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Being on edge​

A few months into a pregnancy that had been normal, Alice started to worry about the health of her baby. She felt something was wrong because she could not feel any movement. At the 6-month appointment, she was told her blood pressure was very high - something she had not suspected - and she should go to the hospital. Once there she lost the baby and became very sick.

Scott: “Our daughter was in a different country, struggling with the language, and concerned about the medical care in a different country. She had concerns that the baby was not doing well, and this was confirmed during a very scary appointment. We were basically on edge. We recognized this was more trauma than anyone can experience, especially with her first child, and it came to a crazy crescendo in the hospital. You just want to grab your child and hug them without stopping, but you can’t even be there.” Mary: “It was frightening when we learned Alice was in the hospital, and knowing there could be such terrifying complications that she could die. Trying to stay calm through that was so hard.” Scott: “We could not be with her. Alice has always been forthcoming, so she shared all the details with us. So we were worrying for, worrying with, worrying through, living through the same challenges that they were. But this sort of challenge, the loss of a child, it’s not spoken of, so you’re not prepared for it.”

Losing their grandchild and fear for their daughter’s life

When Alice almost died as she delivered a stillborn baby boy, Mary and Scott’s hearts shattered along with those of Alice and Alexander.

Mary: “We had bought tickets to go visit them for one month after this happened. Alice would have been seven months pregnant, and we would have seen her with this wonderful, full belly. That’s what we wanted to go for and then go back later that summer. As soon as the baby had been delivered, all I cared about was that she was okay. All I had then was her, and I wanted her to be okay. That distracted me from the deepest sorrow - the loss of the baby. The grief for him came in later. After she was well again, I could think about grieving the baby. I would think about this little baby, this little angel out there.” Scott: “Alice was so far away, and we said, ‘we’ll come immediately’. But she said, ‘you cannot come now. I can’t see you. I’m in the hospital and I need some time at home to heal and collect myself.’ I wish I could have done more as a parent with regard to understanding what this meant for Alice, that I had known more about grieving the loss of a child - it might have made things different.”

Initial coping with the loss

Even though grandparents can certainly be emotional in front of their child to express their shared sorrow, they cannot rely on him/her for support. Instead, grandparents can turn to their partner, close friends, or a grief counselor for comfort.

Mary: “ We would talk to each other at night. The loving support of our very closest friends was key in helping us cope with our loss and concerns for Alice’s recovery so far away in Sweden. Being able to talk freely with them about everything was so important. But, since we had been asked not to tell Alice was pregnant until her 5th month, very few people knew yet. I think shying away from sharing Alice’s loss of the baby with friends who hadn’t been told she was pregnant magnified my sadness and isolation.” Scott: “In talking with a close neighbor, she said to us, ‘In the future Alice will be of such great value to anyone else who has experienced this. She will have the capacity for compassion to understand and be of service to others.’ That was the first time I considered a gain from this. It was entirely a loss, but also a life experience that can lead to empathy. It was the first time I understood this.”

The same concept can be applied to grandparents. In time, as they encounter other grandparents experiencing the loss of a grandchild, they too can offer their support and guidance.

Grieving together

Once Alice and Alexander felt ready to face family, Mary and Scott flew to Sweden to spend time with them.

Mary: “For me that was the hardest thing once we were together. It was a week of everything, from crying and having some hard conversations, to laughing, to being out in nature. There were some good things that happened, but it was so tender and raw! The last Saturday we were there, we went with Alexander’s mom and Alice and Alexander to the place where the baby is buried. All the babies are buried in a sacred place together in a field of wildflowers, with no markings for visitors, in an old cemetery. You could hear the bells of the church nearby, and it was so important for us all to be together.” Scott: “After the baby died, one of the hardest things Alice shared with us was how hard it was to be so far away from her friend circle and so far away from us. She was struggling with the language, and had so looked forward to making friends with other young mothers. She had said, ‘Now I won’t have that.’ So we worried about her being so isolated.”

Need for rituals

Just as parents often develop rituals to remember their baby - lighting a candle, saying good night to the baby, planting a tree in the backyard, naming a star after the baby, for example - so do grandparents often need their own practices to honor their grandchild, sometimes on their own, and sometimes as a community.

Mary: “I realized as time went on that I needed something more. I needed a ceremony, something to make me feel whole again about losing a grandchild. By chance, I wound up discovering an annual memorial ceremony, a gathering for families who have lost a child, open to the public, near our home. There were about one hundred people there, there was music, performances by children, pediatricians were present...The program was so joyful and so thoughtful. That loving gathering gave each of us an opportunity to publicly acknowledge our lost child while surrounded by compassion and understanding. People come there, long after they have lost their baby. The heaviness in my heart lifted for the first time that day, and I would like other people to know about this.”

