i have been very public about having three 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.**
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:
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.“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.”
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.