Nearly five years ago, when college sweethearts Meg Walker and her husband, John-Mark Walker, were 16 weeks pregnant, they learned that their baby had a neural tube defect. That meant his skull, and therefore his brain, wouldn’t develop properly. They lived with this prognosis for five months before Walker gave birth to a boy named Jacob on Feb. 9, 2016. The couple experienced seven “blissful” hours with Jacob before he passed away in Walker’s arms.
They returned to their home in Richmond, mentally and physically depleted, left only with their memories. Ten months later, they were pregnant again.
Having been pregnant before, Walker was well-acquainted with pregnancy symptoms and the accompanying changes to her body. Still, she says, there was a part of her — maybe mother’s intuition — that knew something was amiss. At 10 weeks pregnant, her suspicions were confirmed when the ultrasound technician informed the couple that there was no heartbeat, although Walker’s body was physically fighting to keep the pregnancy alive.
Today, Walker, 32, has a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. But the couple says the losses of Jacob and their angel baby continue to shape how they parent.
Walker’s story of loss is an experience endured by many women, and one that is often kept silent. But in recent years, it’s been more widely talked about. In September, Chrissy Teigen took to social media to share her and John Legend’s loss of their son, Jack. A couple of months later, a candid Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, penned an essay about her miscarriage and the staggering commonality of this pain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, about 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriages, a loss that occurs before the 20th week. That number is expected to be higher, as many women don’t know they are pregnant at the onset. Stillbirth, or the loss of a baby at or after the 20th week of pregnancy, affects about 1 in 160 births in the United States every year.
Even as statistics show how widespread pregnancy loss is, society has associated it with guilt and shame, particularly for women — though men talk about how lonely it can be for them, too. Miscarrying in the middle of a pandemic also adds a layer of difficulty, as women and couples face social isolation and hospital restrictions.
Women who have experienced such loss describe a spectrum of reactions, including various ways they dealt with the grief alone or with their partners. We spoke with a few of them to see how they navigated the aftermath.
For Japanese photographer Mai Williams, 36, social media — especially in the age of isolation — became a big part of healing. In September, Williams had to break the news of her miscarriage to her husband, who works as a pilot, over a phone call. That afternoon, she returned home to her two children. She says she tried to put on a brave face while waiting for the pregnancy tissue to naturally expel.
In that moment of suffering, she says, she yearned for additional sensitivity from her otherwise supportive partner.
“Being away from my family and friends, my husband and I rely on each other. On the way home from the consultation, I didn’t know how to react and I couldn’t cry. Because we didn’t have that moment to grieve together, I felt like this was a singular experience,” Williams says. “My husband is the realistic type, but I wanted him to understand and I wish he was more aware of how I needed time and nonverbal cues to feel better.”
For Williams and her husband, who are based in Hong Kong, social media empowered them to share their experience and listen to other people’s stories. Talking about it openly helped Williams, and, in turn, she hopes it helped normalize miscarriage for others. She also says she wishes there was more involvement from her doctors post-miscarriage — to address their questions, offer comfort and provide information as needed.
Dina Gibbs, a 35-year-old Maryland-based attorney, says she and her husband turned to group therapy to cope when they lost their son Sebastian as a result of stillbirth. Gibbs says group therapy was an influential factor in strengthening their marriage in the aftermath.
“My husband was able to connect with other fathers who have experienced loss,” she says. “It gave us permission to speak about how we felt with a moderator who is experienced in facilitating conversation about the stages of emotion and grief and to share stories with those who are intimately familiar with it.”
Although many men generally are socialized to be less expressive of emotion, that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply emotionally impacted by such a loss, experts say. One study found that men can feel like their primary role is of a “supporter” during pregnancy loss, and can feel overlooked in relation to the more visible pain of their female partner.
Entrepreneur and attorney Arthur, who lives in New York City, says his struggle after his wife miscarried was lonely. (Arthur asked to be identified by his first name only to protect the privacy of his family.)
“After our miscarriage … no matter what success I had, I felt like a failure. I felt like it was my fault. Was I working too many hours that I wasn’t around for my wife? Did I cause her stress that led to this?” Arthur says. “I wasn’t as available as I should have been and I could not stop blaming myself for it.”
