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16 January 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:38pm

After my miscarriage, I was grieving – but it was treated as a routine physical problem

Acknowledgement of the mental toll, as discovered in a UK study this week, could have helped ease my trauma.

By Dr Suzi Gage

On the train to Manchester I started to feel bad. Well, worse. I’d been bleeding, at times extremely heavily, for around three weeks, and two scans a week apart had confirmed that the life I had for 12 weeks thought was growing inside me was growing no longer. Instead, I was carrying around a lifeless bundle of cells, which at some point would need to come out.

“The pregnancy”, as it was referred to by the kind but perfunctory scanners at the women’s hospital, was over. But my experience of it was not. I was on my way to a gig, but I spent a lot of it in the toilets. As we travelled home afterwards, the pain was worse and worse, across my stomach, and the bleeding was getting heavier and heavier. The codeine the hospital had sent me away with wasn’t touching the sides.

I was told to expect “a heavy period” and that at some point I may pass “the pregnancy”. But I was not ready for the contractions I experienced, at 3am on my hands and knees in my bathroom, and picking the hand-sized, unexpectedly cold “pregnancy” up, not really knowing what to do with it, while also being aware that the bathroom was beginning to bear more than a passing resemblance to the elevator scene in The Shining.

In the weeks and months following this, after the bleeding finally stopped a week or so later, I thought I would start to feel normal again. I was wrong. I would come home from work, sit on the sofa, and feel like there was a lump of hot lead in my chest. I stopped arranging to see friends. I stopped drinking because I was relying on alcohol to numb myself, but feeling even worse the following day. My partner was incredible and supportive, and also going through the trauma himself.

What I needed was grief counselling, or at the very least acknowledgment that what I was going through was grief. Just because I never met the life growing inside me didn’t mean I wouldn’t feel its loss keenly. It wasn’t until a few months later, speaking to a friend who was both a psychiatrist and had experienced miscarriage herself, that I heard someone say that anxiety is common after the trauma of miscarriage.

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Of course it is. And yet the hospital treated it as if it were just one of those routine things. After my 12-week scan where we first discovered there was no heartbeat, I had to sit in the waiting room of an Early Pregnancy Unit for four hours before I was able to see a doctor to talk about the scan. Surrounded by pregnant women, while I fought back tears at the shock of what I’d just lost.

Every member of staff was kind, but none so much as enquired whether I’d like any emotional support. After asking, I was given a leaflet about the different options for managing the physical aftermath, but nothing about how to pick up the emotional pieces.

Eventually I self-referred myself for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and did an online course. And I started talking. I told far more people that I’d miscarried than I ever did that I was pregnant. And what I found was a whole community of women (and men) who said: “me too.” We shared stories, we shared hugs and tears. And it helped.

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A recent study by Imperial College London and KU Leuven in Belgium of 650 women found that almost one in three women show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) post-miscarriage, and around a quarter experiences anxiety. I wonder if this is because it’s a combination of factors we feel are taboo or shouldn’t be talked about: “women’s things”, sex, and death. Things we talk about with euphemisms, or even worse, not at all.

One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Many women will have multiple miscarriages, each one meaning the next pregnancy is more likely to end the same way. More often than not we never find out why it happened. “It’s just one of those things,” is some, but little, comfort.

The study’s conclusions suggest screening women to find out who is most at risk of psychological problems following a miscarriage. This screening may not have identified me, but just knowing it was a possibility, and having more information about what, physically and emotionally, might happen, could have helped.

Dr Suzi Gage is a drugs and mental health researcher and senior lecturer at Liverpool University, and the author of “Say Why To Drugs”, out this month.