When words hurt: What I found hurtful from people who didn’t know what to say and how to fix it.

 I think it’s important to share what people said after our miscarriage that I found unhelpful, and even at times hurtful. Now, before you start feeling guilty, I want you to know that prior to being the one having the miscarriage, I made these mistakes too. They are easy to do, and that’s exactly why I wrote this post, because we can all benefit from this information. When we know better, we do better, after all (another little tip of the hat to the wise Maya Angelou & yes I know it’s paraphrased).

First of all, I want to acknowledge the many experiences of women who have been through pregnancy loss. I asked women who have had miscarriages to send me hurtful comments that were made by well meaning people, and was absolutely flooded with responses. I only represent one experience, but I did my best to incorporate the feedback I received from other women.

Second, after much reflection, I think the lesson here is that context is critical. There were so many hurtful things said by people who were trying to be helpful. No one was intentionally being mean. We so often rush to try to fix the situation because of our discomfort around negative emotions and death (and genuine care for this person we love). However, advice is not what grieving people need in those moments because no matter how eloquent our words, we cannot bring those babies back. I’d like to highlight, in particular, 3 context clues to consider next time to are consoling a loved one whose has lost their baby:

  1. How soon after the loss are you having a conversation? Let the shock wear off before you try to help your loved one process what has happened. I felt like a zombie for the first week after the news that there was no heartbeat; then my D&C left me in a fog for an additional week before I really felt like I could allow the reality to set in that I was no longer pregnant. I had to start putting the baby items I had purchased away on a shelf along with the dreams I had for my child whom I would never hold. I experienced new sadness as I felt all my pregnancy symptoms slowly subside in the weeks after my miscarriage. I wasn’t ready to think about the future or to make sense of God or fate’s role in the matter.
  2. Who are you in relationship to the grieving person? The experience of losing a baby is so vulnerable. Every person walking through the experience of pregnancy loss has a different level of comfort discussing it with others. For me, I wanted to talk about my experience once I was a few weeks out from my D&C, but others may not wish to go public with their news. Evaluate how well you know the person and to what depth your conversations have gone in the past. If you usually stick to pleasantries, now is probably not the best time to provide unsolicited advice. For me, I felt most comforted by women who had been through a miscarriage themselves. Those were the people with whom I wanted to have deep conversations because they could relate on a personal level and weren’t going to say something trite about being patient for the right timing. They knew no new child would replace the one I lost. However, close friends and family were also trusted people that I could talk with, but I needed them to listen and be a safe person with whom process. The only people I wanted providing any ‘advice’ were women who had walked through it before me or medical professionals advising about my reproductive health.
  3. Who initiated the conversation and what is the current emotional state of the grieving person? Most importantly, you can’t go wrong by letting the grieving person be in the driver’s seat. Use your observation skills to gauge their readiness to talk. It was a relief when a friend would say something like “I know there is nothing I can say to make your pain go away, but I want you to know I am here to listen.” It’s natural to want to help make meaning out of the situation and why this loss happened, but there is just so much we do not know about why some pregnancies do not continue to term. Allow that temptation to offer a hypothesis pass on by, and instead allow your loved one to do the talking. A great place to start is to say “I don’t know why this awful loss happened to you, but know that I am here to support you.”

Third, I want to offer some potential replacements for those common hurtful comments. Here are some things to avoid saying & some suggestions on what to say instead the next time you’re consoling a friend experiencing pregnancy loss:

