Every night, Lara Jones shares a special bedtime ritual with her boys. First, she tucks in Ethan, three and a half, and Lincoln, two, after reading them a few stories, singing a song or two, and telling them how much she loves them.
Then she goes to her own bedroom and picks up her son Jack’s urn, which she keeps in a beautiful box. “I give him a little kiss and hold him and talk to him about the day,” she says. “I always want to feel connected to him, and this ritual brings me comfort.”
On September 2, 2021, when Lara was 16 weeks pregnant, Jack Josef Jones died suddenly and inexplicably.
Pregnancy Loss Is Far More Common Than People Realize
People are often surprised to learn that pregnancy loss happens daily, even in “textbook” healthy, low-risk pregnancies. Miscarriages and stillbirths are differentiated by time. Miscarriages occur when babies die before 20 weeks of gestation while stillbirths are classified when babies die at 20 weeks gestation or later.
Lara, like many other mothers who lose their baby in the second trimester, does not like her loss referred to as a “miscarriage” since it happened before 20 weeks but after 13 weeks. Lara explains how many people diminish the loss when hearing the word “miscarriage,” owing to their pre-conceived ideas that at that point the baby is only a “sack of cells.” This is not the case in the second trimester. Lara delivered her son who was fully formed and the size of an adult’s hand.
In the U.S., nearly 24,000 babies are stillborn every year. According to Samantha Banerjee in The Washington Post, citing the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), “Stillbirth claims more children’s lives in the United States each year than preterm birth, sudden infant death syndrome, car accidents, drowning, guns, flu, fire, poison, and (the reason no pregnant person is allowed to enjoy a deli sandwich) listeria — combined.”
In the U.S., the racial disparities in the numbers are stark. According to a 2020 CDC study, “Black mothers are more than twice as likely to experience stillbirth compared to Hispanic and white mothers.” Pregnancy loss is just one in a long list of adverse outcomes that are higher for women of color around pregnancy, childbirth, maternal health, and infant and maternal mortality. And research indicates that better medical care before conception, during pregnancy, and during labor is linked to lower pregnancy loss rates.
At the same time, there are countless women like Lara who lose their babies without explanation. Even after numerous tests, Lara may never know why she lost her Jack, which is another layer of trauma on top of so many others, including the silence and stigma that surround pregnancy loss and makes it so difficult to discuss.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the trauma and grief of losing a child is not a formal diagnosis, but should be,” says Tamar Rodney, PhD, assistant professor, Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. “From the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant, she is emotionally attached. Who will this baby be? What will he or she be like? What wonderful changes will this child bring to my life, to the world?
“During pregnancy, a mother celebrates the journey with family and friends — think baby names, baby showers, nurseries, tiny clothes … smiles from strangers and proud hands on an ever-expanding belly. The journey of being pregnant is both personal and public. So, what should be one of the most magical experiences shared with family, friends, and colleagues becomes one of private emotional and physical trauma in a closed room, an experience that is then often not acknowledged nor spoken about. The mother returns home still looking pregnant, her hormones still acting as if she is pregnant, but her arms and heart are empty.”
The Night That Changed Everything
The night of September 2, in her 16th week of pregnancy, Lara started to feel intensifying and worrying pain in her abdomen. She called the on-call obstetrician who said she shouldn’t be concerned, and to come in the next day for a check-up. “I should have listened to my body, my gut. I was in labor and deep down I knew it — but I didn’t want to believe it. Not even an hour after calling the doctor, my water broke. I still remember the loud ‘pop’ as if it were happening now,” says Lara. “It was too late to go to a hospital as the baby was coming fast and I didn’t know what to do other than just push and have my hands ready to deliver him. The single most traumatic event I have ever experienced in my life was seeing my son’s fully formed limp body come out of me, his perfect little legs, arms, fingers, hands, feet, and face. He was lifeless and colorless. I will never forget that image of him for as long as I live.”
Lara’s husband, Eric, a former U.S. Marine, phoned for an ambulance; Lara was hemorrhaging and losing a lot of blood.
It all happened fast, but everything seemed to Lara to go in slow motion. The paramedics had cut the umbilical cord but had not delivered the placenta. At the hospital, Lara was still bleeding inside with what is called a “retained placenta.” She was told she needed surgery and a blood transfusion, but hours passed. Her blood pressure started dropping. Urgently, she said to her husband, “Get me water. I am going to die.” He told her, no, she couldn’t have water before surgery. But she knew what her body was telling her — that she was in fact dying. Her blood pressure continued to plummet. Her eyesight tunneled. Her speech slurred … suddenly, the monitors flashed and screamed and the room filled with nurses and doctors. They were trying to insert a 16-gauge needle into her collapsed veins … she heard arguing and panic.… She felt like she was being sucked into a hole. She could see the blood pressure monitor and the flashing numbers, which were ticking lower and lower. Her blood pressure reached as low as 53/37. She had seconds to remain conscious and was seconds away from dying.
“I knew I had to put all of my last remaining energy into my brain — the last organ to die. All my years of training in psychology and mental health counseling, studying the brain, studying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and neuroscience and its efficacy with veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PSTD specifically … all of that knowledge boiled down to taking action in that one moment. I became extremely laser focused and said to myself, ‘Lara, you have a husband and two beautiful boys, and you have to be with them.’ I focused on my breathing, my brain. I kept picturing my boys at home, and somehow the numbers on the monitor remained steady,” she says. “I’m definitely a true believer that my mindset helped stabilize me, even if only for the seconds necessary for the nurses to get that needle into my arm. As blood coursed into me, I felt like a puppet lifted from being crumpled on the floor. And in that moment, the rush of life returned to me.”
