embrace this perspective rather than shying away from it. Let yourself squeeze that baby in your arms a little tighter, because you know all too well how much of a miracle it is.
Get comfortable with the word “and”
Having a baby after miscarriage can lead to difficult and confusing feelings because we think we have to feel either joyful or sad. We get upset with ourselves for feeling sad at our child’s first birthday, thinking about the birthday our other child never got to experience. On the other hand, we think we aren’t honoring our lost baby’s life if we feel joyful or happy about our child who made it to this milestone.
But the truth is that these are false dichotomies. In life in general, we experience sadness, fear, grief, or other uncomfortable feelings during “happy” occasions. At what would be “sad” times, we can also experience joy and gratefulness—like when we laugh at a memory of a deceased relative or how funerals are often referred to as a celebration of life. Despite what we are made to believe, we usually don’t feel 100 percent one way about something in a given moment. It’s possible—and okay—to feel both grief and joy, sadness and happiness.
Having a rainbow baby will inevitably elicit some of those confusing moments when we feel two seemingly-opposing feelings at once, or feel the opposite of how we think we are “supposed” to feel at a given moment. To alleviate some of this internal tension, practice using the word “and.” You don’t have to be happy or sad, you can be happy and sad. Start replacing “or” with “and” when it comes to your emotions, and you will likely start to see a shift in any internal tension you’re experiencing. If you’re feeling upset thinking about your lost baby while your rainbow baby is smiling and clapping in front of you, stop trying to fight off the uncomfortable emotions. Tell yourself, “I feel happy and sad. I love playing with Charlie, and I wish I got to do this with Grace.”
Dealing with the pain of loss and the joy of life simultaneously can be hard and straight-up confusing. But hopefully, when we boldly celebrate both these babies, and say goodbye to the false dichotomy of feeling one way or the other, this path becomes a little easier.