An impossible choice - grief after a medical termination

For those who have faced the heart-breaking decision of having to terminate a pregnancy due to medical reasons, grief is particularly complex and challenging.


Why might parents have to select a medical termination?

There are various reasons why parents might be forced to elect for a medical termination of their much-wanted baby, whether due to vital organs not forming correctly or due to the position in which the baby has begun to grow. Whatever the reason, the choice is a cruel and impossible decision for parents to have to make. 

Often, whichever choice they make, even deciding against a termination, would result in them going home without their baby, their choice is more about when the baby will die, rather than if.

Their choices are often between:

  • Termination or the baby being born unable to sustain life, but struggling to try and do so.
  • Termination or baby growing in the wrong place, unlikely to survive and causing damage to the mother’s reproductive organs, leaving her without her baby and unable to have any further children if she wanted to.

The decision is no easier even if the baby might survive, the parents are then forced to weigh up whether the child would have a good quality of life, or if they would experience much suffering and missing out on life’s pleasures, such as being able to play like other children. But they have to make this decision on ‘what ifs’, rather than absolutes.

There is no easy solution, it’s an impossible choice.

What are some of the challenges and complications might parents face?

Guilt - it’s common for there to be an element of guilt in baby loss of any kind but, in the context of a medical termination, this is all the more complicated and profound. Parents may feel that they ‘killed’ their baby, even though they are heartbroken by the loss, and were ‘forced’ into the decision as it was the kindest option for their little one.

They may feel that they are not entitled to their grief, as the death was their decision, even though it was a lose/lose outcome and they made the choice with their baby’s suffering in mind.

It’s possible that some people might not understand medical termination, and therefore not offer the same support or understanding that they would if the baby was miscarried or stillborn instead. There is still a bit of a stigma around terminations, especially in areas where religion rules strictly against it under any circumstances. This stigma can make it hard for people to understand the parents’ decision, and cause the parents shame for the difficult choice they were handed to make.

There are also physical challenges to deal with for the mother. The termination itself can be daunting and painful and, depending on how far along the pregnancy was when the problems were spotted, she may still have to deliver the baby. Meaning going through the trauma of childbirth, knowing that there’s no happy ending once it’s over. 

Perhaps the hardest thing about making that decision is never having confirmation that it was the right one, even if it was advised by the medical staff looking after them. There’s no crystal ball, so there’s no way to see what the alternative outcome would have been. This naturally leaves parents with thoughts of ‘what if?’  There’s no way of seeing the suffering that the baby may have experienced, they only know of their own pain and guilt at the decision they made.

What can help?

We’re all different in our grief, what’s helpful to one person can make another feel worse, experiment with various self-care methods and see what works for you. Here are some examples of what might help:

Talk to someone about your feelings

Make sure it’s someone that will really listen and will sit with you and your feelings rather than trying to ‘fix’ your problems. This could be a family member, a friend, a therapist or a specialist organisation.

Go over your experience

It’s hard to get your head around something so traumatic. You might find yourself repeating the events over and over in your head. It can be helpful to write down the event, in as much detail as you remember, to slow down your thoughts and process it section by section. You can do this alone, or with a friend or therapist.

Do something to remember your baby by

A lot of parents struggle after baby loss because, at the time when they would have been busy having sleepless nights and caring for the little one, there is just emptiness and lots of time to survive through. Arranging something in memory of them, whether it be sponsoring a memorial tree, or setting up a charity event is something the parents can do in a time when they feel helpless. Parents also often worry that people will forget about their baby, doing something in memory of them is further ‘evidence’ that they existed.

Take care of yourself

Grief is emotionally and physically draining and hard enough without neglecting yourself. Whilst you may not feel like eating, try to make sure you’re eating at least a few nutritious meals a week instead of just snacking all the time. If sleep is a problem, try and set yourself a soothing bedtime routine, going to bed and getting up at a similar time each day, and avoiding screen time for at least 30 minutes before bed.

Respect differences in each other’s grieving

The likelihood is that everyone that is touched by the loss will express it differently. Both parents will likely react in different ways to each other and grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc., will react differently again.

We’re all individuals with our own personalities and methods of coping, the important thing is not to put pressure on someone because they’re not showing their grief in the same way you would, or pressure on yourself for not reacting in the same way they are. Instead, take each other’s feelings as they come, and try and communicate non-judgementally through any clashes of coping style.

Final word

Bereavement by medical termination is complicated and painful, you found yourself in a lose/lose situation, completely beyond your will or control. Please be gentle with yourself as you process the impossible decision you had to make, and remember that the choice you made was with the love for your baby in mind. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Derby, DE22 2DL
Written by Dandelions Bereavement Support
Derby, DE22 2DL

Fay has worked with bereaved people since leaving school at the age of 17. Originally training as a Funeral Arranger, she went on to specialise in bereavement support a few years later. In 2020 she qualified as a Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, and has written two grief activity books to date.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Bereavement

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals