Pregnancy loss through miscarriage or stillbirth is extremely common; an estimated one in four women will experience a pregnancy loss. With that number so high, most people will find themselves supporting a friend or family member through pregnancy loss at some point in their life. While there is no one right way to help someone through grief, there are many common things people do or say that often make the situation worse. In honor of pregnancy and infant loss awareness month, I’ve outline some common mistakes with some supportive alternative practices.
Don’t minimize the situation or use cliches.
You may want to say things that mean well, but the minimizing of the situation and grief usually makes someone suffering a loss feel more alone and isolated. Anything that begins with “at least” (you can get pregnant, weren’t very far along) should definitely not be said. Cliches like “it was meant to be” and “it was God’s will” also don’t really offer any tangible comfort and usually just help the speaker feel better. Some people might take comfort in the fact that most early miscarriages are from pregnancies with severe chromosome abnormalities or birth defects, but telling a person this may make them feel like you aren’t allowing them the space to grieve and time to process.
Instead, Listen and empathize
Listen and let your friend or family member talk, or not. Silence is perfectly acceptable. You don’t need to try and make things better because you probably can’t. Instead, accept the feelings for what they are now and just be together with them in those feelings. It may be uncomfortable or make you feel like you’re not doing enough, but it is helpful just having someone else there in the moment.
Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume there is no need to grieve because it was an early loss. The thought that someone was “barely even pregnant” and keeping a pregnancy secret until you are “out of the woods” for miscarriage perpetuates the shame and guilt associated with suffering an early loss. Since American culture does not openly talk about miscarriage, your friend may not know of anyone who has had a miscarriage when statistically she probably knows many. It is also hurtful to assume that the person or a couple will just try again and can easily have another baby. Saying this makes another pregnancy seem like a replacement when there is no way to replace a child. If a couple does want another baby, don’t assume they will try again right away. Some people may be ready and anxious to try again immediately while other may take much longer to be emotionally and physically ready for another pregnancy.
Instead, follow their lead
As you listen, reflect her words and feelings back to her and let her know she has been heard and understood. Rephrasing her ideas can let her hear the same idea in a different way to help process and think through her feelings. Use similar vocabulary that she is using so that she can define her experience in her own way without you imposing your opinion or how you would define the situation.
Don’t put a timeline on grief.
The grief doesn’t just go away with a certain number of days or at a certain milestone. Grief can return days, weeks, months, or years later, especially on anniversary dates: the day she found out she was pregnant, the day she found out she wasn’t going to stay pregnant, the day her baby was due. Each of these moments might bring back shades of sadness and heartbreak. Also remember that the whole family has suffered a loss as well, and partners or other children may process the grief in their own way and in their own time as well.
Instead, remember with her
People will likely be great at remembering and checking in with her in the days and weeks following the loss, but she may still want to be asked how she is doing months or even years later. Remembering those special days and anniversaries will let her know that you remember her and her child even when others do not. Remembering and saying her child’s name will also let her know that her child still matters and is important to someone else.
Don’t ignore the person or the subject
You might think that bringing up the subject will just make your friend feel worse, but if the loss is recent, she is probably already thinking about it. Ignoring the situation or trying to change the subject can make the grieving family feel like no one cares and like there is no appropriate space to work through their feelings and situation, which again further makes them feel isolated and alone (are we seeing a pattern here).
Instead, acknowledge what she is going through
A thoughtful gift or care package can acknowledge the loss and bring some form of comfort, even if it’s just a small gift. Bringing meals or groceries and offering to do chores around the house can be helpful. Remember that even an early loss may mean going through labor and delivery or a medical procedure that will have a physical recovery as well. You can buy a postpartum recovery kit or you can make your own (there are many DIY guides out there). You can even buy one of these miscarriage and loss support cards.
When a loved one is suffering, you may not know the right thing to say and do, but now you have some tools about what most people do and do not find helpful. Give yourself grace and remember to approach with an attitude of empathy.
And remember to keep taking brave steps forward.