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A week after I gave birth to my daughter, Margaret Hope, we drove back to our apartment in Sanford, Florida—my husband and I, but no baby. Just five months pregnant, I went into preterm labour during a weekend trip to Miami. Hours after Margaret Hope’s birth, she was gone. I was in the depths of grief, as I tried to return to my life.
I’d later discover I had birth-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For months, I could not be near pregnant women or children for long, or else I would go into tear-streaked panic attacks. I avoided locations that reminded me too much of my pregnancy. Beeping sounds, certain smells that sparked memories of the hospital, and TV shows or films depicting infant loss would give me terrible flashbacks. Intrusive thoughts plagued me: I would keep on telling myself that our baby’s death was all my fault. I expected time to heal, but after two years of these symptoms I sought help.
My first few sessions of talk therapy helped me get a lot of thoughts and feelings out about my daughter’s death, but the positive effects were always short lived. I was still experiencing regular flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and other PTSD symptoms on a regular basis. It wasn’t until I moved to Colorado and connected with an EMDR-trained therapist, Jamie Gibbs, that I became convinced I needed more than talk therapy and decided to switch to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
“A typical response to a loved one dying is, ‘I should have…’ And should-statements are often rooted in a belief system of: I didn’t do enough to help my loved one. EMDR helps change this belief system," Gibbs explained to me. I was holding on to tons of guilt and shame, even though the logical side of me knew there was no good reason for this. With EMDR therapy, Gibb was suggesting, I could change my narrative and take control of my memories. We dove right in.
EMDR is an evidence-based treatment developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, a Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California and Executive Director of the EMDR Institute.
The technique uses bilateral stimulation (often via eye movements, hand-tapping or the use of alternating buzzers), while the client recalls a traumatic incident and the thoughts and physical sensations that accompany it. The bilateral stimulation allows the left and right sides of the brain to communicate better with one another, which helps the clients to reprocess negative memories and have less intense emotional reactions to it. Multiple studies have shown it to be effective at a much faster rate than other forms of therapy, often yielding benefits after just a few sessions.
EMDR has been the therapy of choice for war veterans with PTSD since the early 1990s, but in recent years, parents who have suffered pregnancy and infant loss have increasingly been referred for it too. Among them is 37-year-old Krista Fuerst of Mason, Michigan, who lost her twins, a boy and a girl, at birth.
“The weeks following their death, I would have flashbacks to certain moments surrounding their death. I would see the doctor’s face as she told me that they wouldn’t survive. I would see their lifeless faces...I would fixate on those images. My anxiety was extremely high. Everything made me cry. I felt rage bubble up at times too.”
Fuerst realized that her PTSD was preventing her from caring for her living children on her own. Her therapist suggested she try EMDR.
“We did the session for about 10 minutes and repeated that every week for about six weeks. I didn't feel immediate relief from my symptoms, but the accumulative results were amazing. My flashbacks diminished, and then by the end of the six weeks, they stopped completely. My anxiety and rage was greatly reduced. While the EMDR therapy didn’t stop my grief it did dramatically help with my PTSD symptoms.”
35-year-old Virginia mom *Kelly is another bereaved parent who uses EMDR therapy. Kelly lost her son, Andrew, to Group B Strep, back in 2014. He spent over 40 days in the neonatal intensive care unit before passing away. Earlier this year, she gave birth to another baby boy, which triggered flashbacks relating to her first loss. Kelly had already undergone EMDR in the past for sexual trauma, so she returned to therapy, hoping it would bring some relief.
“When I start a session to process a moment, it is really rough,” says Kelly, adding that it often makes flashbacks and dreams more vivid. Despite this, Kelly says the treatment is effective in helping her move forward. “I would highly recommend this therapy to others,” she says.
Dr. Kari Lannon is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Virginia Beach who also experienced multiple miscarriages. She has seen the benefits of EMDR as both a patient and a mental health professional.
“Initially, it was very disruptive,” says Lannon, who underwent EMDR for several months, multiple times a week. “Through processing various memories, I could reflect back on the miscarriages and still feel sad...but not have the emotional and cognitive overload from trauma (that) made it nearly impossible to function in my roles and responsibilities at home and work.”
“Having experienced firsthand as a client the benefits and faster results [than], I believe that EMDR is an essential tool for clinicians who work with trauma,” says Lannon. She is in the process of completing her own EMDR training.
Today, the World Health Organization backs EMDR as one of the only recommended forms of psychotherapy for both children and adults with PTSD. It is also backed by the American Psychiatric Association.
It has been five years since I lost my daughter, but anyone who has ever lost a child knows that grief isn’t a linear experience. And when you have ongoing PTSD symptoms, it makes it all the harder to go about your daily life. Through EMDR therapy, I continue to make positive strides in my mental health
I've come to accept that my daughter’s death was not my fault, and have finally been able to talk with my husband about the guilt I’d felt for years. I can think and talk about Margaret Hope, and I can even look through her memory box without falling to pieces. Whereas her birthday used to bring up feelings of anxiety and depression for me, I now feel able to celebrate the day in her honour, with little pain.
Most importantly, I've become a better parent to the son I gave birth to the following year, now that I am not so overwhelmed with grief and fear. I'm grateful that EMDR therapy has allowed me to remember my daughter in healthy ways, while taking care of my surviving loved ones and myself.