Hear Lara share the full story of losing her son and then almost losing her life.
Lara was then raced to emergency surgery.
Lara talks about how her training in psychology and mental health helped keep her alive.
Pregnancy Loss: “There’s No Card for That”
Like many women who have a miscarriage or stillbirth, Lara has PTSD. Her counselor diagnosed her with “traumatic-grief PTSD” from both the experience of losing her child and from her near-death experience that same night.
Lara experiences the following symptoms:
- Avoidance of certain places that can be triggering
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble recalling words/simple information
- Issues with short-term memory loss
- Joint pain
- Lack of or changes in concentration
Pregnancy loss is such a private experience, and often the reaction of others can exacerbate the mother's — and father’s — grief and trauma. Family, friends, coworkers, and even medical professionals often don’t know what to say. They don’t want to say the wrong thing or something upsetting, or they may try to minimize or “fix” the trauma by saying something like “You can always have another baby.”
For Lara, after losing her son and then almost her life, the trauma and grief seemed to keep piling on. “I woke up from surgery and the first thing I was asked was, ‘Would you like your son buried or cremated?’ ‘Which funeral directors do you want to use?’ ‘We need to know where to transfer your son’s body.’ These are questions no mother ever wants to be asked, but certainly not after waking up from surgery when the reality of what had happened started to truly sink in," she says.
“Returning home from the hospital without my child, well, there are no words to describe that.”
And postpartum, Lara felt dismissed by her doctors … no baby, case closed, end of discussion.
“Women who lose a child during pregnancy should be given the time, space, and acknowledgement to process this great loss,” says Dr. Rodney. “To heal, people need to have their feelings validated — by a therapist, their OB-GYN, and of course by their family and friends. That is so important!”
Lara talks about pregnancy loss PTSD and the secondary losses that can come after losing a child.
Moving Forward Breath by Breath
There are various treatments that can help with pregnancy-loss PTSD, such as:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or “talk therapy”
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)
- Medications when needed for issues like depression or anxiety
- Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Creative Arts Therapies
- Complementary treatments that can be done at home include:
Lara is a wife, mother, and the Founder and CEO of Be a Legend — a digital marketing agency and coaching business that helps businesses grow. Her busy life wasn’t going to stop, so she had to find a way to deal with her grief and trauma.
Lara has found that CBT and EMDR have been very helpful, including re-wiring the brain through her neuroscience training; talking about her pain offers relief in the short and long term. “Also, I do incredibly intense workouts with a U.S. Marine at a local training center. These workouts push my mind and body intensely, which helps reduce my stress hormones and impacts how I think about and process the trauma,” she says. “I do incredibly long and hilly hikes with a backpack weighing around 50 lbs. and one of my living children, who is about 30 lbs., strapped to my front. I do this so that at the end of the hike I feel incredibly light and ‘free’ from laying down the literal and figurative burden. It gives me a sense of relief for an hour or so.”
After pregnancy loss, many mothers feel intense guilt and self-blame. They feel as if they have failed at a mother’s most important job — keeping their child safe.
“You think, what could I have done differently to have saved my child? You question everything from every moment of your pregnancy.… It can make you feel insane. We’re told that it’s not our fault. But when you start really thinking about it, well, that child relied on your body to survive. It relied on the placenta. It relied on you to protect it.
“Now, there are obviously so, so many variables and so many things that can go wrong…. Any child that is born alive is an incredible miracle, and I didn't appreciate that until I lost my Jack.”
Lara talks about her intense feelings of self-blame and guilt.
Although only one year has passed since the night of her double trauma, Lara has learned that blaming herself — and blaming the doctors and nurses — does not help her heal. There are other ways.
Finding Support for Grief and Trauma
A few months after Jack’s death, Lara found a support group that she still attends. She needed and wanted to talk about Jack. Being in this group with others who had their own stories of pregnancy loss has continued to help her cope with the grief.
To deal with the trauma of almost dying, she found that reaching out to her military community has helped. “Many of my military friends have suffered trauma, too, and don't tend to talk about it. I found that when I shared my trauma about almost dying, they would start to open up about their own experiences. Obviously, our stories are very different, but the fact that we almost lost our lives connects us,” says Lara who has earned a grief education certification and is a certified neuroscience coach so she can work to help other mothers — military and civilian — who have experienced pregnancy loss through trauma and grief. Lara also helps many veterans who have experienced trauma and grief and are transitioning out of the military and starting businesses, known as “vetrepreneurs.” She educates, speaks, mentors, and coaches veterans on how to transition into the business world after experiencing trauma and grief.
“Grief and trauma can feel incredibly lonely, and these feelings will never fully recede. But reaching out to others helps pull you outside yourself and find new meaning, new landscapes on which to walk.”
Lara shares the ways both support groups and her military community have helped her with her grief and trauma.
Keeping Jack Alive in Her Heart
To other women who have experienced pregnancy-loss PTSD, Lara wants to say that it is okay to not be okay. It is more than okay to want to talk about the child they lost, the child who did not get to live in the world but whose existence will always be a part of theirs.
Lara talks about the way she keeps Jack alive in her heart — from the baby feet pin she always wears to her nightly bedtime rituals.
Every day, Lara wears a silver pin in the shape of tiny baby feet. “Wearing the pin brings me great comfort and makes me feel like Jack — whom I call ‘my little wingman’ — is always with me. The pin is a symbol of him, and it’s a reminder that he is very much here — above, over, and always in my heart.”
To hear some of Lara’s poetry — another way she not only deals with her grief and trauma but also tries to help others — look below:
Lara reads her poem, “PTSD.”
Lara reads her poem, “My Beautiful Butterfly” about her son Jack.