Friday, October 18, 2013

what to say to someone who's experienced a miscarriage

one of the most common questions i'm asked is variations of "my friend/co-worker/family member just had a miscarriage.  what do i say/what can i do?"
i have been very public about having three (since writing this, it's now four) pregnancy losses, and struggling with infertility* in between, so it follows that i've experienced a wide spectrum of responses. i'll start with the positive answer -- things you SHOULD say or do when someone you care about has a pregnancy loss.  here's my list of suggestions.  for simplicity, i'll use female pronouns, but be aware that men can be just as affected by a pregnancy loss, although perhaps in different ways.**  (you can find my post on what NOT to say by clicking here.)

1.  i'm so sorry.  no matter what your experience is with pregnancy loss, the fact is that a tragedy has occurred.  even if she brushes off your condolences, offer them.  she may be brushing them off because there is such strong societal pressure to stay quiet about miscarriage -- why else are we told to not tell people about a pregnancy until after the first trimester?  while it is true that someone's response to their miscarriage may range from disappointment up to crushing devastation, she's still lost a baby.  one of the most meaningful responses i got was a relative stranger looking me straight in the eye and just saying, slowly and with great meaning, "i'm. so. sorry." and then being silent with me.

2. your baby was loved and important, and i will remember him or her.  every pregnancy is the human embodiment of hope, and that hope was lost along with the child.  many mothers fear that since no one ever saw their child, their memory will be lost along with that hope.  acknowledging that the baby was important, and was a real child -- not just an idea or a dream -- is comforting and validating.  even now, when my sister or a friend refers to one of my lost babies by name, it is a huge gift.

3.  how are you honestly feeling?  asking this question really means i want to listen to you.  communicate that you are available to hear her vent, cry, verbalize tangled feelings, be angry and confused, etc.  asking this open-ended question -- as opposed to asking "are you doing ok?" -- indicates you're not asking her to feel better or braver or have a positive answer.  sometimes the one thing that gave me courage to keep moving forward was knowing that there were people -- including my amazing husband -- that were equally ready for me to answer this question with possible heaving sobs or with possible measured, rational words.  and that either way, i wasn't going to freak them out.

4.  when can i bring you a meal/a good book/my housecleaning talents? or when are you free this week for lunch/coffee/a Skype or telephone chat? in other words, offer what i've heard called a "practical act of kindness."  just saying "let me know if i can help" is nice, but it's also an invitation to do nothing.  of course, saying any of the above assumes that the person who's experienced the loss is a close enough friend or family member that you know her well enough to know what to offer.  i never wanted to be an imposition on anyone, and also -- especially when the grief was still fresh and just getting through the day without dissolving into a tearful heap was an effort -- i didn't have the brains to even know what it was that i might need help with. i deeply appreciated friends who were more specific and proactive in offering me tangible kindness. i'm an extrovert, so i wanted, no, i needed to be in the company of people, so offers to get together were greatly appreciated.  when one of my miscarriages occurred during a time when my husband had a particularly grueling work schedule, a friend came over once and quietly did her freelance computer work while i went about my day simply so i would not have to be alone in the house.

5.   i (or someone i love) lost a baby too. obviously, this is something you would say only if it is true.  and it is not the same as saying "i know just how you feel" which is NOT recommended -- everyone's loss is felt differently, and they lost their child, not yours.  however, simply stating that you have had a similar experience opens the door for her to talk about her loss more freely.  in her excellent memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken, who lost her baby in her ninth month of pregnancy, writes:
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“All I can say, it’s a sort of kinship, as though there is a family tree of grief…When something terrible happens, you discover all of a sudden that you have a new set of relatives, people with whom you can speak in the shorthand of cousins…It happened to me too meant It’s not your fault and You are not a freak of nature. And This does not have to be a secret.
6.  you are a mother.  i initially hesitated to include this one because it may be very personal, and you will need to be intuitive if this will help or not.  but recognizing that you do not need a living child to be a mother may be one of the most validating things for her.  the truth is that this affirmation, which i received from several friends, is a source of comfort and strength for me even now.   one friend, who isn't even a mother herself, sent me a handmade card one mother's day long before i had a living child to remind me she remembered our lost babies.

7.  i don't know what to say... you know what? it's totally fine to be at a loss for words in the face of an unexplainable tragedy.  when something awful happens to someone you care about, you aren't required to explain it away or make sense of it.  if you don't know what to say, say so out loud.  and then just give her a hug.  sometimes that's the most powerful way to show you are willing to shoulder a little bit of the burden of sorrow she now carries.

please feel free to add any other suggestions in the comments!


