Psychologists Explain Why Reproductive Trauma Is A Deep And Complicated Form Of Trauma

The death of the dream of parenthood, even temporarily, can cause lasting grief.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 12, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy documents the journey of two researchers who experienced the trials and travails of reproductive trauma first-hand.

Researchers Clay and Marjorie Brigance explain that reproductive trauma has a broader definition than most of us would imagine. Reproductive trauma covers any and all forms of loss that involve the process of becoming a parent. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Various forms of complicated pregnancies
  • Complicated deliveries
  • Abortion

"Reproductive trauma is actually a spectrum experience, in that every form of reproductive trauma is different and engenders different forms of grief, yet all trace back to the journey of becoming a parent or the loss of a child," explains Clay Brigance. "One form of the reproductive trauma spectrum may give way to a form of pain which is different from another form."

Brigance gives the example of someone experiencing infertility to illustrate this. Someone facing infertility issues experiences, according to him, an ontological death – which is the death of a dream of becoming a parent.

In contrast, a parent experiencing a stillbirth has to endure a physical death. Both experiences beget grief, but in different ways.

The couple designed their study as a duoethnography: a methodology that requires two people who have had a similar experience to share it with each other by engaging in open dialogue. In their case, not only did they experience reproductive trauma individually, they shared it too.

"This is an extremely complex and complicated experience that is hard to convey, but we wanted to try," explains Brigance. "We wanted to tell our story to show others exactly how we intentionally moved our relationship towards that growth through our attachment and communication in the midst of all of our pain."

Both researchers recorded the trials and tribulations of infertility and, eventually, a complicated pregnancy through in-depth conversations and journaling. The most difficult aspect of reproductive trauma, according to them, can be its ambiguity.

"When a physical death occurs, we have rituals to process this loss. However, there is no ritual with the grief of infertility or early pregnancy loss. We often suffer in silence," they say. "Dr. Kenneth Doka calls this a disenfranchised grief, in that we grieve intensely but have no societal way to express that grief."

Another remarkable characteristic of reproductive trauma is that, like other forms of grief, it comes in waves. Infertility can shatter one's dreams of becoming a parent while a complicated pregnancy can fuel feelings of guilt for going through an inherently risky process. Parents who experienced reproductive trauma on their first try can feel new waves of trauma when trying for a second child.

While reproductive trauma is an extremely specific and personal form of disenfranchised trauma, the researchers remind people who might be struggling with it that they are not alone.

"Forty-eight percent of individuals in the United States have either experienced infertility themselves or know someone who has, and yet this is a topic that we don't talk about," highlights Brigance. "The more that we can talk about it, the more we can normalize it."

If you or someone you know is going through the tumultuous journey of processing reproductive trauma, here are three pieces of advice from the researchers that may be useful:

  1. Know that you are not alone. The ambiguity and disenfranchised nature of reproductive trauma can feel isolating. But, the more you talk about it, the more you will realize that you do not have to go through this alone. Find your community so that the burden of grief can be shared by people who understand you and can empathize with you.
  2. Grieving partners must sit with their emotions instead of trying to 'fix' or 'resolve' them. The researchers emphasize that validating each other's feelings can be more healing than trying to fix them. "If you want to experience relational closeness, it means sitting with the pain," Brigance explains. "This could come in a comment like, 'this is just so hard. I see your hurt.'"
  3. Take the outside voices with a grain of salt. Receiving guidance and advice from loved ones through such a tough time is natural, but you must know that all of it will not be helpful. They could have their opinions and feelings about how you should navigate parenthood, but remember that they do not get to insert themselves into your life. The best person to process your grief with is your partner or a mental health professional.

"Take your journey one day at a time," says Brigance. "Your story deserves to be heard, validated, and even championed by others."

A full interview with researchers Clay and Marjorie Brigance discussing their research can be found here: Two Researchers Explain How They Overcame Reproductive Trauma, And How You Can Too. To participate in their new study on infertility/reproductive trauma, click here (all answers are recorded anonymously).