The Long Term Impact of Baby & Child Loss on Marriage and Adult Mental Health
Posted June 24, 2014
When I look at family photographs, I am sometimes struck as much by absence as by presence. I hasten to add that I do not mean this in a morbid way. The complex grace in my life brings me daily to my knees. In this apparent focus on loss, I mean that nothing underscores absence more than presence, and I just want not to forget. So as I hold the thumb-worn edges of these sepia pictures, I do wonder still at the losses – at the ghosts or spirits or aspirations or people we cannot see. This habit of trying to glimpse the unseen was initially personified to me by my Aunt Emily who died as an infant, as the result of an infection she contracted in the hospital shortly after her birth.
There are no pictures of Emily. Her death, while not a secret, hovered in and around that place of family lore where the facts themselves are common knowledge, but a deeper conversation, a true comprehension, remains elusive.
There are many good reasons for this lack of meaningful conversation about baby loss. There is certain humility in this awareness of human limitation. For who, really, can understand the death of a child? Many years after Emily’s death, the minister speaking at my own son’s funeral would refer to this kind of death as a sort of tear in the fabric of universal comprehension. I don’t remember his exact words, but I liked that he was saying that he could not explain why we were there, gathered in a church on a frigid December day, marking (because it is hard to say remembering), a life never lived.
Studies demonstrate that loss, including infant loss, is likely to reverberate through the lives of effected individuals for decades, placing people at a heightened risk for depression and maladaptive coping mechanisms. In Long-Term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parents’ Adjustment in Midlife (Rogers, Floyd, Greenberg, et al) people who had lost a child were followed for several decades. Researchers concluded that: “[T]he death of a child is a traumatic event that can have long-term effects on the lives of parents.” Specifically, parents reported more depressive episodes, more health problems, and a higher rate of marriage disruption.
According to Marriage and Cohabitation Outcomes After Pregnancy Loss (Katherine J. Gold, Ananda Sen & Rodney Hayward): “[P]regnancy loss affects many couples every year. This is the first national study to establish that parental relationships have a higher risk of dissolving after a miscarriage or stillbirth, compared with a live birth.” Notable too is their finding that the effect of a miscarriage is likely to impact a marriage within two to three years, and the effect of a stillbirth is likely to persist for a decade or more.
My Aunt Emily’s death had occurred decades prior to my own birth, and I was a child when it entered into my conscious mind. I did not, because I could not, consider its import. Growing up, I knew there was a grief that hung on grandfather as though he carried a weight he could not set down. I saw echoing sadness too in the pictures of my grandmother who seemed to me to be charismatic and troubled in equal measure. Often photographed holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, she died young in a house fire and I never knew her, although in the years since the loss of my son I have often wished that I had.
My grandparents’ marriage failed some years after Emily’s death. I cannot say whether the death of their first child was the reason for the failure of their marriage. I have no way of knowing that.
Here is what I do wonder though: and I put it high on the list of strange assumptions we choose to accept about baby/child death and grief. I have often noticed that when people once or twice removed from the bereaved describe this type of loss experienced by a close relative several generations ago (think: late night talks by the fire with relative who is much older), they assert that responses to loss “were different then.” I cannot believe that this is true unless they mean to say that losses were more buried, even less discussed and commensurately even more painful. I simply cannot imagine they were really any less painful for those who face this isolating, bewildering loss. All manner of coping mechanisms in such a vacuum would make absolute sense, with a search for meaning stretching from church/synagogues etc. to bars and encompassing everything in between.
The STILL Project, a documentary and media project committed to promoting conversations about pregnancy loss and infant death (www.STILLproject.org) examines these and other questions. Their first released documentary short film, Meah Lane, looked specifically at the loss of an infant at just twenty days. The film shows how this death became the catalyst for healing three generations of women as they learned to talk about losses never before discussed. Says STILL Project producer Carrie Fisher-Pascual, “Meah Lane serves as just one example of how grief can give way to a richer understanding of life, but only when the bereaved feel free to express their grief as the natural part of humanity it is.”
I still wonder at family photos. especially my own. Every year at holiday time we comb through twelve months of digital pictures. My husband makes the first cut. We both know that our lives involve an aspect of remembering what was lost even as we celebrate what was gained. When the holiday card comes back from the printer, I am always struck by the lack of one of my children. I will never have a complete family photograph. I have struggled to know how best to convey this truth to my living children. I could never find the words. But then I remembered An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. Her last lines perfectly express loss and subsequent bounty: “[I]t is a happy life but someone is missing/[I]t is a happy life and someone is missing.”