Breaking the taboo on stillbirth and miscarriage
Breaking the taboo on stillbirth and miscarriage Image Credit: Connie Kutz/ Unsplash

It affects as many as one in four women in the UAE, but miscarriage and infant loss still remain relatively taboo topics. The searing grief that so many parents endure following the tragic end of a pregnancy often goes undisclosed and undiscussed, making a devastating experience even worse because of the perceived stigma and consequent isolation.

But sadly these are far less isolated incidents than most of us realise. It is estimated that between 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage before 20 weeks (the spontaneous expulsion of a foetus from the womb before it is able to survive independently), and about 2.6 million stillbirths (defined as the loss of a baby after 20 completed weeks of pregnancy in the US or after 24 weeks of pregnancy in the UK) happen globally each year.

Parents often start dreaming about their baby long before it is even conceived and losing a child at any stage can be utterly debilitating, but feeling unable to discuss it lest you make others feel uncomfortable - or even fearing that your grief may be questioned or invalidated by the judgement of others - compounds an already agonizing situation.

Which is why it was such a groundbreaking moment when supermodel and public figure Chrissy Teigen - who had been publically documenting the progress of her pregnancy with her third child with singer John Legend on social media – announced their tragic pregnancy loss on Twitter on 1 October 2020.

“Driving home from the hospital with no baby. How can this be real?”

Accompanied by black and white photos of herself and husband John Legend grieving in hospital, the raw immediacy of her tweet tore through the silence that usually shrouds the topic of miscarriage, prompting almost one million reactions and 30,000 retweets of support and sympathy.

And, painful and heartbreaking as it is, reading about infant loss and public figures talking about it openly is helpful for the millions of women who otherwise feel like they are suffering alone.

“People like Chrissy Teigen putting her situation and voice out there so openly definitely helps,” says Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, founder and CEO of UAE-based PR firm Tish Tash public relations, whose daughter tragically died at birth in May 2019. “But the biggest challenge really is that people don’t know what to say or do and so this often results in avoidance or saying nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing.”

Where does the stigma come from?

Women who have suffered a pregnancy or infant loss talk about feeling shame, blaming themselves for the tragedy, or feeling unable to share their grief in case it is judged by others as not being legitimate enough.

But miscarriages are almost never anybody’s fault, and the strange lack of awareness around miscarriage and stillbirth means that many people have no appreciation of the sheer trauma experienced by a woman who has had to go through the body changes and pain of pregnancy, labour and childbirth without a live baby at the end of it.

In the majority of cases though the taboo doesn’t seem to come from a bad place, says Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, but from a sense of awkwardness. “Generally we as humans don’t like to talk about difficult or horrible things and so in avoiding it we end up leaving those going through this feeling alone and as if there is something wrong with them,” she says.

“Also there is no worse conversation-killer than telling someone you lost a child. Even 16 months on for me since our daughter died at birth I dread people asking us if we have children as I still haven’t gotten comfortable with the answer I give. Most of the times I do say no as it’s not a conversation I want to have and also I don’t want people to feel awkward as they do.”

Our discomfort with pregnancy and infant loss as a society also means that those who do share their grief can experience a backlash, adds Natasha: “I have friends who have been through the same who were trolled and bullied online for sharing a photo of their stillborn baby, with people being very upset and disgusted by it.”

Again, it is our ignorance as a society that causes the suffering: “What people don’t realise is that this is someone’s child and they want them to be remembered and they want them to have existed, so whilst you may not be comfortable with seeing a stillborn baby (in the majority of cases they look like a sleeping baby and not scary), it is part of the grieving process for parents and it can be important.”

Breaking the taboo

It’s important to raise awareness of how common miscarriage and stillbirth are, and of the trauma and grief that can affect the parents. “If we don’t talk about difficult things be is death, divorce, debt, critical illness or child loss then we can never get to a place of it being more socially acceptable,” says Natasha Hatherall-Shawe. “If we talk about it, whilst we may not always know what to say, it opens up a new space for openness, honestly and ultimately healing for those going through the unimaginable.”

Greater awareness can not only help affected parents to process their grief, but it can help their friends, colleagues and employers understand how to respond to them, paving the way for policy changes such as the progressive 2017 decree of the Supreme Legislation Committee in the Emirate of Dubai, which has a provision of up to 60 days’ maternity leave for a female government employee who experiences and miscarriage or stillbirth.

“The statistics of who infant loss and miscarriage will impact are significant. It will happen to someone you know or even yourself, so we need to learn how to deal with this,” says Natasha. “The percentage of marriages that end after baby loss is so high too and a lot of this comes from the inability to talk and communicate and individuals dealing with their grief in different ways. If we open up communication lines and we can all talk about difficult things whilst it doesn’t change what happened, it can help with the grieving process a great deal.”

October has been designated as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month since 1988, when US President Ronald Regan declared that it should be used as a time to stand beside all mothers who have experienced the pain of losing a child. Reagan said: “When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them.”

More than 30 years later and we still have no name for it. We have no language with which to comfort parents who have suffered such a loss, and no guidebook of how to treat them. And this silence creates more pain.

It’s crucial that we start to demystify and destigmatize miscarriage and infant loss. It will be awkward, heartbreaking and clumsy, but while nothing can soothe the hurting soul of a parent who has lost a child, we need to open up space for those who are suffering to grieve openly, so that they can receive the support that they need.