The grief that accompanies stillbirth or infant loss isn’t reserved for the birthing parent — partners also feel this loss deeply.
Everything changes the moment you and your partner hold a positive pregnancy test. Whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned, it’s natural to visualize the life growing from those tiny cells. You can’t help but imagine what the future holds for you and your baby.
When a loss occurs at any point in the pregnancy, it is devastating. Yet stillbirth (loss occurring after 20 weeks’ gestation) can be particularly shattering for families. We spoke with people who have been through this unique experience, and they shared what helped them the most.
If you are grieving the loss of your baby, supporting your partner through the experience of stillbirth, or know someone experiencing any of the above, this article is meant to validate what you’re feeling and offer resources to help you process your grief.
As the non-birthing partner, things may have already felt somewhat surreal during the pregnancy since your physical body didn’t undergo the same shifts that the birthing parent has endured.
Some non-birthing partners have found that disconnection carried over into their experience of the loss. One father said, “The hardest part wasn’t the loss itself, but watching [his] wife grieve.”
There is also the added responsibility of supporting the birthing parent, who may be recovering physically from the pregnancy or birth.
Please remember that you are grieving also.
No matter when loss happens — if it is an early stillbirth or at term, if you were the carrying parent or the non-carrying partner — loss is loss, and your grief is valid.
What is a stillbirth, and how common is it?
A stillbirth is defined as fetus loss or death occurring after 20 weeks’ gestation and up to birth. They can occur in utero or during the labor and birthing processes.
Rates remain high in some countries, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Still, UNICEF has promising data showing rates of “term” stillbirths (those occurring beyond 37 weeks of pregnancy) going down overall globally due to medical advances.
Still, the rates of miscarriages and early-late stillbirths (any loss before 37 weeks) remain steady across countries and variables.
Despite societal institutions not fully understanding the long-term psychological effects of stillbirth on non-carrying family members, the impact of the loss is on par with losing a child of any age. Thus it is crucial for you to take the time to honor and allow your pain to occur while you continue to engage in the routines of your life.
There are not always laws or policies to protect parents’ jobs after such a loss. For example, one father told Healthline that he had to go straight back to work after losing his daughter at birth.
It’s important to note that some research has found that reengaging in daily routines (such as work, social routines, and hobbies) often helps grieving people to do better over time.
This is because maintaining identity in the face of loss, and finding meaning in those routines, can help some people learn to live with their grief rather than try to compartmentalize it or disassociate from it.
In fact, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5)” now recognizes prolonged grief as prolonged grief disorder.
Everyone grieves differently, and grief is far from linear.
The non-birthing partner’s experience with loss is not talked about as commonly as the birthing parent, but your grief is just as real.
Below, we’ve listed some tools to help you process the grief you’re feeling. We hope these tips will help you find the support you need during this challenging time.
There are a wide variety of books on the subject of grief. Some are more clinical, while others are more spiritual. Some are more specific, geared toward infant or child death, while others are more general.
Multiple non-carrying parents we spoke with found solace in the resources of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who codified the “Five Stages of Death” and studied grief extensively.
Healthline spoke with non-carrying partners who’ve experienced loss, and these are some of the books they found most helpful for their healing.
- “Unexpecting: Real Talk on Pregnancy Loss” by Rachel Lewis
- “Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby” by Deborah L. Davis
- “On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, & their Own Families” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
- “Spirit babies: How to Communicate with the Child You Are Meant to Have” by Walter Makichen
- “You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Break-Up, Divorce, or Death” by Louise Hay and David Kessler
- “The Other Side of Sadness” by George Bonanno
A common outcome of stillbirth bereavement is “
You can find local in-person grief groups and virtual groups.
Facebook was really helpful for one father who did not have time to attend dedicated in-person groups but found comfort in reading the discussions and comments at his own pace.
Non-birthing partners tend to have the added responsibility of being a caregiver and support for the birthing parent. A
Some styles of individualized therapy that have been empirically proven to help with grief are:
complicated grief therapy cognitive behavioral therapy
- behavioral activation therapy
- psychedelic therapy
It is not unusual to have a different grieving style than your partner and for this to cause some additional discordance.
Attending couples therapy can help you both understand what the other is feeling and learn tools for how to support one another.
There is sometimes an unexpected “ripple effect throughout the family,” as one parent described.
Other children may be affected by your family’s loss, as well as close grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Family therapy offers a group setting format for everyone to share their experiences with the guidance of a trained moderator, so no one person is responsible for the others.
Ceremonies or rituals
As mentioned earlier, working with grief is a very individual process. What works for some may not work for others.
Having some kind of yearly ritual to mark the anniversary of an infant loss can be grounding for many families. For others, having a ceremony every year may prolong their grief.
One family that spoke with Healthline takes annual hikes. Another family visits the beach on what would have been their daughter’s birthday. For these families, a yearly ritual helps them.
You can choose to honor your baby’s estimated due date or death date if they differ. One family preferred to honor the day the baby was thought to be conceived, as their birth and corresponding death date were the same and, therefore, too painful.
One parent shared with Healthline that they wrote letters to their baby, which they included in the cremation process and ceremony.
The same family also suggested continuing to write to the baby as though they were still alive.
Music and movement, such as dance, have been shown to be effective ways of working with grief, too.
Look to nature
It can feel impossible to wrap one’s head around the idea that babies can die.
When we look at the experiences of other animals, we are reminded that we are all a part of the ongoing cycle of life and death.
One parent we spoke with found this truth comforting, saying, “It is not unlike when a baby bird falls out of the nest. We are a species all the same.”
Although non-birthing partners may only bare witness to the physical changes that occur when losing a baby in utero or during birth, the psychological and emotional impact of infant loss can be just as lasting and impactful for the non-birthing partner.
Please remember that just because you didn’t carry your baby does not mean you lost any less.
Loss is loss, and grief is grief. No one can nor should dictate what you are feeling. Advocate for yourself to have the time, space, and tools you need to work with your grief.
Also, allow yourself to feel all the emotions that come alongside that loss. Some days you may be crying, but on others, you may be laughing. Allow it all, and allow what you feel to change over time. There is no one right way to grieve, nor is there a timeline. Rest assured, deep within, you know what you need to begin healing.