According to research, a majority of women report feeling a sense of shame, self-blame, and guilt following pregnancy and infant loss. Although I was aware of the data, I became even more interested in the underlying reasons women are inclined to feel these things after experiencing a 16-week miscarriage firsthand. Why do women blame themselves in the aftermath of loss? Intellectually they know they didn’t cause it, and yet emotionally they struggle with feeling they did. This is incredibly concerning to me. My interest was piqued: As a culture we must further investigate the mental sequela of loss and attempt to support women and families in ways that allow them to feel the pain without turning it on themselves.
Prior to pursuing my Ph.D., I earned a master's degree in public health and worked internationally with a focus on women's reproductive health. I had a longtime interest in clinical psychology as well and liked the idea of one-on-one change, even though I also wanted to focus on community-level change. So my hope was to create a private practice specializing in women's reproductive and maternal mental health issues upon completing my doctoral degree to marry all my interests.
This has been my area of specialty for over a decade now. And then, on October 11, 2012, I experienced a 16-week miscarriage while home alone. This experience shifted my life lens—both personally and professionally. How could it not?! I had been sitting with women for years, hearing about the emotional and physical pain of pregnancy and infant loss and life afterward. It was all theoretical up until that moment, then it was corporal. I lived it. I could understand many of my patient’s experiences from the inside out. This was both arresting and illuminating.
My loss was remarkably traumatic. The baby fell out in the context of my home. I was by myself. Then, coached by my doctor on the phone, I cut the umbilical cord and began to hemorrhage. My husband raced home, and we got to my doctor's office as quickly as possible. I had to undergo an emergency unmedicated D and C. I was given the option of waiting for anesthesiology, but that would have required a blood transfusion due to the amount of blood loss. So I opted to take action, get it over with, and figured it couldn't be worse pain than I was already experiencing both emotionally and physically.
The physicality and the trauma of how my loss unfolded invariably informed my fierce dedication to the topic. In October 2014, I wrote a piece for the New York Times coinciding with pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day urging us to question the antiquated silence and challenging the age-old stigma. This is how the #IHadAMiscarriage began.
Every year since its inception, the campaign takes on different aspect of loss worthy of additional investigation. We need to normalize pregnancy loss and the grief that follows. These occurrences aren’t going anywhere. Pregnancy loss is not a disease; it will not be cured. Loss knows nothing of socioeconomics, race, ethnicity, educational background, religion—we are all vulnerable if we attempt to undertake pregnancy.
This year the campaign zeros in on the lack of standardized rites and rituals surrounding pregnancy and infant loss. We need a framework for grieving these kinds of losses; ways to acknowledge, honor, and talk about the heartache. It is never too late to memorialize and ritualize our losses and it is time we create ways for women and families to honor these harrowing experiences.
Advice I empathically provide: Be gentle with yourself. Take all the time you need. And always remember, you are not alone. Grief is circuitous and grief knows no timeline and this can be disheartening and difficult while wading through it. But, leaning into grief might be the very thing that gets us through it. Trying to stave it off might just make the grief linger longer. Being present with our grief, as challenging as it may be, might just be the very antidote to drowning in it.
I am dedicated to making a dent in the cultural conversation surrounding pregnancy and infant loss and furthering the discussion around the women we become as a result. I'm not going to stop talking about this until I see significant cultural change. Why? Because I want future generations to grow up in a different landscape—one that adequately supports women and families as they navigate these unfortunate journeys. I want to do my part. I want what is in fact normal, to be normalized.
Dr. Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in women's reproductive and maternal mental health. Jessica specialized in this field long before experiencing a second trimester miscarriage firsthand. Jessica created and launched the #IHadAMiscarriage social media campaign with her first New York Times piece in 2014 with the aim of addressing the antiquated cultural silence. Read more at www.drjessicazucker.com
Words: Dr. Jessica Zucker
This narrative was edited for clarity