The piece was originally published on Mail & Guardian
In November 2014, Wanjiru Kihusa went into labour when she was only 20 weeks pregnant and delivered a stillborn baby girl. She describes it as a harrowing experience. The following year, she became pregnant again and had a miscarriage at eight weeks. After experiencing this second loss, she says life lost its colour and she felt no one understood the amount of pain she was in.
Wanjiru’s feelings are common to those who go through pregnancy and infant loss. Despite the fact that up to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, the lack of conversation about this often leads individuals to believe they are to blame. Feelings of failure, shame, anger, guilt, longing, dependency and insecurity, among others, are typical emotions. Depression is very common among those who have a miscarriage or deliver a stillborn child and is something that affects millions of women worldwide.
These women also have to deal with societal ignorance about child- loss grief. According to Wanjiru, the death of a child, just like that of an adult, does not go away quickly, yet people around you move on fast while you are left drowning.
“When a baby is born, we visit the parents and celebrate with them. But when a baby dies, we pretend like nothing happened. We want the bereaved parents to move on as quickly as possible. We even suggest that they should quickly get pregnant again,” she said.
Wanjiru even encountered people who wonder why parents grieve after a miscarriage. They make insensitive comments like, “The baby wasn’t even fully formed,” thinking they are consoling the parents but forgetting that a human being can never be replaced.
The grieving parents may also have to deal with myths. In Kenya, Wanjiru found that child loss is surrounded by stigma because some people believe there is something wrong with a woman who has had recurrent losses. Indeed, recurrent child loss is seen as a curse or punishment from God.
In most traditional African cultures, these feelings are exacerbated because the worth of a woman is often determined by the children she carries to term. Those who fail to give birth may face divorce and “replacement” by a second wife who can bear children. Most women who experience early pregnancy loss also have to deal with societal beliefs and myths that the loss was a result of promiscuity by the woman or “curses to her seed.”
After her second loss, Wanjiru began blogging about child loss and, in the process, launched the organisation Still A Mum in October 2015. Her organisation provides counselling as well as physical and virtual support group meetings for parents who have experienced loss. They also engage medical experts to ensure no recurrent losses happen.
For far too long there has been virtually no support systems to assist women and families that go through these types of losses. In most workspaces, for instance, families rarely receive leave days to grieve. But, thanks to people like Wanjiru, these losses are starting to be morewidely acknowledged.
Globally, October 15 is a day set aside to remember the lives of babies lost during pregnancy, during birth or soon after. It’s also a day to raise awareness and spark conversations about issues those who have lost a baby go through and how to help them in their healing journey.
For the second year running, the Still A Mum initiative will be marking this day by planting trees with parents in memory of babies gone too soon.
At a global level, maternal health programmes and targets under the sustainable development goals should be broadened beyond increasing safe delivery and care of newborn babies to include women and their partners who have not been able to have a live, healthy baby. Maternal health should be as much about taking care of the mother and her partner through loss as it is ensuring a mother and baby are safe and alive.
At an individual and local level, friends and family need to show up for those who have lost their babies and legitimise their grief.
More public education needs to be done to destigmatise the losses, to take away the shame and blame and to explain the uncontrollable biological reasons for such losses.
Hospitals should also ensure that there is a counsellor who speaks to parents before they are discharged.
Other types of counselling for the parents should be available to help them through their grief and assist them in looking for happiness.
Initiatives such as Still A Mum are a good example of how organisations can help. No one who is grieving should feel isolated, alone or to blame. They should feel supported.
Sitawa Wafula is a mental health consultant who runs My Mind My Funk, a mental health resource hub. She is also a TED Speaker and an Aspen New Voices Fellow.