Partners in Grief

 

People respond to my career as a labor and delivery nurse in one of two ways. They either exclaim that I must love my job and that it must be incredible to be part of the miracle of birth or they ask how I deal with the loss of an infant. Honestly, I have the best job in the world and the worst. Several years ago, I was trained by the Gundersen Health System in a program called Resolve Through Sharing (RTS) because I felt like I wasn’t able to adequately support grieving parents. This evidence-based, compassion-first approach to bereavement care was created in 1981 and currently over 50,000 healthcare professionals have been trained through them globally. After experiencing two losses myself and caring for many parents as they grieve the loss of their littles, I am relieved to see this conversation happening more and the supportive community growing.


One topic that is only beginning to see research and acknowledgement though, is that of partner grief. Little research has been done but there are already some emerging themes. It was generally found that while men reported many of the same feelings of grief, depression, stress and anxiety as women, they tended to have less intense and less enduring levels of these psychological outcomes than did women. Due to societal norms, men also tended to fill the role of “supporter” and tried to shelter their partner, unfortunately often at the expense of their own health. 

Whether the loss happened in the first few weeks or with a full term stillbirth, the grieving process was the same.

Men also experienced high anxiety and depressive symptoms during subsequent pregnancies but these were likely to subside after birth. Some of the things that determined a partner’s level of grief were whether or not a pregnancy was planned or welcomed and the health of the relationship. Whether the loss happened in the first few weeks or with a full term stillbirth, the grieving process was the same. 


We were able to ask Tim Elliott, a journalist from Madison, Wisconsin, about his experience and his openness was refreshing and reflective of what researchers are finding.    

 

How would you describe your emotions following your loss and did any of them surprise you? 

 

My first reaction was to make sure I was there for my wife, Lindsey. I almost didn't care about how I felt. How she felt was far more important. She needed my support now more than ever and I completely ignored any emotions I had so I could focus all of my attention and energy on her. It's almost like you switch into survival mode...but for your spouse. Anything I felt or was going to feel didn't matter...I would process that later. Her physical, mental, and emotional well-being was all that mattered to me in the immediate aftermath of losing a pregnancy. My emotions would eventually catch up with me. I still think that this approach was best, at least for me, because I wanted to reassure Lindsey that we could do anything as long as long as we did it together. I eventually was able to open up with her about my feelings and how I felt helpless. As a husband, you promise to protect your wife from anything. But in this case, you can't take her pain away and you can't experience what she is experiencing. 

 

What did you feel your role was in the grieving process? During a subsequent pregnancy? 

 

I felt my role was to listen. As I man, I can't fathom what it is like to be pregnant and lose a child. So anything she was feeling, I wanted her to be able to express it. I often found myself afraid of saying the wrong thing but then I learned sometimes not saying anything is the best way to go. Just being there, listening intently, and giving her my full attention was my approach. If she asked for space, I gave it to her. If she wanted to go out somewhere, I said let's go. After our second or third loss, that's when my emotions caught up with me. I cried. I grieved. It all became very overwhelming. I tried to allow myself to let my emotions flow. If I felt like crying, I cried. If I wanted to talk about what happened, I did. I didn't want to ignore my emotions forever. 

 

 Did you find any coping mechanisms to be helpful? Did you feel supported and that you were allowed to grieve? How or how not?

I don't think anything specific helped me cope. I'd say just being able to talk freely about our experience helped. I connected with other couples who have gone through something similar. That also helped. Sometimes just a fetch session with my dog in the backyard helped me feel centered. I've always felt pretty in touch with my emotions so I didn't hesitate to grieve or express myself when I wanted. 

 

What would you want others to know or how would you encourage others experiencing similar loss?  

 

I remember feeling very annoyed with the cliches people would say. "Just keep at it"..."everything happens for a reason..." "it's in god's plan..." I became irritated when people said those things because it sounded very hollow and meaningless to me. But then I realized for a lot of people, this is an uncomfortable topic. It's hard to know what to say. And they didn't mean any harm. They were just trying to help. So I'd say let people help you. Don't get worked up over their "advice" and/or comments on your situation. Your experience is yours alone. Only you can decide how you're going to process your emotions. Pregnancy loss is brutal. But in a way, my wife and I are closer because of it. 

 

Tim, Lindsey, and their bundle of joy, Ty!

Join the Wumblekin community on Facebook and Instagram and share your story with us. And if your experience doesn’t look like this, we would love to hear that! Families look different and roles don’t always follow this pattern, but that’s the beauty of community.

 

 

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