Let’s talk about pregnancy and infant loss. I know, you don’t want to. Neither do I, really. It’s a heavy, sad, difficult topic. And just like any other type of grief or death, you don’t know what to say. You want to help your loved one—maybe it’s your friend, your sister, or even your wife—but you don’t know what to say. You’re afraid to say the wrong thing.
You know what? If you’re consciously worried about saying the wrong thing, that’s a good sign. Because the first step to being supportive to someone who’s experiencing pregnancy or infant loss is to acknowledge that there is a wrong way to handle it, that you don’t understand what she’s going through. And it’s perfectly OK that you don’t understand.
I’ve had several early miscarriages and one ectopic pregnancy. I’ve been down the road of pregnancy loss enough times to understand that it comes with a cocktail of emotions—the exact mixture of which is unique to each woman—that usually includes sadness, fear, anger, humiliation, guilt, confusion, and shame. These are difficult feelings to navigate one at a time, but put them together and it’s significantly harder.
During each of my losses, I received a lot of support from friends and family. I also heard a lot of things I wish I hadn’t heard. I always knew that people “meant well,” but I think as a society we are capable of doing better than simply having good intentions and saying utterly ridiculous, unhelpful things to grieving mothers. So let me point you in the right direction.
When it comes to saying the right or wrong thing to a woman who is experiencing pregnancy or infant loss, I believe there is one important guideline to keep in mind: Do not project your own beliefs and feelings onto this person. Do not make assumptions about what she is experiencing.
It’s that simple.
You don’t get to say that it just wasn’t the right time for this baby.
You don’t get to say that heaven has another angel.
You don’t get to say that it wasn’t really a baby.
You don’t get to say that it absolutely was a baby: maybe that’s not the way she feels about this loss.
You don’t get to say this was part of God’s plan.
You don’t get to say that it’s for the best, that there was probably something wrong with the baby.
You don’t get to say that it’s OK, you’re still young, you’ll have another.
You don’t get to ask what she’d been eating, how much she’d been exercising, if she’d taken a medication that maybe made this her fault.
Don’t dismiss her loss. It counts. But also don’t over-emote on her behalf, as in, “This is so awful! You must be so devastated! Aren’t you just so disappointed and scared?”
I know it seems like I’m preventing you from saying all the things that may be on the tip of your tongue. Just remember that something that may bring you comfort, peace, or hope may not have the same effect on someone else. So instead, be open. Let her know you’re there for her. Ask questions like, “How can I support you right now?” knowing that she may not have the answers and it will be up to you to continue to check in and let her know you’re there.
Tell her that you are here to listen, that you will give her space if she wants it (she may not have any interest in attending your weekly mom’s group where half the members bring their newborn babies) but that you’re not going anywhere.
Remind her that she is allowed to feel her feelings, even if they’re only bad ones, for as long as she needs to. Reassure her that she doesn’t have to “think positive” right now if she doesn’t feel like it. Let her cry with you. Bring her dinner. Send her a card that simply lets her know that you know how hard this is, that you love her.
If you’ve had a loss yourself, you may be an important source of comfort to your friend, but please remember not to make this about you, and don’t assume that she’s experiencing her loss the same way that you did. But do share, and do let her know that you can relate to much of what she’s going through. Pregnancy loss is isolating, and knowing the road has been travelled before can be extremely helpful.
When I had an ectopic pregnancy, the treatment was extremely painful and debilitating. My daughter’s preschool staff rallied around us and provided a week’s worth of dinners for our family. I will never forget it. The silent message they sent was: “This is a loss. You are struggling, and we are here to help you. You are not alone.”
Think before you speak when reaching out to a friend who’s lost a baby or miscarriage. But don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing prevent you from reaching out. Your friend needs to know that she’s not alone, that she hasn’t been banished or that people are afraid of her loss. Remember to be open, to follow her lead, to give her room to share, and to offer love and comfort without projecting your own beliefs onto your friend.
Pregnancy loss is laced with silence, fear, and shame, and it’s time to bring it into the light. Talk about it. Witness it. Be there for those who are experiencing it, and let them know they don’t have to carry it alone.
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