How to support someone who has experienced a miscarriage
Suddenly, we find ourselves in a world where people can be completely open. There isn’t too much that is restricted in terms of what we share about ourselves and our beliefs. We have been steadily shifting from projecting false fronts on social media of happy uncomplicated lives to allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and talking about the things that matter to us. Despite all of the progress we’ve made, bereavement is still a troublesome topic. As a result of that censorship, we do not know how to deal with our own grief let alone how to support the people that we care about with their grief.
Family and friends reading today, I want to start by telling you not to be hard on yourselves if you've been guilty of saying any of these things. I want you to know that I understand the intent is to comfort me. You are doing the best you can to support me with what you've been given. I am not upset with you. I know it comes from a place of love coupled with a deeply rooted discomfort of loss, especially concerning miscarriage. But we need to talk about why the well-meaning words of comfort you've been given as the standard script for grieving loved ones has been poorly written. This article is specific to miscarriage, but I will be sharing something concerning supporting someone who has experienced stillbirth or infant loss in the coming weeks.
I hope that by sharing this with you, I can help you be a better source of support to the people that you care about while they go through some of the more difficult times of their lives.
What not to say
"Everything happens for a reason" or "It wasn't meant to be"
Why you think it works: I know this one goes against the grain. While preparing to write this article I did some research to see what other women felt and this was on every single list they gave. Every. Single. One. I have heard people say this many times in my life, well before ever having directly experienced loss myself. Back then, I thought it was a nice sentiment meant to instill hope for a better tomorrow. Now having spent more time on the receiving end, I've got to tell you it kind of sucks.
Why it doesn't: Straight-up, it's lazy. It is a thoughtful way of saying shit happens. These words fall flat for me. It is an impersonal and empty reassurance in the form of a blanket statement. Like being on an elevator with a stranger and commenting on the weather. While you may believe this statement to be true and you may find comfort in a greater plan it just doesn't help me. Justifying my loss by implying that there will be something else on the other side of this does more for you than it does for me.
Why you think it works: The intent here is clear. You want to help me be more optimistic and focus on the positive. You want me to shift my perspective by telling me how it could be worse. This is not an entirely bad idea, there are just better ways to inspire that frame of mind.
Why it doesn't: If you are about to start your sentence with "At least" — don't say it. Usually, these sentences fall along the lines of "At least you weren't further along", "At least you know you can get pregnant", "At least you are young" etc. The implication to me is that because someone else has struggled more on their journey or because there will be other babies, I have less reason to grieve. Essentially what this sounds like to someone actively grieving is "it could be worse, be grateful". I know that, and I am already telling myself these things but it is healthy and necessary for me to grieve. I am strong and resilient and I know that it could be worse, but at this moment I need to grieve — telling me to be grateful right now seems dismissive of that.
"It wasn’t the right baby" or "It’s probably for the best"
Why you think it works: Last week while addressing the many reasons that miscarriage can occur, I touched on the fact that sometimes when there is an insufficiency in development this can happen. I am assuming that this is what you are referring to and you are trying to comfort me by saying life would have been difficult with a differently-abled child. Or maybe you are implying that at this point in my life being a mom would be hard? Honestly, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would find this comforting.
Why it doesn't work: I know that this is in no way meant to be hurtful, but it hurts just the same. When you say it wasn't the right baby or it may be for the better that doesn't sit right with me. It feels like you are implying that there was something wrong with my child. It feels like my baby didn't deserve to be here and that my body failed. While these words are well-meaning and probably refer to the biological part of pregnancy that I do not control, these words are sharp and unwelcome. Beyond all of that, I would love my child in any form.
“He” needed him/her more
Why you think it works: Our faith (in any form) is what we turn to when we feel doubt. I know that you are trying to remind me that the child I was carrying is at peace in a better place. You want me to feel like my little angel was so good and so pure that the heavens couldn't do without him/her. That it was not my fault, they were just destined for something else. I know that it isn't because you don't think I wanted this badly enough.
Why it doesn't work: Right now it is hard to imagine anyone needing this life more than I do. The thought that anyone could need this more is ludicrous to me. From the moment that I knew that I was creating life, I was in love. I was planning their future and thinking of names and catching up on parenting techniques. I was rubbing my stomach and making promises to my growing poppy seed. I was bonded immediately. While I can see your intent to comfort me with my faith, there are better ways to instill that messaging.
Why you think it works: In most cases, you are probably genuinely concerned and are just meaning to check in on me. You don't mean anything by it.
Why it doesn't work: This was only said to me by one person. But that was enough to trigger a lot of emotion in me. This individual was not someone particularly close to me, they were someone that I did not know particularly well but was in-the-know by association. I did not have much dialogue with this individual and so when a number that was not saved in my phone called and I picked up, I was taken-a-back when the person on the other end kicked off the conversation with a concerned "what happened?!". This just feels a little accusatory and invasive. Nothing happened. I didn't do anything to cause this, this is just an unfortunate possibility in pregnancy that happened to me.
What I have learned is that there is really no right thing to say. So how can you best support the person you love in the wake of loss?
Validate. Stop trying to give me reasons to move on. Put your hand on mine and tell me you are sorry. Leave it at that and if I want to talk to you about it, I will. I don't want pity, please don't give me that look where you tilt your head and pout your lips. I want you to show me that you know my strength and that you are here for me if I need it. Other than that, it is business as usual.
Listen. Try not to feel so much pressure to say something. These are tough waters to navigate. It is really easy to say something with good intentions that could be hurtful. Right now I am not looking for advice. I just need you to listen. One of the most powerful interactions that I had was with a friend of mine. She said absolutely nothing, she put her hand on mine and just let me talk. I was so grateful that she didn't try to give me reasons to be happy. I was so grateful that she didn't look at me with pity. They looked at me with admiration for my strength and let me feel what I needed to feel.
Be present. Check-in with me from time to time. I am going to try really hard to put on my brave face. I may have difficulty opening up right away. You don't have to ask me if I am ok. Just be around and whether I want to talk or just want someone to take my mind off things - knowing that you are there will help. I also really appreciated the texts I got from friends or family giving their condolences and letting me know that I didn't have to respond, they just wanted me to know they were thinking of me.
Give hope. Personally, I found a lot of comfort in talking to people who have experienced this first hand. Speaking with mommies who have miscarried or struggled to conceive but eventually had their child gave me hope. If you are comfortable sharing your story, please do. You may find a new kind of peace in your loss inspiring hope in another woman.
I want to close this off by thanking friends and family that have taken the time to read this. Thank you for your understanding when I say that I know you weren't trying to hurt me. Thank you for caring enough to read this. I am still so grateful that you are trying your best to support me through this. I know it's hard but having this sort of dialogue will allow us to move forward in a way that better facilitates healing.