While some depression and sadness is normal after any type of loss, my friend’s reaction highlights the problem
Babies, by the time they’re born, aren’t normally a surprise. Yet, one day when I ran into a close friend with a new baby, I was shocked. “I didn’t even know you were pregnant!” I stammered, mentally cataloguing her appearance over the past few months and realizing I hadn’t seen her in person for quite some time.
“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to not tell you...I just didn't know what to say," she answered and then paused meaningfully. “Because, well, you know.”
I did know. Sadly, I’ve lost more babies than most women. I’ve had early and late miscarriages. I even had a daughter who was stillborn. And as I looked into my friend’s eyes, I could see she’d been trying to protect me (and possibly herself) from the painful fact that some women can have babies with zero complications, while for others it’s a series of broken dreams.
I sensed she’d hidden her pregnancy from me out of love, but her reticence to share one of the greatest moments of her life made me feel even more sad and alone. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. The truth is that miscarriage is incredibly common. About one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the Mayo Clinic, but that number is likely higher as many early miscarriages go unreported.
And even though a miscarriage technically occurs early on in the pregnancy—the CDC defines it as before 20 weeks gestation; after that it’s called a stillbirth—it can still be a real loss. Up to half of women who miscarry experience depression, and nearly 20 percent of those moms still feel depressed three years after their miscarriage, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
While some depression and sadness is normal after any type of loss, my friend’s reaction highlights the problem with how we deal with modern-day miscarriage. We know it exists, yet we don’t talk about it. And when it happens, we have no idea what to do. So we do nothing—which is the most painful part of all.
One of the things that was hardest for me after my pregnancy losses was knowing that many people, like my friend, deeply wanted to help and comfort me, but they didn’t know how. So in an effort to help others who know a loved one’s suffering after a miscarriage, here are a few suggestions of things not to do and, even more importantly, things you can do.
One of the kindest things anyone ever did was say “Tell me about her” at my stillborn daughter’s funeral. At first it seemed a little silly—how much can you talk about a baby that never even drew a breath?—but I found I had a lot I wanted to say, and acknowledging her existence in that way was so freeing for me.
Don’t worry about figuring out the “right” thing to say, either. Just ask her how she’s doing and let her do the talking. If she doesn’t feel up to it, that’s okay too. Speaking is only one way of communicating: journaling, writing letters to the baby, listening to music, and art are all other ways of expressing emotions that feel too difficult to verbalize. So in whatever way she wants to “speak,” just let her know you’re there to listen.
I found that a lot of people wanted a reason, either biological or existential, for my pregnancy losses. I did too, but more often than not there isn’t a reason. So avoid saying things like “It’s God’s will” or “You’re lucky, the baby probably had genetic problems” or “It’s because you didn’t rest enough.” You’re not their doctor or their priest, and saying these things is never helpful. Want to know what to say? “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “I love you and I’m here for you” were my personal favorites.
Milestone dates like the original due date, the one-year anniversary of the loss, or even birthdays of other babies born around the time of her child’s supposed-to-be birthday can be incredibly painful. I'm not saying you need to calendar all these and tiptoe around her, but if she seems particularly sad or angry, consider that it might be an anniversary and she might be struggling.
For some women, the pain of having a miscarriage can feel unbearable. But I've known other women who felt no real attachment to the baby, or who were even relieved when the pregnancy ended—and then they were made to feel guilty because they weren't sad about it. There’s no “right” way to feel about a miscarriage and many women have conflicting feelings. If you’re not sure what page she’s on, straight-up ask her. A simple, “How are you feeling?” can lead to a pretty enlightening answer, so long as you give her the space and comfort to feel like she can honestly express herself.
A miscarriage can be nothing more than a slightly-heavier-than-normal period, or it can be a major medical event that includes full-blown labor. If it's closer to the latter, then she will be suffering all the blood loss, pain, nausea, hemorrhoids, and other indignities of childbirth. Her breast milk might come in. She may still look slightly pregnant. If everything doesn’t come out properly, she might need a surgery called a D&C (or dilation and curettage). Not only may she still get hormone-induced “baby blues,” but she’s also at a higher risk for postpartum depression. All these physical problems can feel magnified because we feel like we're not "supposed to” have them, or even that we deserve to feel awful because we "failed" our baby. So bring her dinner, help her with chores, and if she is having a hard time physically recovering, help her get the medical care she needs.
Saying things like “Time heals all wounds” or “You can always have more children” or “It’s time you move on” aren’t helpful. These things may actually be true, but unless you’re a licensed professional, you don’t know that. And in that moment neither does she. There’s no set timeframe for grief, and focusing on the future in this way can make her feel guilty for being sad.
I know it may seem like the kind thing to not invite her to baby showers or christenings or park play dates, but the 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 while letting her know that if she doesn't feel up to it, you totally understand. For me, getting out played a huge role in helping me heal. I knew that other people were having babies and I wanted to be happy with them! And it made me feel better knowing that the people who were close with me before still wanted to spend time with me. It was the difference in them letting me make the decision for myself, rather than them making it for me.
Husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, and other significant others grieve too, but all too often they’re supposed to be “the strong one.” People assume that because they didn't carry the baby they don't feel the loss. Many of them do, so give them a hug and kind word as well.
Infant death is horrible, but most people will allow you to mourn as that baby "was real." That’s not always the case with miscarriages. Help reassure her by offering her a small token that acknowledges the “realness” of her child. This may be as simple as a card with the baby’s name, or it could be a piece of birthstone jewelry, a donation to a children’s charity in the baby’s name, or planting a tree. Some worry that by acknowledging a miscarriage in this way, you’re only helping the mother wallow in her grief. But in my experience, these things help facilitate the grieving process.