This post was written by Therapy for Black Girls writers, Amber Flanigan LISW-CP, MPH, CHES and Jordan Madison, LCMFT
Trigger warning: This post discusses topics that may be triggering for those that have experienced the loss of a baby or child.
The grief of Black mothers is a topic that is often discussed on a surface level, but rarely given the full acknowledgment or recognition it deserves. Between police brutality and the Black community getting COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates, those are just two factors that have drastically increased the number of mourning mothers within the past year. The loss of a child, whether it occurs during pregnancy, their childhood, or when the child is an adult, is a traumatic experience. This post explores the types of losses mothers may face and offers strategies and ideas for coping with these traumatic losses. We also explore ways that you can support a mother that has experienced a loss.
To all of the mothers, Therapy for Black Girls sees you and celebrates you. We honor your magic and are here to support you through pain and trauma you may have experienced.
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Types of Losses Mothers Experience
Miscarriage is defined as the loss of a baby at 20 weeks or earlier. Approximately 15-20% of mothers experience a miscarriage. A 2013 study found that black mothers were almost twice as likely to experience a miscarraige than white women.
Still birth is defined as the loss of a baby at 20 weeks or later. It is estimated that 24,000 babies are still born in the US each year. (CDC, 2020) According to a CDC study, Black mothers are more than twice as likely as Hispanic and White women to experience stillbirth. (Mukhergee et al., 2013)
Death of a Child
A death of a child is a loss that occurs from infancy throughout the lifespan. Black mothers are at increased risk for losing their children. For example, black kids are 6 times more likely to be shot to death by police and 3.5 times more likely to die after a surgical procedure. (Equal Justice Initiative 2020, Stat News)
These stats indicate that you are not alone in your loss. They also illuminate race based health disparities that are only explained by systemic racism both inside and outside of healthcare systems.
Common Responses to the Loss of a Baby or Child
Each of the aforementioned losses represent a traumatic experience. Common symptoms of trauma include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression and Anxiety. After the loss of a baby or child, symptoms of PTSD may include intrusive thoughts regarding the loss of the child or avoidance of thinking about the loss. You may also experience anxiety about becoming pregnant or again or about the safety of your family after the loss. Depression after the loss of a baby or child may include feeling hopeless about the future, lost sense of purpose and feelings of sadness.
The loss of a baby or child is not something that we typically expect or plan for. Therefore you may also experience shock, confusion, denial, disbelief or feelings of injustice.
Coping with the Loss of a Baby or Child
Allow yourself to grieve.
Grief looks different for everyone. Grief is not linear. Give yourself grace as you heal from this trauma. There will be good days and bad days. Studies show that preserving positive memories helps the grieving process. Memories can be preserved mentally or in the physical environment. For babies lost to miscarriage or still birth, you may consider framing a sonogram or memorializing the baby’s name with art. For children, you may enjoy preserving momentos like favorites toys, books or milestone markers like a diploma in your child’s honor.
Be Mindful of Internalized Stigma.
Our patriarchal society tends to inappropriately blame women for everything from sexual assault to pregnancy and child rearing outcomes. In the context of the loss of a baby or child, you may hear toxic statements that begin with “Well If you did…” or “Maybe If you didn’t do…” Do not subscribe to these negative accusations in the media or your network.
Internalized stigma happens when you accept these statements as truth and use them as evidence that you are a bad person or mother because you experienced the loss of a baby or child. The Loving Kindness exercise comes from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and is effective in reducing internalized stigma. The Loving Kindness exercise is a mindfulness activity that allows us to radiate loving kindness to ourselves through affirmations. Give this exercise a try by finding a quiet place to engage in mindful breathing. As you observe your breath, recite affirmations like: “May I be at peace.”, “May I be healed.”
Beware of Magical Thinking.
