Monday, October 13, 2014

what NOT to say to someone who has experienced a miscarriage

i've already written here about things you SHOULD say when someone you care about experiences a pregnancy loss; it's only fair to now share some things you should avoid saying to a family -- especially the woman -- who has just had a miscarriage.  some may surprise you, as they sound thoughtful enough on the surface, but they still can cause a lot of pain.  as before, for simplicity, i'll use the female pronouns, but please remember that male partners are also grieving and are deserving of your compassion and sensitivity. 

1.  at least you know you can get pregnant.  because many people knew i struggled with even getting pregnant before each miscarriage, this was something that i heard more than a few times, and i even thought this privately, to myself.  but it hurts terribly to hear it out loud from someone else, because it highlights the fact that after all the waiting and hoping...those hopes are gone along with that tiny heartbeat.  no one wants to be pregnant only to lose the baby!  also, it can make her feel guilty about her sadness, because she knows that "at least" she had an experience that many women who want children will never have. 

2.  at least you weren't that far along.  once, when i told another mother who'd asked if L was my first child, that i'd lost three babies before having him, she was horrified.  "how old were they?" she wanted to know.  i told her i'd lost all of them right before the end of the first trimester. "oh!" she said, visibly relieved. "they weren't REAL babies, then." 
gentle reader, saying the above phrase is a just slightly more polite equivalent to saying to the grieving parent that their loss was not a loss of a real child.  look, whatever you believe about when life/personhood begins, the fact is that very real hopes and dreams have just died, and the loss of those is reason enough to grieve.  in addition, each pregnancy loss -- no matter how far along -- comes with its own set of physical complications that can also be incredibly difficult to deal with.  (see sidebar for direct links to my posts about having an MVA  (manual vacuum aspiration) or a medically-induced miscarriage with Misoprostol (Cytotec), or click directly.)

3.  keep trying, it'll happen./you can always have another one.   really? because we tried and tried and tried and didn't get pregnant and then we had a miracle positive test and then we were so hopeful and we tried to be positive and think THIS IS IT THIS IS THE ONE and then...oh, hey sorry, no. and then rinse and repeat.
i know not everyone who experiences pregnancy loss also struggles with infertility (which i once heard called "the silent corrosion of hope"), but many do.  and even if they haven't before, they might at any time, given the staggering array of factors that have to all align for a pregnancy to occur.  as for telling someone "you can always have another one," maybe they won't. maybe now they are having to deal with the death of the dream of having a larger family.  in addition, one baby does not replace another.  L is absolutely not the "replacement" for the three i will never meet.  nor is he my "happy ending."  this is why also saying "just be grateful for the kid(s) you do have" is also so painful to hear.  someone's sibling -- and the dream of having a sibling -- is gone.  and besides, it's possible you cannot even fathom the depth of gratefulness she has every day for the child(ren) she already has.  it's probably what gave her the courage to try for another one.

4.  this was God's (or the universe's, etc.) will./these things happen for a reason.  grief is messy, confusing, embarrassing, non-linear.  it is understandable that we want to make sense of it, find reasons, quantify, explain.  but that is the personal, (mostly) internal journey that you need to let the woman experiencing the loss of her baby make on her terms.  at worst, saying this comes off as pretentious (you know the bigger plan? really?) and condescending.  at best, it comes off as dismissive of her pain and struggle.

5. it's really common./it's nature's way of ending an unhealthy pregnancy.  true? yes.  like stomping on her already crushed heart? yes.  she's probably already heard this from her doctor(s), because they are trained to state medical facts.  but you know what?  carrying babies to full term is also really common.  and this whole "nature's way" thing essentially is saying that her baby was unfit to live.  just as there are so many factors that result in successful fertility, there are a dizzying, layered, uncountable number of reasons why a pregnancy may or may not result in a live, healthy baby.  which brings me to...

6. you shouldn't have ridden your bike/kept working out/done belly flops in the bounce house at that kid's birthday party even when you didn't even know you were pregnant.  (all things that were really said to me, or in my presence, by the way.) it is astonishing how people sometimes forget that they should turn ON their brain-to-mouth filter.  not only is it rude to imply that it's the mother's fault, it's also insensitive and cruel.  don't try to find reasons for why the baby was lost.  definitely don't guess at what she may or may not have done to cause the loss.  most likely it was nothing that she did or didn't do, but the two most overwhelming feelings, after grief, that accompany a miscarriage, are guilt and failure.  pleas don't contribute to either of these.  i remember that after losing the third child, my (clearly frustrated) OB/GYN took my hand and said: "you'd think that with all the medical advances we've made in the last hundred years, we'd also be able to reduce the statistics with miscarriages, and we haven't.  i'm so sorry."  it's still mostly a mystery to doctors who are trained to know about these things, so please don't ever try to explain to a grieving mother why her baby is gone...and never imply that the reason is her.

7.  why would you name it or have a memorial?/aren't you over this by now?  i have spoken to women who experienced pregnancy loss over 40 years ago, and they still get visibly emotional when they talk about the child they never got to know.  as i have written here before, you don't ever get over grief; you just move with it and get stronger.  also, questioning a couple's choice as to how they process the loss is not your business.  in fact, many women who were shamed into society's code of silence surrounding miscarriage when they first experienced it, find deep healing when they choose to finally recognize their loss in a ritualistic, deliberate way.  families might do anything from lighting a candle for their would-be child all the way to having a full service for them.  please don't judge.

8.  you must be absolutely heartbroken.  every pregnancy is different, and every pregnancy loss is different too -- physically, mentally, and emotionally.  parents who have lost an unborn child also choose to respond differently, so please don't assume that she's as devastated as you were when you experienced your loss.  while my experience has been that 9 out of 10 people i talk to about pregnancy loss have, at their honest core, true grief about the loss, there is always the 10th who doesn't.  maybe she didn't even know she was pregnant when she found out, or perhaps for whatever reason she didn't form any emotional attachment to the baby, or maybe she got pregnant again with a living child right afterwards and never really processed what happened.  in any case, don't make her feel guilty for NOT feeling bad; if you want to really know how she feels, just ask.  "how are you honestly feeling?" is a good place to start (see my post on things you SHOULD say).

please add any more suggestions in the comments!

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