What can we learn from the ways people use metaphor to talk about pregnancy loss?

What can we learn from the ways people use metaphor to talk about pregnancy loss?

Jeannette Littlemore (1),  Sheelagh McGuinness (2), Sarah Turner (3), Danielle Fuller (4), Karolina Kuberska (5)

(1) University of Birmingham; (2) University of Bristol; (3) Coventry University; (4) University of Alberta; (5 University of Cambridge

It is estimated that approximately 1 in 5 known pregnancies end in miscarriage, 1 in every 200 births is a stillbirth, and 2,000 terminations for reasons of foetal anomaly are performed in the UK each year. Often unexpected and unexplained, pregnancy loss engenders complex emotions that are difficult to articulate. A powerful way of exploring such experiences is to consider how bereaved parents use metaphor to communicate and make sense of what are extremely challenging situations and feelings. Metaphor is a device by which a concept, experience or object is described in terms of another, for example people may talk about women’s careers hitting a ‘glass ceiling.’ While traditionally seen purely as a literary or creative device, contemporary researchers of metaphor consider it to be a fundamental element of human language and thought; an important device by which we understand and express our feelings and lived situations. Metaphor is therefore a particularly useful mechanism for working through experiences that are not widely shared as it frequently involves the use of something that is familiar, tangible or common to describe something that is unfamiliar.

We interviewed 35 bereaved parents about heir experiences of pregnancy loss, then identified and analysed the metaphors they used to describe their experiences.

Metaphors used to express the situations and decisions they encounter are numerous and sometimes highly idiosyncratic, but often revolve around a range of key themes, such as movement, space or the body. For example, individuals may describe the process of undergoing a termination as a ‘rollercoaster,’ or understand one’s sense-of-self following a stillbirth as needing to be ‘rebuilt.’

By examining how metaphor allows individuals to articulate these unfamiliar experiences, our research has highlighted a number of concerns regarding our understanding of the grieving process, how people respond to their grief, and ultimately their recovery.

Ethics statement
This project received ethical approval from the University of Birmingham and was funded by the ESRC.

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