Body Image and Self-Love after Loss
Every grieving mama has her own story, that is certain. But one common thread seems to be doubt, frustration, even anger with her body. After I lost my son Jacob 3 hours following my emergency c-section at 39 weeks, I almost immediately felt confusion, doubt, and shame as it related to my new body.
I was confused about what his death meant about the condition about my body, confused about how the post-partum time would impact my body since my son was not here, and ashamed to have a post-partum body with no baby to show for it. I was thankful to find this article and to have other loss mamas to talk to and confirm my feelings were not unusual.
As time went by, I endured all the regular post-partum body changes. My milk came in, and eventually dried up, and my cycle returned and brought very complex emotions with it.
I invested in some larger sized clothes so that I could stop wearing my maternity clothes almost immediately. I know some moms feel a connection to their lost babies when wearing their maternity pieces, but for me it was too sad without Jacob to fill them. I started losing hair after about 3 months, and that process went on for what seemed like forever.
I then grew back little baby hairs, which still stand out against the length of the rest of my hair 13 months later. Each of these changes made me sad that my body did not seem to know she had lost the sweet angel she worked so hard to grow for 9 months. I also experienced some shame – I hated walking around looking like I had just given birth with the key element, my baby, missing. Perhaps most disconcerting was the doubt.
No one could convince me that there wasn’t some dangerous condition lurking in my body that would prevent me from having a healthy baby if not fixed first. I’ve always had a full, athletic build and have often struggled with body image. But during my pregnancy I wrapped up about a year of working with a health coach, and I believed I had really healed my relationship with my body and learned to love her.
Part of loving her was my awe over her ability to create my perfect son, and his loss knocked me back into condemning myself for not getting 10 pounds off or figuring out how to eat the perfect clean diet before becoming pregnant.
My experience losing Jacob is one of full-term pregnancy loss, bringing with it all the typical changes and challenges mothers face with their bodies even when they deliver healthy babies. But I doubt women are immune to some of these questions, fears, and frustrations just because their losses occurred at an earlier gestation. In fact, about a year before losing Jacob I had a miscarriage at 8 weeks.
At that time, I also felt my body had failed me, wondered what would happen with my cycle and whether I would get pregnant again soon, wondered what the physical process of the miscarriage would bring, and felt angry that my body had, in my mind, failed my baby. So, standing now on the other side of confronting these difficult emotions about my post-partum, post-loss body, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice to moms going through a loss, regardless of gestational age. I am not a mental health professional, so these thoughts are simply based on my own experience.
If you ever feel like your thoughts about your body are too dark to handle on your own, or if you consider hurting yourself, please seek the help of a mental health professional.
First, let yourself feel your emotions. It is okay to cry over the loss that occurred in your body, over the changes to your body, and over the uncertainty of how your body will respond. If others try to tell you these thoughts are unproductive or irrational, explain to them that they are actually quite natural and part of the emotional process you need to work through. Allow yourself to grieve not only the loss of your baby, but your loss of confidence in your body.
Once you’ve allowed yourself to experience your emotions and recognize them as normal and valid, consider taking positive steps to repair your relationship with your body.
For me, this looked like:
- Asking doctors to run some tests to check my baseline health. Receiving good results helped me to re-build my confidence. Through a chiropractor I also found food-based supplements to help return my body to balance.
- Pampering my body with relaxing treatments like massage, a pedicure, and reiki.
- Returning to light exercise once cleared by my doctor. Yoga was by far most therapeutic for me, and as I regained my strength I also benefitted from long walks and light weight lifting. Most importantly, be gentle, and don’t push your body before she is ready. Remember this is about restoring love toward her, not punishing her.
- Choosing foods that made my body feel good. For me this usually meant green smoothies for breakfast, and lots of lean protein, veggies, and healthy fats. It also meant treats. I had a sweet tooth when pregnant with Jacob, and instead of telling myself I could no longer indulge because I had to get my pre-pregnancy body back, I found it more healing to still enjoy sweet treats when my body asked for them. Above all, I listened to what she wanted and how she felt after eating different foods, and tried to make my choices based on what I heard.
- Intentionally speaking to my body in a loving, instead of a critical way. This was the hardest step, because I would get out of the shower and before I even knew it, I’d be looking in the mirror, mentally cataloging all the negative changes I saw. When I caught myself doing that, I would consciously choose to change my language. I would tell my body I loved her. I would specifically focus on loving my belly for all it had been through. I would remind myself that my body grew my precious son, and stood as evidence that I really was a mother, which I did want to acknowledge even though Jacob wasn’t here to prove it. Teaching myself to look at my body again with loving eyes took conscious effort, but was so worth it.
So please be kind to yourself, mamas. When you have doubts, fears, anger, and sorrow relating to your post-loss body, you are NOT alone. Know that it is okay to acknowledge those feelings, and it is also okay to work to move beyond them when you are ready. Your body did the best that she could. She made you the mother that you are even though your baby is not in your arms, and she will continue to do her best for you.