By: Brooke Taylor Duckworth
This month, I wanted to ask a professional therapist about coping with baby loss, and no one seemed better equipped to discuss this subject than a therapist who is also a bereaved mama. My friend, Lindsey Antin, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California. We became friends through blog comments and exchanging e-mails when her first child, Margaret, was stillborn around the same time as my first daughter, Eliza. Here are my questions—and, most importantly, her answers—in a conversation about loss, grief, therapy, and moving forward without ever forgetting your baby.
- Could you tell us about your family and share your daughter Margaret’s story?
My daughter Margaret was stillborn at 38 weeks in 2010. She was my first child and I’d had a routine, healthy pregnancy. At one of my last prenatal checkups the nurse was unable to locate her heartbeat. I had no idea this happened to babies. After labor, delivery, and eventually an autopsy, nobody was able to find anything wrong with either of us. It shattered my life and changed everything, including how I practice psychotherapy. I’ve since had two sons who are now 6 and 4.
- Could you tell us a little bit about the kind of work you do?
My practice specializes in solution-focused therapy, and I teach cognitive behavioral therapy as well. Basically these are both considered strength based therapies, which help people solve problems using skills I teach and positive things already a part of them. It’s different from traditional insight-oriented therapy, which is rooted in a person’s past. Obviously our past shapes us, but I find most clients — especially those who are grieving — want to make their present and future lives better. My goal is to provide useful, practical skills to the people I see — as well as help them get through times that feel unsurvivable.
- As a therapist, did you feel a need to see a therapist after Margaret died? Why or why not?
I saw a therapist, but not right away. It is normal, I’ve learned, to feel that nothing is up to the task of helping someone go on living after their baby has died. How could therapy, or new pajamas, or getting out of town help? I did all these things and just came to realize that I needed a therapist to help me focus. Every week she helped me do the unthinkable: contain and process the life I was in now.
It’s very important that someone who has lost a child has someone outside of the usual friend and family unit who can “hold” all of their feeling and thoughts, because the baby you were expecting is a grief that everyone in your life is bearing in their own way. It is such an unusual kind of grief that I needed a very skilled person to help me with my other relationships, too. It could be a therapist, more distant family friend, or someone you meet who has gone through the same thing. It felt like people who had the same experience came out of the woodwork after this happened.
- Has losing a child changed the way you relate to your clients in therapy?
It’s given me the ability to sit with really deep, unchangeable grief and not feel inadequate or tiny in its presence. I have gone on to keep living my life, and can hold that hope for my clients. Also just becoming a parent changes perspective on so many things.
- From the perspective of a therapist, is there any specific advice you would offer to a newly bereaved parent?
The life that you know has been turned upside down. You may be feeling as if you’re living on a planet that you didn’t know existed. However, unfortunately there are many of us who have experienced some of what you’re going through. People whose babies have died speak their own language. I was reluctant to join them online or in support group at first as my pain felt supremely unique and awful. Now I know through my work that the people who are the most stuck, the people who stay the longest in their pain are the ones who feel unique in their experience. Of course everyone has their individual story. But being open to the fact that you are not alone, especially if getting pregnant again is a future goal, really helps. If you’re not interested in a support group, find someone who specializes in perinatal loss.
Also your partner, family, and friends are probably grieving in their own way. They may not even seem like they are grieving at all. Try to not make any important decisions during this time and allow everyone some space to do their own thing. There will be some real gems in your life who know just how to be with you. And then there will be some real disappointments.
- Paying out of pocket for therapy can be expensive–do you have advice for those who don’t have mental health coverage?
Talk to a therapist you want to work with about the possibility of a reduced fee, and consider a local university or counseling agency that has training programs where you might see an intern. Interns are freshly educated, eager to help, and do great work.
Open Path (www.openpathcollective.org is a low-fee therapist collective that has a one-time membership fee of $49 and then the ability to seek out therapists who maintain reduced fee spots in their practices.
Your local hospital might be able to provide some support groups, including SAND (Support After Neonatal Death) or Share. Learn more about Share’s online support groups or find a Share chapter near you.
- We talk about “healing” and grief as a process, but we also know grief is not linear and is often experienced in waves. In your experience, is there a timeline for grief? Or could you speak to how it changes over time?
The sadness that you feel over the death of your child is not something you will ever get over. However, I can say without hesitation that it feels different as the months and years go by. It will not always be this way. I think of it now as a familiar feeling that comes to visit. I know what it feels like, that it’s not going to last this deep or dark forever, and therefore I can use its visits as at time to mourn, to act in my daughter’s memory, and to imagine the life I thought we’d have. The grief becomes its own kind of comfort and presence that reminds me of how much I miss her.
There is a rule of thumb is that 3-6 months following a death is the hardest. I found this to be true; it wasn’t that people forgot that my baby died, but they were eager to see me pregnant again, to talk of happy things, and to return to the planet we all had been living on together. Living through babyloss is a series of emotional landmines. I never know when they are going to come in casual conversation or something that just moves me to devastation. But over time they come less. For example, now that my sons are older, people I meet have stopped asking me if I’m going to “try for a girl.” These kinds of innocent comments used to flatten me. Time does bring some relief. And so does having living children who can be part of a family that mourns the loss of your baby.
- Is there anything you wish you had been told–by a therapist or a bereaved mom–in the early days after Margaret died?
It’s hard to believe in anything hopeful after your baby dies. My greatest wish is that I had been told more about how clumsy others are with the death of a baby, and to give everyone some allowance for saying or doing the “wrong” things. I found myself angry and resentful and lonely and let down by people who probably just didn’t know how to be around me. Nobody had a map for what happens after a baby dies. Now I do. I’ve met friends as part of this awful club and worked with clients and have regained my gratitude and belief system in a world I loved that I thought would be forever lost. At some point with all of my clients I’ve been able to say, “It’s still a beautiful world out there, even when it humbles you and breaks your heart.”
About Lindsey Antin
Lindsey Antin is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist specializing in Solution-Focused counseling in Berkeley, California. She teaches practical, strength-based skills for many topics and issues, including grief and transitions following medical diagnoses and loss. A mother of three, her first child was stillborn at full term. Learn more at www.lindseyantin.com
About Brooke Taylor Duckworth