  • Instead of asking the grieving person to tell you what they need, ask their close loved one what would be most helpful. It seems like a nice gesture to say “I’m here if you need anything,” but this puts the onus on the grieving person to ask for your help. I didn’t know what I needed nor did I have the energy to tell people. If you want to do something for someone who is grieving, try coordinating with a close loved one (like a partner, parent, or sibling) who can advise you about what the grieving person would like/need. Grief can be traumatic, and asking a person in trauma to make decisions just puts extra strain on them when they already have to process the details surrounding their pregnancy loss. My close friends texted my husband to figure out my calendar and what I needed. It was such a sweet surprise to have them show up for an afternoon to walk and get some fresh air while talking honestly about how I was coping. By the way, if you’re not that close, it’s ok to just send them a card or message to let them know you are thinking about them and leave it at that.
  • Instead of advising the grieving person that “everything happens for a reason,” take a page out of Job’s book and sit with them in their grief. Variations of this hurtful comment include, “this is God’s will,” “I guess God needed another angel,” “I guess this just wasn’t the right time,” etc. As my post-op nurse held my hand, she said words I will never forget, “God’s will was in the garden. And you losing your baby is not God’s will.” For us to presume that a deity or fate willed someone’s unborn child to die has the great potential for damage. The acute phase of grief, before the shock has worn off, is not the time for theological conversations about God’s will, nor the universe’s intention. It’s important to pay attention to the cues of the grieving person, and mirror their tone back to them. I talk about this in more detail in a previous blog post titled, “How to be a better friend to someone grieving,” but I will always use my friend Tina as an example here. She listened first, and when I said I couldn’t understand how a good God could allow this to happen, she hugged me and said how sorry she was that this unfair thing happened to me. She didn’t swoop in with Bible verses to fix it because she knew those weren’t going to land in that moment. When I was ready we had deeper conversations that I prompted, she let me be in the driver’s seat, and never gave unsolicited advice. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk about faith/fate at all, but this is so delicate. It’s natural for grieving people to be angry at their God/the universe for what happened, and we need to make space for their feelings about the role faith/fate plays in their grief process. Be patient here; you’ll never go wrong by listening first.
  • Instead of saying anything that starts with “at least,” try validating their experience as a loss. Strike these hurtful comments from your repertoire: “at least you weren’t farther along,” “at least you know you can get pregnant,” “at least you’re still young,” “at least it wasn’t a baby,” or any other platitude in the form of comparing the grieving person’s experience to a subjectively worse experience. Those words are hurtful and dismissive regardless of what anyone else has walked through. Minimizing someone’s emotions does not give them confidence that you are a safe person, nor does it make their grief any less painful. A comment that is more helpful here is, “I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose your baby. I want to offer a listening ear for you to share your emotions without judgement.” We all hope that the grieving person will have another pregnancy and a healthy baby in the future, but we have no control over those details. It is important to allow space for mourning, because a miscarriage is a loss, no matter how far along in her pregnancy. If you take nothing else away from this post, let it be this: Whatever you do, don’t say “at least.”
  • Instead of assuming the miscarriage event is the end of the story, try allowing space for the grieving person to mourn the loss of her baby. Examples include: “It’s over now, let’s put it behind us,” “Do you really need to take time off work?” “That’s not what we we’re hoping for, but it does happen to 1 in 4 pregnancies.” Did those make you cringe too? Remember that analogy about the iceberg, how 90% is under the surface? Well, that applies here too. The day we found out our pregnancy was not viable and the subsequent day of our D&C was only the beginning of our grief, just the tip of the iceberg. Afterward, I was left with so many questions about why our pregnancy ended prematurely. The process of coming to terms with no longer being pregnant and the daunting task of starting over is more than a one-day event. This process is certainly not for the faint of heart and really requires brave support-people who can come to terms with the fact that the only way out is through. It’s important to allow the grieving person time and space to mourn their baby. Try checking in over time, including weeks and months after their loss. I suggest something like, “I think of you often. How are you doing? I’m here to support you in your grief process.”

I think you have what it takes to be one of those brave support people... But, here’s the trick. The goal is not to find the silver lining or fix it. The goal is to communicate that you are here to support them, even if it’s ugly, even if it’s messy, even if it’s hard. My hope is that we can all be brave in our discomfort around death and let our friends know that we are there for them in their grief, no matter how long it takes.

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