The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Emotional trauma of miscarriage on men is often overlooked

(Axel Rangel Garcia for The Washington Post)
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After we arrived home from the hospital, my head pounded, my stomach cramped and my body bled. I had carried a baby for 13 weeks and then, after a sonogram showed no movement and no heartbeat, I’d endured a procedure to remove him from my body.

When my husband and I saw no motion on the ultrasound screen just the day before, we’d held each other and cried. But I now resented that my body, and not his, was experiencing the physical repercussions of our miscarriage.

Miscarriage, which by some estimates occurs in 1 in 4 pregnancies, can be a very painful experience for pregnant women — but less acknowledged is the pain their partners feel, too. Over the next months, I worked through my emotions and healed from physical symptoms of our miscarriage, but I sometimes forgot that my husband, Peter, had endured a big emotional trauma as well.

“There was the loss of what could have been; it was the loss of this dream,” he said, explaining the profound sense of loss he felt then. “All of a sudden it was ripped away from us in what felt like a really violent way.”

Too often, Will Courtenay, a clinical social worker and expert in men’s health, said in an email, “we deny and dismiss men’s vulnerable feelings of loss and sadness. It’s very easy then for men’s often subtle feelings of grief to get lost in the more obvious and physical experience of loss his partner has experienced.”

There is limited research on the psychological reactions of male partners after a miscarriage. The majority of these studies are focused on heterosexual cisgender men, so we know even less about the experience of men who identify outside of this traditional category.

But the studies available indicate that men often report the same feelings as women after a pregnancy loss. Like my husband, many men experience sadness, grief, stress, anxiety, and depression after their partner miscarries. In one study of 386 partners, 7 percent reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress one month after a pregnancy loss.

According to a research carried out by the University of College London and the Miscarriage Association (“UCL Survey”) on 160 partners of women who miscarried, 85 percent of them reported sadness, 63 percent grief and 58 percent shock after their partner’s pregnancy loss. Among them, 58 percent of the partners surveyed said they struggled to concentrate as a result of their emotional turmoil, 47 percent reported sleeping problems and 48 percent said it affected their work.

“When we knew that the kids were not going to survive outside the womb that early, all these grand plans that you have for your kids go out the window,” said Vernon D. Gibbs II, a blogger and children’s book author who 10 years ago lost twin boys at 19 weeks. “It was devastating for me.”

“I wondered if it was something on my end? Was it something deficient on me as a man? Was there something more I could have done to help my wife so that this wouldn’t have happened?” Gibbs said.

Grief is an individualized experience, experts point out. Like their partners, men may experience a wide range of emotions after a pregnancy loss including, for some, relief, said Dove Pressnall, a marriage and family therapist.

So it is not surprising that the way that men grieve is often not identical to their partners. “While grieving men can look like what we’d picture with someone grieving or depressed — like being sad, feeling hopeless or losing interest in things — grieving men can also be irritable and angry, working constantly, or drinking too much,” wrote Courtenay.

Men often do not grieve as openly as their female partners, research has found. According to one study of 323 men, after miscarriage men often displayed grief less openly than their partners, but they were more vulnerable to “feelings of despair” and “difficulty in coping,” and those feelings were worsened by having seen an ultrasound scan of the baby in utero and by the length of a pregnancy before miscarriage.

Research also shows that men’s grief often takes a back seat to the expectation that they support their partner who physically experienced the loss. “A common impulse in men is to try to be ‘the rock’ for their partner who has miscarried, which men often see as requiring them to put their own feelings aside. This is compounded by the social pressure men feel to not express pain, sadness and grief,” Courtenay wrote.

In the UCL Survey, almost half of the men surveyed said they didn’t share how they were feeling with their partner for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing her more stress. And almost a quarter did not talk about any feelings of loss or pain with their partner at all.

Jill Johnson-Young, a licensed social worker specialized in grief and a member of the LGBTQ community, noted that the experience of pregnancy loss is different for her gay male clients who hope to become parents through surrogates.

“They just get a phone call [if the surrogate suffers a miscarriage], and they don’t have a baby anymore. Their world is turned upside down,” Johnson-Young said. “They have each other and their role is to help each other with this loss that few people see as a real loss.”

While many men want to support their partners, it is important to create space for their experience, too. “When the feeling or belief is my experience is unimportant, that I need to set it aside and I need to focus on my partner, the experience is still there. That is where depression and anxiety can sneak in,” Pressnall said. “It is exhausting to hold one’s feelings to the side.”

In the months that followed our miscarriage, my husband and I separately shared our sadness with close family and friends, cried and tried to process the loss. But after a month or so, when my body had physically recovered, we also began to mourn together. There were random moments where one or both of us would cry and talk about what happened. His willingness to share his feelings of loss with me brought us closer.

The interactions that men have with others is critical to how they experience grief, according to a systematic review of existing literature on men’s grief after a pregnancy loss. The quality of the couple’s relationship, support of family and friends and a positive experience with the health-care system all influence a man’s grief experience following a mis­carriage. When any one of these factors weren’t good, the men reported stronger experience of post-miscarriage grief, the review found.

In one small 2019 study of men in Australia, whose partners had miscarried between three months and 10 years previously, most of the men reported feeling very alone, not wanting to burden their partner but unable to find others to talk to. They said male-oriented support networks could have helped them.

“As a male we’re probably . . . just like . . . I’ll be fine,” one participant told the researchers. “I’ll brush myself off and I’ll be all right . . . but deep down you’re not.”

The blogger Gibbs, who lost the twin boys, said such a network was key for him. “I had a strong community of family and friends who were supportive,” he said. “Talking to other dads that reached out to me, particularly fraternity brothers [from college] who I spoke with who had their own losses” also helped.

“I thought we needed to talk about this from a male perspective,” said Gibbs, about why he has chosen to write about his loss and encourage others to share their stories. “Men hurt in this situation, too.”

For some men, the opportunity to be a father again or to mentor a child can help to alleviate their grief, many fathers who have experienced miscarriage said.

“You never get over it completely because I do think about [our pregnancy loss] often, but you learn to accept what’s happened,” Gibbs wrote in an email. “I think the fact that I have three kids as well as the opportunity to be a fatherlike figure to other kids helps me greatly.”

In our case, nine months after our miscarriage, Peter and I got pregnant again. And then in September 2020, we had a second daughter. Of course we haven’t forgotten the baby we lost or the grief we both felt.

But “the only thing that sticks with me now is the fact that it was a boy and how it would have been different having a son rather than a daughter,” Peter said. “But that [feeling] is very fleeting because I am so happy with the girls.”

Physician: My miscarriage has made my commitment to women’s health even stronger

After miscarriage, I was rocked by depression. Like many other women, I didn’t get follow-up care for this loss.

Carolyn Hax: How do you grieve a miscarriage when you didn’t tell anyone you were pregnant?

Miscarriage is common. So why is it such an isolating experience?

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