DEALING WITH GRIEF DURING PREGNANCY

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“You have at best between one and three months to live”. I accompanied Dad to all of his oncology appointments to keep across the progress of his cancer and we had hoped this routine appointment would be exactly that. Two days earlier, I found out I was five weeks pregnant.

Finding out your Dad is dying, and you’re pregnant, was like being sucked in the middle of a circle of life vortex. I was growing a new life inside me as I watched his slip away.

I was hoping to share the happy news with him over our usual dumpling lunch near the hospital. Instead, we immediately started planning a last minute trip to his homeland Sweden to say farewell to his older brothers.

My Dad really was my best friend and I relied on his judgement and opinions more than I cared to admit. The tumour in his intestine rapidly spread to his liver and he returned from Sweden incredibly frail.  I had waited to tell him in person he was going to be a grandfather again and that I hoped he would still be here to meet the baby, but he shook his head. We both knew he wouldn’t. He did say he was very happy about the pregnancy, and I know he was.

Within two days of returning home Dad needed an ambulance, the pain was too much. He spent 48 hours in an emergency ward before he was placed in palliative care.  Two weeks later, he was gone.

“Pregnancy is a raw and emotional time, but those hormones combined with grief made it the hardest experience of my life.”

We spent every day of his final weeks together, but it wasn’t quality time. My morning sickness had kicked in and being in the hospital made me nauseous. The smell of antiseptic, the other patients, the general illness, I found myself holding my breath, or breathing only through my mouth.

I would always kiss his cheek hello, until the smell of his waxy skin made me wretch. I felt incredibly guilty that I became repulsed by his condition, but I didn’t show it. I also struggled to find carers for my daughters so I could go to the hospital daily, but my in-laws were spectacular, as were the friends who offered to babysit. My village rallied to help and I’ll never forget it.

On the night he finally passed, I felt relief. The seven months from diagnosis to his death had been gruelling and I was initially glad those days were over. After the funeral, when the flowers and kind cards and texts stopped arriving, the silence made me want to scream. And I would. Frequently.

I would always call him from the car to check in for a chat, so driving became a trigger for outbursts of tears when I could no longer call and hear his voice.  Cooking also made me cry because he had taught me to cook, we bonded over food and I had spent the previous months making and delivering food to him.

“Admitting you need help requires some soul searching. Who did I want to be? And what would my Dad have thought of the person I had become?” 

I was still heading to hospital for regular appointments, now for myself and my baby, not Dad.

And I had a four year old and two year old who didn’t understand where their beloved ‘Moofy’ had gone (their nickname for Morfar, Swedish for mother’s father). I thought I was holding it all together, until I realised I was lashing out at the person who supported and loved me unconditionally, my husband. Admitting you need help requires some soul searching. Who did I want to be? And what would my Dad have thought of the person I had become?

I had experienced two straight-forward pregnancies and thought I was pretty invincible, but had never known true grief. Pregnancy is a raw and emotional time, but those hormones combined with grief made it the hardest experience of my life. I went to see my wonderful doctor for a routine vaccination and when she asked how I was coping without Dad (who she had also treated) I broke down. I told her I couldn’t tell the difference between what was normal pregnant hormonal emotion and what was grief. She scheduled another appointment to discuss my mental health further and eventually referred me to a counsellor.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover GP referred counselling for pregnant women in Australia is free under Medicare (if the provider accepts the Medicare benefit as full payment). I received 12 free counselling sessions through Psychological Support Services (PSS) in Sydney. There are other subsidised services available across the country, speak to your GP. Pre-natal mental health is a real and very important area to be supported.  Counselling without a referral can quickly become very expensive which discourages people from seeking help for long.

“Death is a part of life and it’s important for children to see that their parents have emotions too. Seeing my occasional sadness has shown my daughters another side of me and what it means to lose someone you love.”

Searching for ways to understand my feelings also led me to a powerful article by Suzy Reading about post-traumatic growth and the positive psychological changes experienced as a result of highly challenging life circumstances. Many people who experience anxiety or depression after extreme adversity eventually develop “higher psychological functioning”, with a renewed appreciation for the value of life. This resonates with me as a silver lining from this challenging time.

Talking about my loss and honouring what a wonderful person my Dad was has been cathartic and healing. I will always have these memories, they will always be part of me.

There is no “right way” to grieve. It’s different for everyone and what worked for others won’t necessarily apply to you. In the book Grief Works, Julia Samuel explains that “death steals the future we anticipated and hoped for, but it can’t take away the relationship we had”.

I’ve learned I’m stronger than I had ever imagined. I’ve learned it’s OK to ask for help, even with little things. My cousin asked what she could do one day and I said I was finding cooking hard as it had become a trigger for grief. The next night my aunt and cousin were at my home with bags of beautiful stews for the freezer and cake.

We also lived on pizza and Indian takeaway for weeks (butter chicken and cheese naan is true comfort food). And that’s also OK. The biggest lesson has been allowing myself to “feel my feelings”, to let them in and pass through. I could be happily going about my day when the most random object, a card or even an old cheese grater would bring a flood of memories back.

“I’ve learned I’m stronger than I had ever imagined. I’ve learned it’s OK to ask for help, even with little things … I’ve been drawn to those who have walked similar paths or share the same values and drifted from those who can’t comprehend this experience.”

Initially I would push them away as I didn’t want my children to see me cry. But the feelings would always resurface usually within the hour or by the end of the day as anger, with me snapping at someone. I’ve learned it’s better to let the feelings out when they come, let them wash over and away. If that means stopping whatever I’m doing to take a few minutes to cry, so be it.

Death is a part of life and it’s important for children to see that their parents have emotions too. Seeing my occasional sadness has shown my daughters another side of me and what it means to lose someone you love. And that’s healthy and OK.

It is said grief changes you, and it does. It clarifies what and who is important, and simplifies a lot of life’s noise. I have found patience and strength I didn’t know I possessed, but at the same time less time for superficiality and pettiness. Life really is too short.

I’ve been drawn to those who have walked similar paths or share the same values and drifted from those who can’t comprehend this experience.

The old adage “time heals” doesn’t feel entirely true in my circumstance. Rather, time numbs. It makes the days bearable but the pain is still there, just beneath the surface and it catches you at the strangest moments. Counselling has helped me better handle those moments and move on with my days.

I am due to have my third baby February 24. Dad’s birthday was February 18 and he would have been 69 this year. I know he would have been proud and first in line to snuggle this little girl. I miss his visits, our chats, the lovely meals together, but mostly I just miss him.

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