The ritual Mary describes, the National pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, occurs on October 15th. At 7pm on that day, people light a candle in honor of a baby who has died, creating a wave of light across different time zones and making them feel part of a community of “loss moms, fathers, grandparents and friends”.

Another day has been set aside for grieving mothers for whom Mother’s Day is a particularly sad day without their baby. On the Sunday before Mother’s Day, bereaved mothers, and by extension grandmothers, mark a day when they wish to be acknowledged as mothers and grandmothers.

Mary and Scott also shared an example of something they did in remembrance of their grandson: Mary: “We planted an apple tree in our backyard that summer, in memory of the baby. A small clay winged angel hangs from one of the branches. I love seeing it there as I garden, keeping me compact.”

For grieving parents and grandparents alike, these rituals help integrate their babies and grandchildren into their lives as they slowly rebuild their lives in between those meaningful moments.

Anxiety During a Subsequent Pregnancy

Shattered innocence

Just as parents who have had a baby loss can no longer approach a new pregnancy with innocent joy, grandparents too lose trust that all will be well. The grandparents’ emotions during a subsequent pregnancy parallel those of the parents expecting a baby. Mary and Scott’s journey during Alice’s next pregnancy was fraught with worry. Once again they felt on edge, especially because there were complications - some thyroid issues, risk of preeclampsia and a small-weight baby.

Mary: “I didn’t tell people that she was pregnant until she was six or seven months pregnant because I wanted to make sure everything was okay in this pregnancy first.”

Scott: “We got to experience the previous pregnancy all over again, with the understanding that preeclampsia was in her history and having known the experience of loss in the first pregnancy, and being aware of terror, the possibility of that once again. So it was a very different pregnancy from the first one. Were we on the same path as the first pregnancy? Did we have to prepare psychologically for the same thing? This was not the sort of pregnancy that we, as grandparents, could celebrate easily. As much as we would have loved this to be a glorious experience, we couldn’t.”

Physical symptoms of stress and other worries

Knowing how terrified and distressed Alice was about the pregnancy complications caused Mary to exhibit physical symptoms.

Mary: “Hearing her crying so hard made me want to cry. It was the worst period of my life, with so many unknowns. It was troubling because I knew that stress and upset couldn’t be good for the pregnancy. For me, my blood pressure went through the roof through this whole period.” Scott: “I too was very worried. After losing the baby we understood that it can be very tough on a couple, and that often couples don’t make it through that.”

Covid-19 as an added complication

Not being able to visit Alice during her second pregnancy because of the pandemic was very challenging for Mary and Scott. At the same time, they knew that one of the things that would relieve some of Alice’s worries was to know her parents were being careful and free of Covid.

Scott: “Fortunately both Alice and Alexander and ourselves had the luxury of not being people who were consistently exposed to Covid.The biggest effect of Covid was that they could not come to us if we got sick. Alice worried that we might get it, and needed us to be rocks for her. And we knew she felt more at threat being pregnant. So we were all very careful.” Mary: “We could not get sick because she could not come and be with us if we were dying.” Scott: “Not only could we not be there to console our daughter but, the six-hour time difference or more from her friends in the US, and not having Swedish friends there, was made worse by Covid. So we felt for our daughter’s loneliness. It was so distressing to know how alone she was. And she knew how many more months she would be suffering with the unknown. The fear dragged on. She was living this pregnancy running on empty because she was still grieving the loss of the baby.”

How these grandparents coped

Mary and Scott were able to identify several coping mechanisms which helped them make it through this challenging time - avoiding crises of their own, getting as much information from their daughter as possible, balancing out worry with optimism, and trusting in their daughter and son-in-law’s strength.

Mary: ”We could not have a crisis of our own during that time - that was reassuring to Alice.” Scott: “She needed a rock in her parents, and we felt good about how we were doing in that regard. We shared with her and gave her space when she needed it. We would ask her for what we should do, and I believe she was being honest when she would tell us how we could help. It was most important that we maintain a solid foundation.”

Scott: “The closeness we felt to Alice made her feel less isolated, and us less isolated. Also, it was very helpful for us to know we were getting as many details as possible. That eliminated many of the unknown aspects of this equation. So Alice’s willingness to share the details was very helpful.” Mary: “I also think it is a very good thing that we offer different things to our daughter as parents. She can count on each of us for different things that the other parent cannot do for her. I connected with her pain and anxiety, and tried often to soften those with loving communications and photos, anything that might shift her anxious frame of mind. Scott, on the other hand, has a great gift for listening well and asking thoughtful questions that are helpful to people sorting things out. He was able to do this with Alice and Alexander. And, very importantly, we trusted that they would do what was just right. We never gave our opinion.”

