The loss of a pregnancy is an extremely devastating event, and unfortunately, the sensitive nature of miscarriage and infant loss often results in emotions being pushed aside, grief being minimized, and the overall experience being swept under the rug. The good news is that in recent years, the once-taboo topic of miscarriage has finally begun to be brought out into the light, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to allowing parents to properly process and talk about their unique experiences, and ultimately, truly grieve their losses.
One of the biggest challenges parents – particularly women – face immediately after experiencing a miscarriage is difficulty processing and sharing their grief, and the often complex, raw emotions that come with it. Miscarriage is painful, both physically and emotionally, and can sadly be an extraordinarily isolating experience. Many women tend to suffer in silence, either not knowing – or not wanting – to share their experiences or embrace the support of friends, family, and the community. Often, those who care the most and have the absolute best intentions simply end up saying the wrong thing, making an already difficult situation even harder.
Fortunately, there are several helpful things to both say and do if a friend or a loved one has recently experienced a miscarriage. Here are 15 things to never say, and five things you always should:
There are several reasons why miscarriages happen – most of which we know, thanks to science. So when a woman hears from someone other than a doctor that her miscarriage happened “for a reason”, it can be the opposite of helpful. In fact, it can be extremely damaging and further isolate her in her grief by suggesting that there was some sort of plan that she wasn't privy to. It also assumes spirituality or religion, which is not something that everyone subscribes to. While believing in an all-powerful being at the helm of a carefully-planned universe can be comforting, the reality is it minimizes the event and the very real emotions that come along with it. The truth is, there isn’t always a reason for bad things happening, and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, most miscarriages happen in the first trimester and are often a result of chromosomal abnormalities. Unfortunately, this type of loss cannot be prevented. A miscarriage is nobody’s fault, but that doesn’t stop many women from blaming themselves nonetheless and questioning every little thing. The human brain is designed to look for cause and effect when something terrible happens because as human beings, we're often desperate for answers. Of course, most of the time we never get them, so we simply believe that we're to blame. Hearing “don’t blame yourself” just adds to the guilt.
Most women who experience a miscarriage will go on to have a perfectly healthy pregnancy and baby – but in the aftermath of a miscarriage, emotions are very raw and frankly, nobody is thinking that far down the road. After a loss, women are grieving the very pregnancy that they lost; the future that they are no longer promised, and the hopes and dreams for a baby that will never be. In that moment, it truly doesn’t matter if they can get pregnant again or not – what has been lost cannot be replaced and implying that another pregnancy can do so is hurtful and dismissive.
Even though a majority of miscarriages happen because there was something wrong with the developing fetus, one should never assume that this is the case. In fact, there are rare circumstances in which a miscarriage happens due to a physical problem with the mother – such as clotting and immunological disorders, thyroid problems, and diabetes. In some cases, she may not even be aware of these complications until after the fact. And if she is aware, she is likely taking the necessary steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future. At the end of the day, however, focusing on why the miscarriage ended doesn’t help anyone – especially grieving parents. What truly helps is compassion, understanding and support.
Try as it might, our rational brain is often unable to silence our emotional brain after we experience a traumatic event such as a miscarriage. Grief is not rational. That’s why following the loss of a pregnancy, some women lie awake at night making lists of the reasons why things happened the way they did: stress, work, flying on an airplane, scooping cat litter, drinking half a beer, having a cold, taking 14,000 steps a day, moving furniture, mopping the floors. Chances are, grieving parents have racked their brains over and over again, and don’t need further suggestions as to why their pregnancy ended. Unsolicited advice during this time is largely unhelpful.
Similar to the claim that “everything happens for a reason”, suggesting that a miscarriage happened simply because a baby wasn’t meant to exist also implies that a higher power is in control – which is not a belief that everyone shares. It also dismisses the fact that there were people who really wanted it to be, and suggests that their desires simply didn’t matter, or that they weren’t deserving. It takes the easy way out by sweeping the loss under the rug, ignoring the very real impact that it will have on several lives for months, even years to come – not to mention future pregnancies. Despite how comforting it may seem on the surface, saying that it wasn’t meant to be doesn’t offer any support – in fact, it’s an empty platitude that does the complete opposite.
The loss of a baby at any stage of pregnancy is devastating, period. It doesn’t matter if it happened in the first few weeks, or the first few days: the emotional impact of a loss like this is universal. A miscarriage is painful no matter how far along the pregnancy was, and by suggesting that an earlier miscarriage is preferable to one that happens in the later stages of pregnancy has the potential to make a woman feel like her loss doesn’t matter as much as someone else’s, or that she’s overreacting and should feel grateful for the unfortunate hand that she was dealt.
Miscarriage doesn’t discriminate. In fact, miscarriage affects approximately 1 in 4 women, and it can happen to anyone, even women who have had successful pregnancies in the past and have gone on to have healthy children. One of the most hurtful things to say to a grieving mother is “at least you have other children.” This is basically implying that grieving for her loss makes her ungrateful, and that she needs to let go of what she lost, and focus on and appreciate what she has instead. Grief isn’t selfish, and it is certainly not ungrateful. Grief is healthy and normal and necessary and should never be dismissed – in any situation.
A miscarriage is an intensely private and personal experience that unfortunately many women go through alone, and it can be uncomfortable having to share the emotional aspects, let alone the physical ones. Remembering grim details such as the level of pain that was endured during a miscarriage is not likely something anyone wishes to recollect, let alone share, and sometimes it is better not to press for the more intimate details. It’s really nobody else’s business, and if a woman wishes to share details of her experience, let her be the first to open the conversation. Sometimes simply being there to listen when the time comes can be the most helpful.