*what? how can you be infertile if you can get pregnant? in the wacky world of reproductive medicine, you can be considered infertile if you have actively tried to conceive for more than a year (or sometimes 6 months, depending on the age of the mother) without getting pregnant.  you can have a living child and still be considered infertile -- it's called secondary infertility.  in addition, if you have two or more consecutive miscarriages, you are also considered infertile.  yes, it's very confusing.

**men, if you can, please be willing to talk to the male partner who is experiencing the pregnancy loss.  the code of silence surrounding miscarriage is even more difficult for men, and having another man to talk to about it -- whether about mourning the loss themselves, or how to compassionately deal with their grieving partner -- can be tremendously helpful.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

international pregnancy & infant loss remembrance day

today, October 15th, is a day designated for the national remembrance of children lost too soon: babies lost to miscarriage, stillbirth, or newborn death.  all across the globe, people will be lighting candles between 7:00-8:00pm (19:00-20:00) local time to remember either their own children gone or in solidarity with other grieving/healing parents.  it is to increase awareness and to bring those marked by such a loss together in unity.  grief is isolating; knowing others can share your pain or understand it, without explanation or apology, makes it less so. 
in our home, we now observe this day as Tummymuffin Remembrance Day; we will remember and celebrate our first three Tummymuffins and talk about them with their brother.  L may have no clue what it's all about now, but as he gets older, he will know what the candles mean, and why they're important.  pregnancy loss shouldn't be a hush-hush topic; too often it's treated as a shameful secret that must be hidden...but why is that so? is it to protect others from feeling bad? is it to avoid the awkwardness of sharing someone's pain?

a few days ago, an acquaintance told me she was expecting again.  after the round of congratulations, she revealed that she'd lost a baby between this one and her living daughter, and had lost one before that.  i told her, seriously, that i was so sorry for her losses.
she brushed aside my condolences: "really, it's okay.  i mean, it's in the past. it's fine, it's fine."
i looked her in the eye and told her that i'd lost three babies before having the miracle fourth one.
she stopped, grabbed my hand, and said "oh. oh. you know.  you really KNOW then. yeah." and was quiet.
"i'm so happy about your new little boy-to-be," i said, "but i will remember and celebrate the other two with you also."
"no one has ever said that to me before," she said thoughtfully.  "they do deserve celebration, don't they?"
yes. yes, they do.

so please, if you or someone you love has lost a child before or right after birth, take a moment to remember, recognize, and celebrate that little life.  and offer comfort, hope, and healing to those who may need it.

for more information about October 15th, you can read more here and here.  for a thoughtfully-written blog post about it, you can go here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

an open letter to parents grieving a miscarriage

An Open Letter To Anyone Who Has Experienced Pregnancy Loss
(...actually a real letter i sent to a married couple i never met; i was asked to write to them by a mutual friend.  names have been replaced.)

dear Parents,

your friend, who loves you, told me that you have recently lost your first child, and asked me if i had any advice.  my heart goes out to you, and i am deeply sorry for your loss.  my husband and i also lost three (since the time of this writing, it is now four) children to miscarriage, all right before the end of the first trimester.
i've never been asked before to write directly to someone about it; i write a lot on a blog (www.tummymuffin.net) about it, as i know how isolating grief can be -- especially when it is grief for your unborn child that no one, not even you, got to meet.  i'm so sorry that you are having to mourn the loss of a dream and a future.  it is a real loss.

