“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to not tell you… I just, uh, just didn’t know what to say to you,” my friend said, tucking a soft blanket around her adorable chubby-cheeked infant. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to keep her warm or hide her from me.
“But why would you think I wouldn’t be happy for you?” I stammered, still thrown by the surprise of meeting what had been a very close friend who now had a baby I didn’t even know was coming.
“Well, because you… you know.”
I know. I know I had a miscarriage.
“How old is she?” I didn’t want to ask but I couldn’t help myself.
“Two months,” she answered. It felt like a punch to the gut but I tried not to show it.
I grinned my brightest grin and told her, honestly, “She’s marvelously perfect. Congratulations!”
And then I left to go cry in my car because if my daughter had lived she would have been two months old as well. Thinking over our conversation, I realized what had happened. We must have gotten pregnant together but our paths separated at 12 weeks when my “routine” ultrasound found no heartbeat. I remembered crying to her – the baby was very much wanted and I was devastated – but then she slowly drifted out of my life. She had never even told me she was pregnant – perhaps she was waiting for that magical 12-week test of viability so she wouldn’t have to publicly endure what I then had to publicly endure because I’d already told everyone I knew that I was pregnant. (I’ve never been good with secrets. Especially happy ones!)
In hindsight it was obvious why she had stopped calling but at the time I’d hardly noticed as I was so wrapped up in my grief and medical issues. (We found no heart beat at 12 weeks but by 20 weeks I still hadn’t miscarried “naturally” and of course I kept hoping that meant the ultrasound was wrong and she was really alive. But she wasn’t alive, she was just clingy and I finally had a D&C surgery which perforated my uterus and gave me the worst infection of my life. On Thanksgiving day.) I felt bad for not noticing her pregnancy or seeking her out to see how she was doing. But I felt even worse that she hadn’t just told me.
What did she think I’d do? Freak out? Curse her? Try to steal the baby? Did I remind her of the sad fact that some pregnancies don’t end with a baby? Most likely she just thought I was sad and didn’t want to add to my pain. Instead, perhaps afraid of saying the wrong thing, she said nothing to me at all. Maybe she was trying to protect me but losing a friend at that critical point in my life didn’t help.
Since then I went through a greater trauma, having a stillborn daughter (we had issues having children) and I’ve known many woman who’ve had miscarriages or lost babies. It’s given me a lot of time to think about the way we handle miscarriages in our society.
Miscarriages are funny things because depending on the woman and the situation it can be the devastating loss of a much-wanted child or a painful blop of ejected uterine tissue or a confusing mix of the two. And with about 30% of all pregnancies ending in a miscarriage it’s certainly important to discuss. So when I got this e-mail from E, it really hit home for me. I’ve spent two days thinking about it.
My sister had a miscarriage in December. She just sent an email saying that she is still really struggling. She said she still feels very “raw” and that as her due date approaches, its very upsetting to her. Having never experienced this myself, I am wondering what you did to find comfort. Also, do you know if its possible to have postpartum depression after only 13 weeks of pregnancy and/or after a miscarriage? I think she would really like to heal but just can’t seem to find peace and happiness. Surely a person doesn’t really ever get over that loss but how does one move on?
Dear E, first I want to tell you how lucky your sister is to have you in her life! I think it’s wonderful you are looking for ways to help and comfort her. Just having someone willing to listen will be a great blessing to her. That said, I do have a few suggestions for you, and for anyone who knows someone who’s having or has had a miscarriage. Just remember that each woman is different and the most important thing you can do is to listen – both to what they’re telling you and in the silences of what they’re not. Sometimes grief is like a batik painting, once the wax is washed away and the empty spaces appear only then can the picture take shape. A portrait of a baby who is not, painted by things that are not.
What To Do For a Woman Who’s Had a Miscarriage
1. Be mindful of anniversaries. E’s sister’s feelings about her due date are so painful and so normal. I remember the week leading up to my baby’s due date was extremely emotional for me and I dreaded it. Yet the day itself was sad but peaceful. My husband and I took a long walk on the beach and held hands and then went to bed early. For our stillborn daughter Faith, each year on her birthday I even make her a birthday cake. Other hard anniversaries to remember are the day of the actual miscarriage, the day she found out she was pregnant or even birthdays of other babies born around the time her child would have been born. I’m not saying you need to calendar all these and tiptoe around her but just keep an open mind and if she seems more sad than usual, consider it might be an anniversary.
2. Encourage her to talk about – or even to – her baby. Of course listen if she wants to talk but I’ve found that grieving women “talk” in so many more ways besides speaking. I’ve always been journaler (I know you’re shocked) so I found a great deal of comfort in writing a letter to the baby I miscarried. But if she’s not a writer, help her to paint a picture, make a scrapbook, shape a sculpture or do something else tangible to help her work out her feelings. Call me a hippie but I find art therapy to be immensely healing. And remember, the art is not about reflecting the baby – it’s about reflecting her feelings about the baby.
3. Give her a memento. I love wearing reminders of my kiddos (and not just because I keep forgetting all their names – although that is also true). I currently have a necklace with stamped metal disks that have the names of all my children – including the two deceased. My favorite gift to give a woman who’s just had a miscarriage or stillbirth is a birthstone ring or earrings in the color of the baby’s birth month. I’ve also seen pins or pendants of little feet, the size the baby’s would have been. One of the sweetest gifts I was given was when a friend went to a memorial/charity event about a year after my miscarriage and bought a candle with my baby’s name inscribed on it and then texted me the picture. I was so grateful that she was thinking of me and my lost one.