This is very similar to internalized stigma. However, magical thinking happens internally and is not internalized from our external environment. Magical Thinking in the context of the loss of a baby or child may sound like “If I did not go for a run, I would not have experienced a miscarraige” or “If I told my son to stay home, he would not have been involved in an accident.” Challenge these maladaptive thoughts with evidence. This concept comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
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In the case of miscarriage or still birth, acknowledge the biological nature of the losses. Miscarriages and stillbirths are caused by biological processes like chromosomal abnormalities of issues with blood clots. These processes are not the result of a character flaw and are not something that you caused. In the case of losing a child, we are not able to predict the future and it is impossible to protect our children from everything. Children may also die from biological issues even with the best medical and maternal care.
Don’t be afraid to tell your story.
Many black women are raised to keep “family business” within the family or to suffer in silence as it is not appropriate to discuss your hardships with others. Telling your story helps fight stigma and helps empower other mothers that have experienced a loss. Telling your story helps you create a cohesive narrative of that traumatic experience of losing a child or baby. The process of creating a trauma narrative helps our brains recover from trauma, thus reducing symptoms of trauma to include anxiety and depression. You do not have to share your story with others to reap these benefits. Journaling and talking to a therapist are also great ways to help you construct your trauma narrative.
Seek a Therapist
Many therapists specialize in fertility or child loss or grief counseling. Even without these specializations, a good therapist can help you process and heal from this trauma. Therapy for Black Girls maintains a directory of therapists to help you find a therapist to meet your needs.
Supporting a Grieving Mother
If you are reading this and have not experienced the loss of a child, but know someone that has and want to know what you can do to help, here are a few tips:
Do not assume they want to be alone.
When someone experiences loss, we know there is nothing we can say to take away the pain that they feel. But sometimes we allow this belief to make us think we would make things worse and they rather be left alone. However, isolating someone during their grieving process can do more harm than good. Even if you’re unsure of what to say, your presence alone can be helpful.
Take burdens off of them where you can.
When someone has experienced loss, it is completely understandable that their world feels as if it is at a standstill. However, life keeps moving around them. If there is any way that you can assist in keeping their world afloat, find ways to do so. It can look like ordering their groceries or doing laundry, so they don’t have to worry about it, preparing meals and freezing them, so that they don’t have to cook, or even coming over to help with childcare if there are other children in the family. Sending care packages, running errands or handling the logistics if they are too much to handle, can also be helpful ways to ease some of their load.
We recognize that as we create this article, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic and unable to mourn with others in the typical way that we would. So other socially distant and safe ways to help can include sending text messages, voice notes, and voicemails with encouragement, affirmations and prayers. Sending flowers or gift cards to their favorite places can be a nice way to let them know they are being thought of.
Assist in their healing journey
Everyone’s grief may look different. The most important thing you can do is create a safe space free of judgment or pressure to feel better. It is not your job to “fix” them, or stop them from feeling sad. Here are a few things you can do instead; You can buy them a journal to process their thoughts and emotions. Encourage them to go to therapy or grief counseling, so that they can receive additional support from a mental health professional. If they are not interested in that, connecting them with other mothers who have experienced loss, can be another way to provide them with support. This can help them to hear other women’s stories and let them know they are not alone, nor to blame. Even after time has passed, be sure to check on mothers when the anniversary of their child’s death comes around.
Make sure they are still taking care of themselves.
As we stated earlier, the loss of a child is a traumatic experience. There have been numerous studies that show how stress and trauma impact our physical health. When grieving, it is understandable for mothers to be unable to move out of their sadness, lose track of time, or not be able to function as they normally would. Or, they may be so worried about everyone else that they neglect themselves in the process. Do your best to make sure they are still taking care of their well-being. Check in on if they have eaten a full meal, taken a shower, or gotten any fresh air. Also recognize how they are speaking about themselves. It is common for mothers to internalize blame and feel as if they did something wrong when they lose a child. Be sure to be gentle with your words, and remind them that they are not to blame.
Resources for Moms:
- Black Mamas Matter
- Sisters in Loss
- Return to Zero
- Postpartum Support International
- Circle of Mothers
- Birth and Bereavement Doulas
Books on infant/child loss (Provided by Health Connect One)
- Hold On To Hope by Stacey Edwards
- What God Is Honored Here by Shannon Gibney & Kao Kalia Yang (Editors)
- Beyond Tears by Ellen Mitchell
- Shattered: Surviving the Loss of a Child by Gary Roe