Most likely, the absolute last thing on the mind of any woman who has just experienced the loss of a pregnancy is thinking about when they are going to try for another baby. Emotions following a miscarriage are far too raw, and it may be unimaginable and next to impossible to even contemplate starting over again, while still grieving the future that was suddenly lost. The good news is, a miscarriage doesn’t necessarily predict the outcome of future pregnancies (meaning most women go on to have healthy pregnancies later on), however, that is a rarely comforting statistic in the early days following a loss.
No matter what your beliefs are, most women fall in love the moment those lines turn pink. Almost immediately, the signs of a growing baby appear: the nausea, the hot flashes, the bloating. Sometimes, there’s even a heartbeat and a kick. A whole new world of possibilities opens up once a woman discovers that she is expecting; futures are planned out, name lists are drawn up, and nursery designs are pinned. In the mind of many excited parents, a baby is a very real thing months before they even arrive – which makes it all the more devastating when a pregnancy ends too soon.
There’s nothing more terrifying than the thought of going through another miscarriage after experiencing one – or more than one. Unfortunately, for many women who have had prior miscarriages, it will always be something that is in the back of their mind going forward. Nobody can predict the outcome of future pregnancies, not even most medical professionals (unless there is a diagnosed condition). This is especially true if a previous miscarriage was early and there was no underlying reason. Assuring somebody that everything will be okay in the future is reckless and can sometimes make subsequent losses (should they happen) even more difficult to manage.
Sometimes the concept of fun and relaxation are truly unimaginable following a traumatic event such as a miscarriage. For some women, the aftermath of pregnancy loss can have a devastating and lasting impact, with many suffering from prolonged grief, anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Saying they can now relax and have fun is essentially suggesting that a woman ignore her sadness and replace it with something else, which will prevent her from ever fully processing her grief. The notion of “fun” may also be a reminder of the sacrifices that women make to maintain a healthy pregnancy, and could actually end up making her feel worse than she already does.
Probably the two most cliché phrases in the English language are “hang in there” and “stay strong.” They immediately invoke the classic 80s motivational poster of a kitten clinging to a tree with a terrified look on its face. They’re neither genuine nor helpful, and do absolutely nothing to address the very real, and very complex emotions that accompany a miscarriage. Staying strong, for example, isn’t necessarily a positive way to grieve and process a traumatic experience such as a miscarriage. It’s actually completely normal to not to feel strong sometimes, especially in this situation. Instead of blurting out lazy, overused platitudes, try showing that you are sympathetic to the situation and appreciate how difficult it must be (more on what should be said coming up).
Feelings of sadness following a miscarriage are extremely healthy and normal and need to be felt. After all, grief and loss isn’t something we simply “get over” and immediately move on from. They are all part of the healing process, and to insist that somebody move on and skip the very important work of moving through these emotions can be extremely detrimental. While these types of conversations can be uncomfortable, it’s important to let parents who have experienced a loss decide when they are ready to take the next steps. Everybody grieves on their own time, and no two experiences are the same.
Finding the right things to say to a friend or loved one following a miscarriage can be tricky. Most people want to offer encouraging words of support, but more often than not, they fall flat. A good place to start is to think of what you would want in a situation like this, if it was reversed. As mentioned above, everybody grieves on their own time. Some may heal more quickly than others, and some may need more time to move through their emotions. Saying something as simple as "I'm sorry, when you're ready, I'm here" tells them there is no rush, and no pressure to talk if that is even something they want to do at this time. Eventually, they may come around.
Following the loss of her pregnancy, always listen to mom when she is ready to share how she is feeling. But most importantly, let her be angry. Let her feel, think, say and confront every emotion that bubbles up over the surface - even the ones that she probably doesn't truly mean in the heat of the moment. There is a lot to process, and it's important to remind those who have suffered a loss that it's okay to feel what they are feeling, even if it's something that's coming from a dark place. The clouds will part eventually, and they will be grateful that they had a non-judgmental ear when they needed it the most.
When we go through traumatic experiences - specifically grief and loss - nothing means more than knowing that there is somebody else who has been through something similar. Kind words and support from friends and family are helpful to a degree, but there's something incredibly comforting in knowing that you truly aren't alone. That there are people out there who know exactly what you are thinking and feeling, right in this moment. When dealing with a friend of a loved one who has experienced a miscarriage, share your own experience with loss if you feel comfortable - especially how you overcame it. This can be extremely encouraging, and provide much-needed hope.
Telling - not asking - a friend or loved one who has just experienced a loss that you are coming over to bring them food is the perfect alternative to asking the dreaded question, "Is there anything I can do?" This will be asked literally dozens of times, and doesn't really offer any support. It puts the onus on the person who needs help to come up with something they need - and in that very moment, they may not know exactly what that is. Food, however, is pretty much the one thing that everybody needs, at all times. Food is healing, nourishing and can be incredibly uplifting for someone who has just experienced a miscarriage and is focusing on recovery.
Sometimes, saying absolutely nothing at all can be the best form of support - especially if you aren't sure exactly what you should say. While words can often be a source of great comfort, there are times when they simply aren't necessary or end up being unintentionally hurtful. Instead, just being there as a shoulder to cry on, a friend to laugh with, or an ear to listen can be the greatest gift of all for someone going through a loss. Saying nothing isn't doing anything - it leaves room to let a conversation happen if it needs to. And even if it doesn't, that's perfectly okay!
References: The American Pregnancy Association