There’s a mysticism that surrounds rainbow babies, that their bright, beautiful presence can wash away the pain and darkness that preceded them. Yet for parents who’ve suffered a pregnancy or neonatal loss and subsequently welcomed the birth of a new baby, those feelings of joy often get tangled up with a whole lot of grief.
We lost our first daughter, Arabella, when I was 22 weeks pregnant, and the only thing that got us through the endless tests and medical procedures was the thought that we’d be able to try again. Indeed, as soon as I got the all-clear from my obstetrician, we were back at it. Four months after Arabella’s passing – and the day after her original due date – I found out I was pregnant with our rainbow baby. In my more spiritual moments, I like to think some cosmic tag-teaming took place between the sisters.
This new little life growing inside me gave us focus, taking the edge off our heartache and allowing us to ascribe some sort of reason to our loss. In hindsight, however, we should have given ourselves more time to mourn our much-wanted first child. Without realising, by falling pregnant again so quickly, we’d simply pressed the pause button on our grief.
The first half of that second pregnancy was tough. I felt each twinge of nausea and muscle ache as something I was suffering unfairly. While friends who’d been pregnant around the same time as us welcomed their babies into their homes, I was back in the throes of the first trimester. And then, of course, I felt guilty for not feeling grateful.
Once we passed the 22-week mark, the anxiety eased up somewhat. Each doctor’s visit was a new experience, not something that could be compared with the first time around. And as the weeks progressed, I was able to enjoy this pregnancy – not so much as if my first had gone to term (that blissful ignorance had long since left the building), but asmuch as any scarred mama can.
When our beautiful rainbow baby bounded into the world, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. Our delivery room, I realise now, didn’t have the standard sound effects the midwives had come to expect. There were no squeals of joy or excited exclamations, for relief doesn’t announce itself in that way. It’s an exhalation. A heavy sigh. Until that moment, I wasn’t aware I’d been holding my breath for nine months.
We brought home our healthy, squishy human, and just like that, in the time-sapping, all-consuming way of newborns, Francesca became our world. When thoughts of Arabella popped into my head, as they frequently did, I felt ashamed for acknowledging them – as if missing her somehow made me want Francesca less. Knowing that Francesca wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the loss of her sister only complicated things further, so I did what many of us do: I buried those emotions. Deep.
Fast-forward 18 months, and I’m sitting on a couch in a hypnotherapist’s room seeking help for insomnia, which has come back with a vengeance since I returned to office life. I’m explaining to my therapist, Louisa Kiernander of Mind Solutions, that I’ve struggled with sleep for most of my adult life, and she notes that I’ve been in the high-pressure, deadline-driven publishing world since I finished university, some 14 years ago. The only reprieve, I say, came when I left a previous role as a magazine editor to become a freelance writer.
At this, Louisa looks up from her notepad. “Why did you leave that job?” It’s a simple enough question, but it catches me off guard. “I left because we lost our first baby,” I begin to explain. “And when I returned to work, I just couldn’t be there anymore… couldn’t stand the thought of working while I should have been on maternity leave.
From there, our session takes an unexpected turn. Here I am thinking all my stress and sleeplessness is down to getting the next issue off to print, when in fact I’ve been dragging around a rather sizeable lump of grief for the past two and a half years.
Through tears and half a box of tissues, Louisa taps into feelings of grief and loss that I’ve never truly recognised, or given the weight they deserve. She explains that delayed grief is a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Delayed grief is a form of protection,” Louisa says. “The sole purpose of the subconscious mind, which is where memories are stored, is to keep you alive, and part of that protection mechanism is to watch out for pain and danger. If there’s any hint of those, it forgets about everything else: forget food, forget water, forget leaving the house. You’re not functioning. But this can’t go on forever, so the subconscious mind starts looking for ways to deal with that pain. And that’s when we start to shove it in a box or bury it under the carpet…” as I had so successfully done.
Our counselling session concludes with 30 minutes of hypnotherapy (also known as relaxation therapy), which helps me to not only acknowledge but to nurture this grief, “to visit it and tend to it as if it were a garden,” Louisa suggests. “The thing with grief is it’s not a trauma that you ever want to work past. It’s something you want to carry with you, because it’s your last connection to that person, other than their memory. After all, grief is just love with nowhere to go.”
I’ve still got a way to go, but our sessions are helping me make room for both of my daughters in my life. And although we will never know why we lost Arabella, I now can’t imagine a world without Francesca, our sparkling, incandescent rainbow – and that right there is our silver lining.
How to cope with your conflicting emotions
Dr Rasha Bassim, Consultant Psychiatrist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre, shares tips on coping with the conflicting emotions of being a rainbow mum. “Pregnancy after a miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss is anything but easy. People may think that becoming pregnant again will lessen the pain of the loss, however it rarely, if ever, happens. Becoming pregnant again is simultaneously amazing and scary.
Expectant mums can feel excited and joyful, yet so afraid of losing this one too. Feelings of guilt are common, especially for feeling happy about this pregnancy. Yet, in my experience, mothers of rainbow babies are simply relieved and grateful that they were able to fall pregnant again. It’s important not to deny these feelings, but I would recommend dealing with them in the following ways:
Allow yourself to experience the rollercoaster of emotions and create space for grief. It is messy, unpredictable and raw and can show up in surprising ways when a woman becomes pregnant after a loss. Be gentle with yourself and let go of any judgement. Grieving the baby you lost and feeling excited about the new pregnancy is understandable.
Share how you are feeling with your medical provider, especially when worry gets in the way of everyday activities or prevents you from sleeping, eating, taking care of your family or functioning at work. When this happens, it’s time to get support.
Prepare for insensitive comments. Well-intentioned, yet often upsetting comments from family, friends and strangers can hurt. We live in a culture and society that is uncomfortable with death. When someone says something thoughtless, remember that while it’s directed at you, it has nothing to do with you.
Continued grief is normal. Any woman who has experienced loss knows no other pregnancy or child can replace the one she lost. So, there is a bitter sweetness to pregnancy after a loss: Gratitude, excitement, anticipation, sadness and anger. It is usually helpful to find a way to honour and remember the baby who was lost – a concrete gesture of keeping the lost baby part of the family can be a good idea.