Some relief toward the end of the pregnancy

As soon as Alice was told the baby was small but “viable”, the tension eased for everyone.

Mary: “The last six weeks I began to relax because she would say, ‘She’ll be viable by this date…’ In my calendar I had written all the important dates. I think my blood pressure slowly started to go down during that time.” Scott: “As soon as we knew we were allowed to talk about Alice being pregnant and share that, then we could talk about all the lovely things about being pregnant with friends. I think maybe we had more confidence than Alice had in the last few months.” Mary: “The other thing that was comforting for us was that Alice’s husband was born prematurely and was very small. So, as soon as I found out that the baby was as big as Alexander when he was born, from then on I could relax.”

Finally, a healthy baby girl!

Once Alice and Alexander’s baby girl was safely delivered, great relief and joy spread through the family, and even the forced geographical distance and hearing about sleepless nights felt tolerable compared to the last two years of grief and anxiety.

Mary: “Every day was anguish until our granddaughter was born, and every day has been a joy since she’s been born. It’s the complete opposite of where we were before.” Scott: “We’re grateful for the technology that allows us to speak every day, and recognize we have more contact with our daughter in Sweden than most people have with their daughters in the next state or town.” Mary: “She said to me, ‘I will take no sleep, a tummy upset, anything. I am so happy to be a mother.” Scott: “Two days ago she called me and sent me a photograph, and she said, ‘I have the most wonderful photograph to share with you’. It brought me to tears - it was four mothers and four baby carriages, four brightly shining faces, and they are all English-speaking mothers. For me it was a dream come true for her. It will make such a difference for her, and for us to know that.” Mary: “We’re hoping they will be able to visit over the holidays!”


As this couple’s words illustrate, the grief grandparents experience when their son or daughter lose a baby during pregnancy is quite profound - it is the loss of a grandchild and the devastation of witnessing one’s adult child’s profound pain. The roller-coaster of emotions parents feel - shock, deep sadness, anxiety, and fear of the future, among others - is also present for the grandparents. Even though they can express their sorrow, grandparents cannot lean on their adult child for support. This means they have to turn to their own partners, friends and sources of support and grieve in their own way.

After the loss of their grandson, this couple found great solace in joining other grieving members in their community in a candle-lighting ceremony. When their daughter became pregnant again and had pregnancy complications, they found their own way to manage their high anxiety: they remained close to their daughter and made themselves available to her and her husband without expressing their opinion of what they should do; they gave them space when needed; they felt better when they were fully briefed about every detail of the pregnancy; they offered their daughter a rock to lean on by keeping themselves healthy during the pandemic; and they trusted that their daughter and son-in-law would find their way out of their deep suffering.

Pascale Vermont, PhD

Author of Surviving the Unimaginable: Stories of Coping with Pregnancy and Infancy Loss

Pregnancy Loss

Imagine being parents of a daughter who lives in another country and has a complicated pregnancy. How would you support your child from a distance, and how could you take care of yourself during those long months? Imagine now receiving the dreaded phone call that your daughter lost her baby mid-pregnancy and that her own health is at risk, and not being able to be with her. Then, a few months after the loss, you find out that your daughter is pregnant and that her pregnancy is once again challenging. To make things even more challenging, Covid strikes and it becomes impossible to support your daughter and her husband in person. Lastly, even if all goes well, you will not be allowed to meet your grandchild for a long time. How do grandparents survive these series of actual and potential losses while being separated from their adult children?

As a grief counselor to couples who lose a baby during pregnancy or early infancy, I have often reached out to grandparents to support them with their own grief. This particular type of grief is often ignored and leaves grandparents feeling isolated and at a loss of how to support their child, let alone themselves. For grandparents, their adult child’s loss of a baby is very much a double loss. It is the loss of their very much wanted grandchild and the loss of their ability to protect their adult child from deep pain.

To illustrate the experience of loss and anxiety through a subsequent pregnancy for grandparents, especially during a pandemic, I conducted an in-depth interview with a couple, Mary and Scott, whose daughter, Alice, and her husband Alexander, live in Sweden. I believe their voices, full of raw pain, fear, anxiety, yet still hopeful, will resonate with many other grandparents in similar circumstances.

Grandparents' experience of pregnancy loss and subsequent pregnancy during COVID

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