Sally Baker, a therapist and author based in London, stresses the importance of communication following a pregnancy loss. “If women feel unheard and invalidated, men feel even more muted as they are less able to share their pain because they’re trying to support their [partner’s] pain and complex PTSD-like symptoms,” she says. “In that silence, there is danger. The most beneficial healing is for couples who come in together for therapy.”
For women dealing with pregnancy loss without a partner, there are other challenges. Especially in the pandemic, the inability to be physically close and mourn with family members or friends may be particularly isolating. In addition to therapy, Baker says that women (or couples together) may find greater solace by honoring their miscarried baby and memorializing its existence — “to have a ritualized mark of their loss,” she says.
Dana El Masri, a 30-year-old pharmacist living in Michigan, keeps her babies close to her heart — literally. She wears a necklace made up of three separate vertical bar charms that each commemorate the date of her losses. She says this symbolic gesture, in addition to the prints of each ultrasound they have framed in their home, helps her cope.
“My last miscarriage was during covid, so when I went in for a repeat ultrasound, I was alone since my husband wasn’t allowed in,” El Masri says. “We got a lot closer following the [three] miscarriages, but we express grief differently. He doesn’t want to see me in pain and wants to fix things. Men tend to be fixers, but there are some things you can’t fix.”
Indeed, for some couples, learning how to mourn together can be difficult. Mental health professionals say that bearing witness to someone else’s pain requires resilience, which is a difficult skill to develop. For others, a pregnancy loss may accelerate the rate at which a relationship evolves; a transformation that would otherwise happen over a course of several years may be hastened by compounded loss.
Walker, the Virginia resident, says the shared experience of losing Jacob and their miscarried baby gave her and her husband a renewed perspective on how to parent their other children. “My husband carried emotional weight following the losses in a different way, but we realized that our children need both parents to show up in their lives and to protect and love them,” Walker says. “The grief and holes are always there, but we choose not to put the pressure on our living children to fill the holes of those that have passed. We wouldn’t be who we are without having gone through that.”
In April 2020, when it was confirmed that 29-year-old Katie’s baby had no heartbeat, her New York City hospital presented her with the following options: medication to speed up the miscarriage process, a surgical procedure to remove the remains of the pregnancy, or the “wait and watch” method, allowing the tissue to naturally pass. It was hard to make a decision under pressure and without an opportunity to discuss them with her partner, she says. (Katie, who is South Asian, asked to be identified by her American name to protect the privacy of her family.)
But for Katie, having her husband be involved was crucial. “The most helpful thing he did following our miscarriage was jump into action,” she says. “I was not mentally ready to get past the grief, but he handled all the logistics for me, booking the appointments for my D and C procedure, finding out where to get coronavirus tests, and researching new, sympathetic doctors to speak to for future pregnancies.”
Katie says she believes it’s “difficult for any man to understand” the grief that comes with pregnancy loss, but thinks that “expecting dads should be better educated and do their own research about the realities and commonness of miscarriages.”
The couple is expecting again and have found a doctor with a more compassionate bedside manner, Katie says, but there’s not a day she doesn’t pray for her angel baby.
Same-sex couples who suffer a pregnancy loss may face greater challenges, including feeling as if their emotions toward the loss are not permissible or valid. Research shows that lesbian couples face “a double disenfranchisement” when it comes to the stigma around fertility and the actual pregnancy loss. As Baker, the therapist, puts it, the “sheer ignorance” around fertility issues or pregnancy losses of queer couples can exacerbate their sense of isolation.
“They can also feel less supported than their heterosexual counterparts whose fertility and experiences of loss are more traditionally supported by their family, friends and community,” Baker says.
Experts say the key for both parties is to have an outlet, in whatever form they find most suitable. For some that may be individual, group or couples therapy. Others might find solace in podcasts like “Life after Miscarriage” to connect with stories of other women’s experiences and the impact on their relationships. Blogs, including the Morning and I am Fruitful, contain comprehensive programs and resources to encourage and uplift families. Experts say there is no correct way to mourn or cope.
“No one truly understands the pain until you go through it yourself,” says El Masri, the pharmacist. “I want other women to know they’re not alone. We all grieve differently, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.”