Stillbirth as a Trauma

More attention needs to be paid to the trauma of pregnancy loss. 

“The experience of my stillbirth was a hole in my heart, such a disappointment, the feeling that I was so close to meeting my baby,” wept Deborah, who lost her son in the 35th week of pregnancy. “I asked, ‘Why did this happen? Why to me? What is the lesson I can learn from this?’” 

Deborah shared her mourningdepression, and response to the triggers that she experienced in the aftermath of her loss. Five months after the stillbirth of her son, Deborah (not her real name) continues to reel from her loss. 

As Dr. Danny Horesh of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on trauma and the emotional implications of pregnancy loss, explained, “Stillbirth and pregnancy loss occur on a daily basis, but because it has to do with pregnancy, the loss goes under the radar. Stillbirth is highly traumatic, and we should not neglect it in any way. Just like how we look at soldiers coming back from war, or someone who has gone through sexual abuse.”

While existing pregnancy loss literature has focused on the sadness and grief surrounding miscarriage and stillbirth, researchers like Horesh believe more attention needs to be paid to the trauma of the experience. 

The loss of a pregnancy can be a deeply distressing event for the parents and other family members, whether as a miscarriage (prior to Week 20 of gestation) or as a perinatal loss (any time after Week 20 until one week post-birth). In the United States, there are approximately 24,000 stillbirths each year, the cause of which may be from maternal health issues, placental complications, hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia, or other still unknown causes.

In her 30-plus years as a midwife at Israel’s Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, Malka Nukrian has cared for many patients who have experienced pregnancy loss. Noting the struggle patients faced, in 2006, Nukrian started a support group for women who had experienced pregnancy loss.

She noticed a trend in the women who attended the meetings—participants shared their experiences of depression, loss, impact on their marriages, but also how the loss was traumatic. The women had spent months excitedly anticipating the arrival of their babies, only to return home, as Nukrian explained, “with empty hands, but full of the pain of the loss. The woman feels confused after the birth. She has experienced a birth, but has no baby to bring home.”