Rachel Whalen’s first miscarriage happened fast. Six and a half weeks into her pregnancy, she took a test. Two days later, she started to bleed.
“It was just a really lonely experience and I was scared,” Whalen, now 34, told HuffPost. “Then I was also kind of like, ‘Am I being silly to feel this way?’” She told herself that early miscarriages are common (up to 20% of known pregnancies end in a loss) and hoped it would be her only one.
Several months later, she got pregnant again. Soon after, she miscarried again. Whalen and her husband were driving to their summer vacation. She felt a contraction and passed the fetal tissue in a gas station, catching it in her own hands.
“After that, I have never experienced my body in the same way again,” said Whalen, who has written about her experience on her personal blog and for the support resource PALS (Pregnancy And Loss Support). “Any twinge, any cramp — I’m always waiting for it to be something more.”
It has been five years since Whalen’s first miscarriage, but “sometimes I am surprised by the levels of anxiety I still feel,” she said.
Whalen is not alone.
In a new study of more than 650 U.K.-based women who had an early miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, nearly 30% had symptoms of post-traumatic stress one month after their loss.
In addition, nearly 25% had signs of moderate to severe anxiety. And 11% had signs of moderate to severe depression.
Nine months after their early pregnancy loss, 18% of the women continued to have signs of post-traumatic stress, 17% had signs of moderate to severe anxiety, and 6% had signs of moderate to severe depression.
“We feel many people have not understood that for many women, miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy will be the most traumatic event that has happened in their lives up to that point,” Dr. Tom Bourne, lead author of the study with Tommy’s National Centre for Miscarriage Research at Imperial College London, wrote in an email to HuffPost. His team’s findings were published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology this week.
Miscarriage has become far less of a taboo topic in recent years. On social media, in particular, women have begun speaking openly about just how common it is and how devastating it can be. Yet it remains challenging for many women to get help.
“The medical field has certainly bolstered efforts to support women who struggle with reproductive challenges, though we have a long way to go towards adequately treating this population,” Dr. Misty Richards, a perinatal psychiatrist at UCLA Health who did not work on the study, told HuffPost. Referrals to local, affordable reproductive mental health experts can be a major obstacle, she said.
Women can experience trauma around their pregnancy loss for many reasons, Richards explained. They might feel like their chance at parenthood is slipping away from them, they might feel like they’re losing control, or they might feel like they are somehow inadequate. Then, there is the simple fact that early pregnancy loss often comes with significant pain and bleeding.
“We can best support these women by checking in with them regularly and increasing our awareness of the full range of physical and psychiatric symptoms — and connecting them to trained mental health professionals early on before symptoms worsen,” Richards said.
Still, there is a lingering idea that pregnancy loss is something that women should be able to get over.
“I think we are on the cusp of getting better at supporting women … there has been a big push on social media that has helped loss moms connect. It has helped them realize they are not alone,” said Valerie Meek, operations director for PALS, who had a stillbirth at 20 weeks. “But we’re still hearing, anecdotally, of people getting horrific care in the emergency room. And of doctors not really understanding, even in the mental health field. So many women are still not getting the support that we hope they’d have.”
That includes supporting women who have miscarriages relatively early in their pregnancies, whose pain can sometimes be more readily dismissed.
Whalen, tragically, went on to have a third pregnancy loss — a stillbirth at 30 weeks. (She also now has one living child.) She says this makes her somewhat unique in pregnancy loss circles: She has experienced both early miscarriages as well as a third-trimester loss. She knows that both types of loss can cause significant, lasting trauma.
It has been years since Whalen’s second miscarriage, but she still avoids driving past the gas station where she stood in a bathroom stall, holding what would have been her baby in her hands. Whalen describes this as a “luxury.” At least, she says, she miscarried in a place she does not have to regularly return to.
But the shock and pain of the experience are still with her. She feels them viscerally.
“When I wipe, I still expect to see blood,” she said, “even though I know I am not pregnant.”