4. Help her make it real. Infant death is horrible but most people will allow you to grieve as that baby “was real.” But miscarriages are often treated as “not real babies” even though the loss can feel very real. Perhaps we didn’t lose a physical baby that we held in our arms but we lost the hope of that baby. We lost the dreams we had of his/her future. Worse, we were initiated into the very cruel reality that babies do die. For my husband and I, making our kids real meant naming them. We named the baby I miscarried Morgan, after a book “Morgan Mine” that I had loved as a child and also talked about the death of a baby. (Who knew those two things would ever go together? The 80’s were a weird time.) Some women may not be comfortable naming the baby and that’s fine too. Ask her what would help her make it real. Some people do memorial services. Others release a balloon into the sky, make a donation to a children’s charity, or plant a tree. The thing is: you can’t let go of something if you think you never had in the first place.
5. Include her! I know it may seem like the kind thing to not invite her to baby showers or christenings or parks with babies but the cold, hard truth is that she will see babies everywhere she goes. It may be all she sees for a while. And it does hurt. But being isolated won’t fix that. Offer her the invitation but with the gentle out that if she doesn’t feel up to it, you totally understand. Don’t make her go if she doesn’t want to go but let her make that choice – don’t make it for her. Plus, getting out for me was a huge key in helping me heal. I knew that other people were having babies and I wanted to be happy with them! If she cries, hand her a tissue and let her cry. Don’t be afraid to inhabit her hurt with her.
6. Be aware of the medical stuff. What many people don’t know is that a miscarriage can be excruciatingly painful. And I mean physically. Depending on how far along you are it can range anywhere from an abnormally heavy period to full-blown labor. And if it’s closer to the latter then she will be suffering all the blood loss, pain, nausea and other indignities of childbirth. Stuff you don’t really think about: When I lost my baby, my breast milk still came in. My body didn’t know my baby was dead. So I had to look up breast-binding and ways to dry up my milk. It sucked. E asked if post-partum depression is possible after a miscarriage – it absolutely is! And these hormonal issues can be made worse because we feel like we’re not “supposed” to have them or even that we deserve to feel awful because we “failed” our baby and so we don’t seek medical treatment. There are lots of possible physical complications that can occur so if she’s having a hard time recovering, get her to a doc!
6. Remember the husband/partner. They grieve too and it’s often made worse because they’re supposed to be “the strong one”. People assume that because they didn’t carry the baby they don’t feel its loss. Many of them do, deeply.
What Not To Say To a Woman Who’s Had a Miscarriage
Normally I’d stop my advice here but over the years I’ve been asked SO MANY times “what not to say” to a woman who’s just had a miscarriage or lost a baby. The first thing I tell people is SAY SOMETHING. Say anything. Even if it’s the wrong thing, letting her know you care and are there is a good thing. But that said, there were a few things that really bothered me. And the worst part was that the speaker usually meant them in a kind way! So in the effort to save another mom a little pain, here are my 10 things not to say to a woman who has just miscarried a baby:
1. “It’s God’s will.” I’m religious but even I found this a bit pretentious. Who are you to know what God’s will is? And if the woman is not religious this is even more unhelpful.
2. “It probably had genetic problems, you should feel lucky it didn’t survive.” Not all of us consider a child who is disabled to be a curse. And even so, especially with early miscarriages the cause is often unknown. Speculating about why it happened doesn’t help.
3. “I told you you shouldn’t have kept running/ate sushi/uncrossed your legs on the bus!” Anything that blames the mother is cruel. And anything that starts with “I told you so” is rude.
4. “You must be devastated!” This is a tricky one. Depending on many factors surrounding the pregnancy a woman may or may not feel sad about the miscarriage. For some women the pain is acute but I’ve known plenty others who felt no real attachment to the baby that early on and were made to feel guilty that they weren’t sad. A better approach is to ask “How are you feeling about this?” and then listen.
5. “Let me know if I can help.” This is sweet but it is too vague. Most likely she won’t let you know because it will feel like an imposition. Suggest something you would feel comfortable doing like “May I bring you dinner tomorrow night?” or “Could I take you out to Starbucks for a little break?”
6. “You should be over this by now.” The loss of any child can potentially be devastating for years to come. There is no set time frame for grieving. If you feel like she is “stuck” in the process or has a mental illness then there are kinder ways to help her get help.
7. “Well it’s not like you were that far along…” When you lose a baby, you lose all the hopes and dreams you had for that child, no matter how far along you are. I’ve lost a baby in each trimester and each one was devastating to me in its own right. In addition to the mental pain, there can be physical complications as well. I ended up with a perforated uterus and the worst infection of my life after losing a baby that most people didn’t even know I was carrying.
8. “You can always have more kids.” This may be true but there are so many factors in fertility, unless you are her OBGYN then you don’t know enough to say this. And even if it is the case, for many women one baby does not replace another.
9. “Time heals all wounds.” Eventually perhaps. But saying this to someone at the height of their grief minimizes all the struggles they are having right now, in this time.
10. “You shouldn’t have a funeral/name the baby/keep talking about it.” Grieving is such an individual process. Whatever helps them grieve and heal is appropriate. If it makes you uncomfortable you don’t need to participate. Also, don’t put a time limit on grief. Some people move past it quickly while others will miss that baby for the rest of their lives. Or both. There’s no wrong answer.
If you can’t think of anything to say, simply say “I love you.” And hug her.
Have any of you had a miscarriage? What would you say to the letter writer? This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive – and I’m not trying to speak for any one else so I really hope you chime in with your own experiences and advice!