that is my first thing to say -- don't feel you must minimize or play down your loss.  it is a wrenching thing and no matter what your doctor, well-meaning friends and family, or anyone else says about statistics/commonality/you can try again/etc. the fact remains: you had a baby that you loved, and now you don't.
the next thing is: you do not get over or through the loss of a child.  you move with it.  let your sadness and grief be a healing thing, and give each other room to grieve as they see fit.  Father, you may be frustrated by your inability to "fix" this.  my husband's pain was the most acute over seeing me go through the losses, and was less about the losses themselves.  Mother, you may feel like your body has betrayed you and you've somehow failed all those who were being hopeful for the baby with you, especially your husband.  i think this feeling is common; i most certainly felt that way and many other women i know who have experienced babyloss and infertility say this is how they feel too.  PLEASE! be kind and gentle to yourself -- both the inner you and the outer physical you.  and allow others to be kind and gentle to you too.  you don't need to "tough this out."
next, i would encourage you both to trust each other and trust the strength of whatever it was that put you together and keeps you together.  whether that is good communication, a strong friendship, great sex, enjoying each other's conversation and company, your unconditional trust and love for one another, etc. -- or all of these things -- lean on it, and trust it to hold.  talk about what is happening out loud.  check up on each other.  be very honest about how you are feeling about further potential children.  you can and will be stronger because of this tragedy.
finally, i would strongly recommend that you ritualize/memorialize your baby in some way that is meaningful to you both.  we chose to give our babies names on their due dates and light a candle for them.  for one, we paddled out into the ocean on our surfboards and released flowers on the waves.  for another, we planted a tiny flower in a wooded area.  and for another, we simply sat together in a beautiful space and said our goodbyes out loud.  now we celebrate the short lives of our babies every October 15th, which is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day (more info at www.october15th.com, or you can find posts about it on my blog).

oh Parents, your road may feel unbearably long and your world suffocatingly dark right now.  you may wonder if you will ever be happy again, or if you will survive this.  you will.  you will heal, and you will have the stamina to keep walking, and there will be light, which is the love of all those who care for you.  i hope in some way this letter can be a small lantern for your journey.

peace to you.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

happy ending?

well, hello.  sorry it's been such a long time since you've heard me here.  i'm sure you can guess why...

anyway.  thoughts. comments. hmmm.  this is harder than it once was, to listen to and transcribe these pieces of me, the internal me, She Who Has Things To Say.  but i'll try.
i recently received a communication from an old family friend who knew of the Tummymuffin losses but only found out about L/Tummymuffin IV's arrival from this year's Christmas greetings.  she was clearly overjoyed for us; she gushed congratulations and exclaimed, "i'm so glad your story has a happy ending!"
at the time, the comment was unremarkable, but lately it has bothered me more and more. i know it was well-meant, but it has troubling implications.  for those struggling with pregnancy loss and infertility, having a baby is NOT the answer to your pain and grief. it is NOT how you will ever be happy again.  it is NOT the end of your story, or your partner's story, or your journey towards family.  resolution does not come from a full-term pregnancy, a successful IVF, a finalized adoption, a decision to be child-free, or anything in between.
i believe that resolution comes from accepting the grief and committing to the ongoing process of healing.  i believe that resolution comes from learning to hold life with soft hands and knowing what to let go of, and when to let go of it.  i believe that resolution comes from understanding that gratefulness and pain coexist; joy and pain can be simultaneous, and not struggling against that reality.  i believe that resolution is not an ending, it is actually a beginning of being open to and aware of new things.
i am uncomfortably aware that this sounds dangerously like some gooey self-help guest on a bad daytime talk show.  but i am speaking from the hard-earned other side of experience.  not a day goes by that i am not acutely aware of how different the experience of motherhood after loss is from the mainstream messages i hear about parenting a child.  there is less to complain about, less to feel that i've lost of my pre-Tummymuffin life, less to take for granted, less to feel entitled to, less to grasp at, less to worry about.  there is more to savour in the small moments, more to let go of, more to feel wonder about, more to celebrate, more to fall in love with, more to slow down for, more for gratefulness to take root in.  i'm convinced that losing three babies, struggling with getting pregnant, and working through the resulting anger and pain has made the daily experience of mothering a thousandyzillion percent better -- because of the perspective.  now don't hear what i'm not saying -- i would still rather know my first three Tummymuffins on this side of life -- but the experience of not having them has made me a better, different, and stronger mother for their brother.
which i guess brings me to something i said recently to a friend who was looking for advice in dealing with losing a baby to a years-ago abortion; long-buried pain and grief were surfacing in terribly painful ways, and she was wondering if carrying that sadness ever got easier.  i've written here before that grief has no expiration date, but i recalled something i'd just read: it doesn't get easier, but you get stronger.*  do not look for ease.  hope lies in strength, growing secretly inside your crushed heart, showing itself when you least expect it. 
so.  i do not think my story is "ended," it merely continues on -- yes, with a very thrilling chapter about a baby boy -- but oh there is SO much more to unfold.  and so much more room to grow.

 *of course i had to search for the source of this marvelous phrasing; at the time i couldn't remember where the heck i'd seen it.  thanks to The Googles, here is the link to Beth Woolsey's post; wouldn't you know, it was originally said about being a mother...