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Dealing With A Miscarriage
Three couples share their stories of miscarriage.
Having a baby is supposed to be one of life's highlights, but for Greg Risdahl, the process had him fearing for his wife's life. Greg's spouse, Aliza, 41, miscarried her first pregnancy, however it didn't stop her from trying again. In total, she wound up having four miscarriages. "I actually thought she might die after that first one," says Greg, 46. "I was so scared for Aliza I didn't even want to attempt a second one. I wasn't sure I wanted to see her go through that again, never mind the third and fourth."
Greg and Aliza's story is not as uncommon as some might think. In fact, the American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that roughly 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies will end in miscarriage. The National Institute of Health estimates that up to 50 percent of all fertilized eggs die and are aborted spontaneously, usually before the woman even knows she is pregnant. For women over 35, these numbers increase.
Miscarriages affect more than just the woman. Miscarriages also affect the man and the marriage. Janet Smith* and her husband went through two miscarriages and Janet, who was in her late thirties, credits them as a major factor in the deterioration of their relationship. For starters, Janet's husband was never able to bond with the baby inside Janet's belly. "The entire time I was pregnant, he never felt the baby move," says Janet. "I guess other than the growing belly, there was no evidence for him. It wasn't real."
At about seven months, Janet also stopped feeling the kicks inside of her and soon learned that her baby had died. Because Janet was so far along in her pregnancy, the law in her state of residence prevented surgical intervention to remove her baby. Janet scheduled and delivered her stillborn. "Unlike other women who have a pregnancy loss, I got to see my baby," says Janet. "In some ways that offered closure, but it was more difficult on him."
After delivery, the nurses dressed Janet's baby in a little hospital cap and shirt and wrapped her so her parents could hold her. Janet reached for her baby at the same time the nurse was extending the baby to Janet's husband. He recoiled. In reaction, Janet also pulled away and now says she regrets never holding her baby.
Things got tougher for Janet after the miscarriage. As Janet was trying to deal with her grief, a family member asked her "who's fault is it?" The family member said the doctor was probably not at fault and her husband couldn't have been the problem so they wondered who was responsible for the miscarriage. Janet shut down.
Linda Young, a counseling psychologist at Seattle University focuses on relationships and marriage says that friends and family often feel helpless and awkward in trying to figure out a response.
Sarah Allen, 29, says the lack of acknowledgement from some of her friends was one of the more difficult things to deal with after her miscarriage. "One thing I learned was that other women who had gone through it were the ones that would come in and embrace me and hold me and support me," says Sarah. "I could just tell the women who hadn't gone through it because they didn't know what to say." Sarah says she doesn't know what they could have said, but not acknowledging her loss, hurt.
Young says it's important for couples to tell friends and family what is and isn't helpful. For friends and family, it's important to ask what would be helpful. "It may be tending to mundane tasks that feel overwhelming to the couple right now or just sitting and listening," says Young. "Trying to cheer the couple up by saying things such as 'Don't worry, you'll be able to have another baby' is generally not helpful." For someone to ask, "who's fault is it" is also a bad idea.
Sarah and her husband Rich had been married for five years when they tried getting pregnant for the first time. Up until that point, Rich had said he wasn't ready. "I remember being in our apartment and I went to my husband and I said 'I think something's not right,'" says Sarah. "I looked at him and he was crying, which was a profound thing for me because it just showed me that he definitely wanted to be a dad." Sarah also began to cry and the two of them immediately started to pray and tried to comfort each other.
Janet says after her first miscarriage, her husband was also very supportive. However, Janet got pregnant again and miscarried at 10 weeks. This is when her marriage took a turn for worse. "I had gained some weight from the pregnancies," says Janet. "At first, he started pulling away from me physically and it became worse and worse. Weeks and months would go by before anything would happen between us and eventually I began thinking something was wrong with me."
Janet started exercising and got back into shape, but as the extra weight disappeared so to was the intimacy with her husband. "He still did not want to make love to me and I was very, very hurt by that and it began putting a stronger wedge between us—I felt rejected," says Janet. Up to three months would pass between sexual contact with her husband and when they finally had sex, Janet described it as mechanical.
For couples, Young says they need to be supportive of another and realize that it's neither party's fault. "The range of emotions can be overwhelming and enormous," says Young, "including shock, guilt, helplessness, fear, anger and resentment about life's unfairness, and grieving the loss of an unfulfilled dream."
Janet and her husband went to marriage counseling, but her husband was resistant to participate. After five years of fighting for intimacy with her husband, a frustrated Janet decided to end the marriage. It was in the final two years when Janet wanted to get pregnant again that the marriage broke beyond repair. Looking back, Janet says she wished she sought the advice of a sex therapist because love was never the problem.
Intimacy isn't a problem for Greg and Aliza. Greg offers advice to other men, saying men should try to "understand what the woman has to go through. Most of us guys, we don't pay attention to that stuff. It's really a great experience to be that intimate with your partner and to share the whole journey," Greg adds.
So how can other couples prevent the dissolution of marriage if faced with similar circumstances? Young suggests, "It's important for partners to turn towards each other with compassion, patience and empathy, acknowledging that the grief is mutual." Young adds, "One partner may distract themselves with work or hobbies while the other may be highly focused on the loss and want to talk about it a lot. This can lead to accusations such as 'How can you just go off and play golf with your buddies like nothing has happened?' Different styles and different timing of phases of grief need to be recognized."
After her second miscarriage, Aliza threw herself into projects including a miscarriage blog, book and documentary, which is in post-production. After her fourth miscarriage, Aliza did seek counseling because she feared the miscarriages were affecting her relationship with Greg. While Greg feared for his wife's life after the failed pregnancies, he says he was willing to continue trying to have a baby with Aliza because part of his desire is to please her.
Sarah and Greg have no apprehension about trying to get pregnant again. But for Sarah, the thing that surprised her most about her miscarriage was the lack of information and compassion she received while at her doctor's office. "When you go in and say you're pregnant, it's 'yay congratulations here's your bag full of magazines and pamphlets and all this reading material.' When you go back in for a miscarriage appointment they give you nothing." Sarah went online and did her own research to find helpful information and resources. She also contacted her doctor's office and suggested that they start offering materials.
While Aliza says she also had some difficult times with her health practitioner, her and Greg never gave up. Their persistence and support of each other finally paid off and the fifth time was a charm. Just a few weeks ago Aliza gave birth to their first child. For Greg, his fears have turned to relief, joy and amazement and his past grief of death has turned to a celebration of new life.
*Editors note: due to the sensitivity of this subject, this name has been changed.
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