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How to Resolve Grief Over my Daughter's Premature Birth

QUESTION: My daughter was born prematurely at 28 weeks (She is our first and only child). She is now 16 months old and doing beautifully. My problem is that I don't feel as though I have reached any sort of closure around the sadness and grief caused by her early birth.

I was just starting to show when she was born, and really feel as though I missed out on the *whole* pregnancy. To add to her early birth, I had to have a c-section, so I feel very unconnected to my daughter's birth. I feel as though I've missed out on something very important.

Right after her birth, just the sight of a very pregnant woman was enough to start the tears. Now when I think I am OK about the whole thing, I still find that a seemingly *innocent* situation will trigger my grief. Which tells me I am not really over it.

I would like to deal with this, as I know that it is important not to ignore these feelings. Maybe I will never get over the loss, but would like to know that I did my best to deal with it, and to move forward with that part of my life. How can I begin to get a handle on this and come to a place where I feel OK about what happened?

Pregnancy and birth are life changing experiences. It is often difficult in our society to grieve a traumatic childbirth process because we are told that because the baby is healthy there should be no remorse! In essence, women are often made to feel guilty if they have a need to work through childbirth trauma at all.

Pregnancy and childbirth are also preparation for motherhood. In your case, both the readiness for labor and meeting your baby were severely curtailed. In addition to the crisis accompanying your daughter's prematurity, this abbreviation of personal development could have left you reeling. It is natural that after the first crisis resolves, your feelings about losing the normal developmental period of the last trimester are surfacing. This kind of delayed grieving usually takes place when you are feeling safely bonded to your child. First birthdays commonly bring up these feelings, as does contemplation of a second pregnancy.

In my book, "An Easier Childbirth" are visualization exercises for completing unfinished experiences of labor and birth. Read through these and see if any are useful to you. Know that your feelings are normal, and unsupported in our present society. Working through these feelings of loss around an important and formative feminine experience is necessary for your self esteem. Recovery of what was lost of ourselves in any physically and emotionally traumatic event is a critical part of re-integration, or healing. The word "healing" is derived from the Old English, which literally translates to mean "to bring together", "to synthesize"...to make "whole". You are in the process of making yourself whole again.

Be patient with yourself. The process of healing will present itself in stages. Perhaps you are just now feeling safe enough with your child to experience the first stage of loss for yourself around the childbirth event. You may notice that subsequent birthdays also are cause for some review and that when you are pregnant again, these feelings resurface strongly for your consideration. If possible, seek an expert in prenatal counseling to assist you during the subsequent pregnancy and birth. ( I would be happy to provide you with a list of the prenatal counseling graduates I have trained who specialize in this area, should you desire it at that time). Be kind to yourself. Childbirth is an extraordinary event despite its commonality. Do not expect yourself to be done with it quickly. Like any life event of great magnitude, it takes time to integrate. Any pressure to "get over it" is counterproductive, but indicative of our societal view that the event of childbirth is itself insignificant.

Below is a brief excerpt from my article, "Childbirth: The Ordinary Miracle" published in the Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal. It underscores the significance of the childbirth event on a woman's psyche, and the need for addressing rather than ignoring a woman's need to process the experience.

from: CHILDBIRTH: THE ORDINARY MIRACLE: "......Childbirth is and always will be a woman's experience. .....It is an experience of sufficient power to generate tremendous amounts of anxiety, fear, excitement and anticipation. Labor is not by it's nature, a neutral event. Our experience of ourselves and our sense of personal identity is in constant flux with our life's unfolding. Because of the intensity of such an experience as childbirth and all that it entails, it is one that will help formulate a woman's identity. Like any powerfully significant event in our lives, it has the potential for mastery or it can overwhelm, empower or devastate. .....A woman needs opportunity to explore the relationship to her changing body and identity .......

There is no right method or experience. There is a basic need to psychologically metabolize all that is happening!.......Giving birth will tend to be integrative or disintegrative, depending on the support, preparation and acceptance of her feelings before, during and after the birth. Her sense of maintaining psychological wholeness throughout the labor, whatever the method or kind of birth, is key to a positive sense of self. Giving birth is an experience of great magnitude. It naturally follows that the more intact a woman feels emotionally, the easier it is for her body to adapt to the intensity of the labor, as heightened amounts of fear can give messages in some women for the brain to shut off labor. Self-esteem is a part of health...

.......To support women's self-esteem through this very important transition to motherhood, we must begin prenatally and continue through the postpartum period. The only hindrance to addressing this is the UNconscious societal belief that this is not an experience which warrants such attention. Perhaps it is missed because it is such a common experience---this miracle that is pregnancy and birth---that we forget that it is an incredibly powerful and unknown force in so many ways. Perhaps we mistake the scientific ability to describe an event for understanding its essence"..........."

by Gayle Peterson,
appearing on ParentsPlace.com
published by Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal Winter 1996

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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