Illustration: Getty Images
Illustration: Getty Images


We must be honest about the trauma of miscarriage 

Four in ten women who experience a miscarriage go on to report symptoms of PTSD. Helen Bagnall shares her story

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By Helen Bagnall on

Last June, I told ’im indoors I was worried I had developed PTSD.  I work with leading scientists a lot and he is used to me developing unlikely neurological conditions on a regular basis, and so he laughed accordingly.  He had a point: PTSD is something more commonly associated with soldiers after active service; it isn’t something you tend to develop as a 46-year-old Londoner working in publishing.

And yet life was becoming very difficult to navigate: I had developed crippling anxiety, found myself constantly catastrophising, and everyday tasks like sending an email felt like one of the 12 labours of Hercules. I wasn’t going to get anything done like this, so I pretended I was working but cancelled everything I could, closed my computer and lay under a blanket on the sofa listening to Classic FM.  It was really odd. Could it be related to the miscarriage I’d had in the April? I certainly couldn’t get the experience out of my mind but I hadn’t encountered studies that proved any ongoing psychological affects of miscarriage. But then yesterday, I read Imperial College London’s recently published study in the BMJ, which revealed four in ten women who experience miscarriage go on to reportsymptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Strangely, I’d always planned to write something about pregnancy and being 46.  It is the age at which I had read the UN considers a woman to be post-fertile, and it had always seemed to me to be a date that would bring some clarity – the end point to do or not do something about having children that had dominated my thirties and early forties.  And yet at my 46th birthday lunch I knew something was wrong and I knew what it was. It still took me weeks to do the test, which I eventually did in the loos at Liberty between a work meeting and a work dinner.  It read eight weeks with two angry pluses, which if I’m honest felt like a new low – being shouted at by a bit of plastic and some wee. 

I did what millions of women had done before and just carried on as best I could, trying not to think about it, and engaging with the world only when I couldn’t avoid it

Google told me my chance of miscarrying was between 50 and 80 per cent, but my only knowledge of the subject was through friends with children whose miscarriages were manoeuvred on the way to building a family. They were never discussed, “it’s just a few cells” one friend said, when I called her following hers, so like one of those Victorian women who really believe that babies arrive by stork I was woefully unprepared for what was about to happen.

My period refused to arrive, although I kept searching for it, like when your car’s been towed and you just can’t believe it’s not where you left it. But a couple of days later I had a few cramps and there was a bit of blood, enough you would think for a few cells.  Oh well, I thought, life goes on – except it didn’t. In fact the next three days were an unexpected reminder that to be a human is to be an animal. My cervix creaked in to action like a rusted bike lock, the pain was terrible and there was so much blood at times I felt like I was mopping up a murder scene.  Yet the websites I frantically searched were terry towelling-edged with soft cosseting language about when to “try again”. I called the hospital, but they only said I “should” come in, they weren't adamant, and the junior doctors strike was on – I couldn't face a long wait at A&E or in a maternity ward. Besides from what I could glean from the web I was OK physically but I’d never felt more vulnerable, or experienced such a raw need to be with home comforts. 

I did need some practical answers to some terrifying questions: will I see the foetus?  Should “clots” look like enormous slabs of liver?  I did see a kind of foetus in the end; I laid it gently on the side of the bath, and felt a sense of extreme calm. But when the placenta hit the floor like a dried-up shrew two days later, then the grief and loss began.  But not one of the soft, kindly websites mentioned there could be a psychological effect to accompany this physical experience, and so I did what millions of women had done before and just carried on as best I could, ending up on the sofa, trying not to think about it, and engaging with the world only when I couldn’t avoid it.

Those who funded and conducted this study wanted to give voice to the many who have experienced miscarriage in silence, as Jane Brewin, Chief Executive of Tommy’s, who part-funded the study puts it: “In a civilised study it’s not acceptable for women to suffer like this.”  Their research was the missing piece of the experience for me; it validated something important and helped me to understand what had happened – to my mind, body and spirit.  Thanks to their work I now feel ready to move on with my post-fertile existence, but not without offering a heartfelt thank you from me to them. 

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Illustration: Getty Images
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