Supporting a Loved One Through a Miscarriage Means Showing Up
The traditional narrative of someone's life goes like this: You grow up, you start a career, you meet someone you love, you might get married—and, inevitably, people start asking when you're going to have children.
Of course, this isn't how everyone's life goes, and the modern perspective is increasingly shifting to embrace different life paths. Still, our culture is deeply rooted in the classic "American Dream" of having 2.5 kids, a dog and a white picket fence.
The idea of parenthood is so ingrained in us when we ourselves are still relatively fresh out of the womb, so it's no surprise that when the time comes for us to be parents, it's a big deal. Parents-to-be have a lot to plan for, and they have a lifetime of expectations, anxieties, hopes and fears about how their child will turn out.
So, when events don't go as they expected, it's a crushing blow. A miscarriage evokes a unique form of grief, and a tragic one at that. When someone we love suffers a pregnancy loss, it can be difficult to know how to speak to them about it. What do you say to someone who's lost a dream?
Grieving a life we never knew
"Grief is complicated, but there is an added complication to grieving someone you did not 'meet,'" said Amy Marschall, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist certified in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "After a miscarriage, they are grieving not only that death, but also the fact that the entire life ahead of their child will never happen."
For anyone on the outside, it's a difficult sight to behold, and it's especially difficult when you want to be there for a friend but have no idea how to do that in an empathetic, noninvasive way.
When faced with traumatic situations, people tend to be hypersensitive to comments, and even things you say with good intention might be taken the wrong way.
'After a miscarriage, they are grieving not only that death, but also the fact that the entire life ahead of their child will never happen.'
For example, "Don't say, 'Everything happens for a reason.' There is no good reason for a miscarriage," Marschall said. This is something we commonly say when, frankly, we don't know what else to say. Whether we're attributing the 'reason' to a divine plan or just acknowledging that, psychologically, bad situations help us grow, it rarely does anything to help us feel better—especially when the grief is still fresh."
Marschall also cautioned against telling someone that they can just try again. "People are not necessarily ready to 'try again' right away when they are still grieving, and there might be anxiety that future pregnancies will also end in miscarriage."
Telling someone they can try again also ignores any potential causes and underlying issues that could have caused the miscarriage. Yes, theoretically, a couple could get pregnant again and hope all goes well, but if the miscarriage was the result of a condition such as uncontrolled diabetes, thyroid disease, heart disease or other factors, then tackling the underlying issue becomes the priority.
There's nothing wrong with needing outside support
Casey Swartz, LPC, a licensed mental health counselor and former director of counseling at Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, explained that helping someone deal with grief is less about giving advice than it is about listening.
"Saying things like, 'This must be a lot to go through,' or, 'I'm here to listen,' can really go a long way and, in the end, strengthen the friendship," she said. Swartz added that there are many people who might not have people in their life who can provide the necessary support—and in that case, talking to a professional is advised.
Many mental health professionals are trained in dealing with grief. It's a natural part of life, but the feelings that accompany it are those of loss: depression, sorrow, hopelessness, desperation—all bleak feelings that can be difficult to navigate, even with a strong support system.
If you notice your loved one is struggling, encourage them to seek further help. As much as you can offer, there are many additional resources, such as therapy, support groups (both online and in-person) and organizations that offer advice.
Showing up, even when it's hard
With miscarriages, the grief is unique yet familiar. It embodies the same emotions, but they are emotions held for a human we've never met. That doesn't make them any less valid, though, and some studies have suggested that mothers form incredibly strong attachments to unborn children during pregnancy.
No matter how you look at it, losing a child is losing a child.
"It is uncomfortable to sit with someone in their grief, but grief demands to be felt. Supporting someone means staying with them even in those feelings," Marschall said.
Yes, the experience can be uncomfortable for us as supporters. Yes, it can last for a long time. But our job isn't to rush someone through the process or find a "solution." Our job is to be empathetic, patient, understanding and, most importantly, kind.
Sometimes, that just means showing up.