“At least you know you can get pregnant,” said my doctor friend when I told her I’d had a miscarriage, 12 weeks into my first pregnancy, and following a painful struggle with infertility. “There was probably something wrong with the baby,” said one relative. “Just think of all the fun you’ll have trying again,” said another.
After my second miscarriage – a rare form of ectopic pregnancy – the focus was on the fact I was already a mother. “At least you’ve already got a child,” well-meaning friends told me, as did the surgeon who delivered the news that the pregnancy – and subsequent surgery – had left me infertile.
Not only did these insensitive comments hurt. They also made me feel diminished, as if I had no right grieving for a baby that never existed. As if I were greedy to want another child when I already had one.
As many as one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage so you would think we’d be better at talking to women who have lost a baby. But if you’ve experienced miscarriage – or are close to someone who has – you’ll know how clumsy people can be with their words.
Perhaps it’s because it can be uncomfortable discussing “female” things such as bleeding and cramps. Or maybe it’s because people don’t associate early miscarriage (generally defined as a loss that occurs before the 20th week of pregnancy) with a “real” baby. Whatever the reason, when you experience miscarriage you quickly discover that even the nicest people can say the most insensitive things.
Almost every woman I know who has experienced miscarriage has a story about something inappropriate someone said following her loss.
After losing twins, one friend was told it was for the best “as she wouldn’t have been able to cope anyway”. Another endured speculation about whether her migraines were to blame, as “stress [caused by migraines] can kill babies in the womb”. “At least it was nice and early” offered little comfort to the colleague who lost babies six and seven weeks into her pregnancies.
But while words can wound, saying nothing can be just as bad.
I’m generally a positive person but both times I miscarried, I experienced extreme hopelessness. One minute I was imagining holding my baby in my arms, reading her a bedtime story or helping her take her first steps. The next I was in this dark, shadowy place, where I couldn’t see anything to live for. I thought I would never be able to stop crying. The worst thing was the crushing loneliness: the phone stayed silent – most people were too afraid to call.
I’m generally a positive person but both times I miscarried, I experienced extreme hopelessness
When a friend or loved one loses a baby, the worst thing you can do is stay away. Picking up the phone or calling round to their home – even when you don’t know what to say – takes guts, but is better than doing nothing at all. Offering to cook, babysit, run errands – or any other practical help – can be enough to show you care.
Acknowledge the loss by asking when the baby was due to be born. If she doesn’t want to share she’ll say so. But steer clear of meaningless platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” or “you can try again” (she can’t – that baby is gone for ever – and that was the baby she wanted). Anything that starts with “at least” will sound like you’re trying to minimise the loss – so don’t go there.
Do remember that everyone experiences grief and loss differently. I left a party in tears last year after someone made a point of telling me they’d miscarried twins and it hadn’t really bothered them. The conversation that followed was so painful – even 10 years after my last miscarriage – it took my breath away. So you had a miscarriage yourself and got over it in a few days. That’s great, but it doesn’t mean everyone else should do.
In fact a 2011 study found that the depression and anxiety experienced by many women after a miscarriage can continue for years, even after the birth of a healthy child.
If you’ve recently found out you’re pregnant yourself you can’t avoid the subject for ever. But a sensitive phone call (rather than a scan picture on a Facebook message – yep, that happened to me) is probably a better bet.
Remember, also, that miscarriage hurts dads too, but they are often so busy looking after their partner that their grief goes unacknowledged. A simple hug or “how are you doing?” can go a long way.
I was saved by a wise friend who didn’t try to offer explanations, “fix” things or tell me about her friend/sister/aunt who miscarried umpteen times but went on to have a healthy baby. Who was brave enough to turn up on my doorstep with a hug and box of chocolates and just listen. Who understood that “I’m sorry” was all I needed to hear. That alone was priceless.
• Janet Murray is a writer, speaker and fundraiser for miscarriage awareness. She is running the 2018 London Marathon raise money for the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust
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