Pregnancy Loss & How to Help

On January 28th, we lost our baby at 16 weeks. 

It was by far the worst thing that has ever happened to me.  It's two weeks today, but it feels like months.  Time plays tricks on you when you're grieving.  Moments feel like small eternities.

One of the things I've noticed as I've been going through process of grieving and reactions to our loss is that our culture has no accepted protocol for dealing with miscarriage and pregnancy loss.  It's awkward and uncomfortable, but more than anything, it's silent.  People don't talk about it.

Part of that is that there's a difficult line to walk between openness and privacy.  If you're open about your loss, you receive more support (at least, one hopes), but you maintain your privacy if you don't talk about it.  And privacy matters.  This is the most raw and sharp I've felt in a long time.  It's unlike anything else.  The smallest things can trigger memories, invasive thoughts, and really intense feelings.  People struggling with grief need space to deal with it, because of how layered, complex, and vulnerable it is.

At the same time, if you were far enough along, as I was, you can't really avoid interfacing with people who knew you were pregnant and notice that you're not anymore.  Or even folks who know about the loss and want to offer comfort.  The tricky part is that because we don't have an agreed upon lexicon, we don't know what to say, and often grab for whatever pops into our brains.  And sometimes, that turns out be ... well, pretty much the worst thing to say.

It's not anyone's fault.  I want to be really clear about that.  Culture does a lot for us in terms of reinforcing behavioral norms, but there isn't a norm for this, so it's easy to put your foot in your mouth inadvertently.  And then you feel shitty, and that sucks.  But let's have a conversation about it, and start trying to get to a place where we know how to handle pregnancy loss.  It'll make things better for everyone, especially since miscarriage and pregnancy loss are actually fairly common, even if no one talks about them that much.

I can only speak from my own experience, but here are some things to consider when you approach a person grieving from pregnancy loss:

  • The most universally acceptable thing to say is "I'm sorry."  Yes, sorry doesn't make it better, but nothing will.  And expressing that you're sorry that something really terrible happened to someone you care about, and finding compassion for that person, is the best thing you can do.
  • In response, I've found it very helpful to just say, "Thank you," and leave it there.
  • It's not the job of the bereaved to comfort everyone else.  Sometimes, when someone is expressing how bad they feel for me, I feel that I'm being put in an awkward position of having to comfort them about my loss.  Let's avoid that.  I suspect we say these things to show someone just how much we care, but leave it at "I'm so very sad and sorry about your loss."  Find a way to acknowledge your own feelings without making it a comparison.
  • This one is very important, and you'll hear it said a lot: It's not about you.  It's about them.  This is a really hard thing to swallow, because we see life through our own lens.  It's very human to narrate an experience through what is happening to us because of what is happening to them.  But it's not helpful.  It makes the person in the middle of the tragedy feel minimized.  Your job is to legitimize their grief, not minimize it.
  • To that point, subscribe to the Ring TheoryDump out, comfort in.  Everyone needs support, but get it from someone less involved in the tragedy.
  • Have your own experience of grief; don't co-opt someone else's.  One of the things that bothered me about letting friends and family members know about my loss was when a friend of mine re-posted my Facebook post about it.  For one thing, it felt like a very awkward invasion of privacy, but it also felt they were co-opting my tragedy as their own, while being kind of cavalier about it.  Write your own posts about the tragedy if you must, but from your own perspective.  And also, watch how much you post about it.  There can sometimes be a performative element to grief that rubs people the wrong way -- if you're posting every 2 hours about a personal tragedy that didn't happen to you?  That gets weird.
  • Don't ask them to go out of their way.  With so many triggers, plus the exhaustion of dealing with grief, it can be hard to do routine things, like going to work, feeding oneself, etc.  I'm exhausted at the end of every day.  try not to be annoyed with grieving parents that bow out of social events, don't want to make plans, and are less available overall.  Let them bow out graciously.
  • Be careful about religious platitudes. Not everyone is religious.  Saying anything about "God's plan", "better place", "everything happens for a reason"... not helpful.  You don't know God's plan.  No one does.  As for things happening for a reason, no, they don't.  The universe is vast and random.  There's no good reason for this to happen to me, so best to leave that out.  You also don't know that my baby is in a better place.  The only good place for it to be, as far as I'm concerned, was in my belly.  So that's a great way to be judgmental and not helpful, all at once! 
  • Ask yourself if what you are about to say is helpful.  This is important too -- because we don't know what to say, we have to think about what to say.  It's not automatic.  This affords you a couple of extra seconds to think of something actually helpful and comforting.  Use that moment!  Here are some examples of what not to say (beyond the platitudes mentioned above):
    • "You're still young.  You can try again."  Yes, but I wanted THIS baby.
    • "It's not a baby yet.  It's just a fetus." It was a baby to me.  I saw it on the ultrasound, I heard its heartbeat.
    • "You need to get over this, and move on." Everyone grieves differently, and you are not the arbiter of how that happens for other people.
    • "Let me tell you about my experience." It's helpful to know I'm not alone, but at the same time, no one can know what my experience is. Also: see above, re: comparison game.
    • "At least you know you can get pregnant." Yes, but cold comfort right now.
    • "Have fun trying again!" Oh thanks for that witty repartee about my sex life after I've lost a baby.
  • Most important of all -- let the bereaved initiate.  If we want to talk about it, we will.  It's natural to be curious, but how it happened, why it happened--none of your business.  If we want to hang out, we'll reach out.  If we want a hug, we will ask.  Lots of people wanted to hug me after it happened, and I really didn't want to be hugged.  My body hurt afterwards, and hugs didn't feel comforting; they felt suffocating.  Also, remember my point above -- this is not about you.  A lot of the time, people wanted to hug me to reassure themselves that I was okay, or because they needed to be hugged.  And those are fine needs to have, but that puts the burden on me.  Remember: comfort in, dump out.  If you need support, ask for it from your partner or friend.  Don't ask a bereaved person if you can comfort them because you need comfort. 

I want to close by saying that we're all learning.  It can be hard not to feel bad when you read all this, and think, "Oh hell, I'm a bull in a china shop. I'm totally going to say the wrong thing!" and then feel angry and defensive.  There's no need!  Grieving mothers know you don't mean to be hurtful.  And you have a lot of compassion from me, because I know that I wouldn't know what to say either.  But hopefully, this post and others like it from the front lines of those dealing with pregnancy loss and miscarriage can move us forward towards a better, more compassionate place.


Miscarriage & Pregnancy Loss Resources:
Still Birthday: - many pregnancy loss resources from very early pregnancies, to loss after birth
SHARE: - pregnancy and infant loss support
Unspeakable Losses: Healing from Miscarriage, Abortion and Other Pregnancy Loss by Kim Kluger-Bell
Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby by Deborah L. Davis
Empty Arms: Coping with Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death by Sherokee Ilse