As someone who has had four miscarriages (and who has been very open about each pregnancy from the beginning), I often get questions from friends and family when someone they know has lost a child through miscarriage. Since October is Miscarriage and Infant Loss Awareness Month, I thought now might be a good time to share a few things I have learned about supporting others after such a loss.
- It’s important to acknowledge the enormity of their loss. The simple fact is that losing a child is a very big deal, and this is true whether their child was only a few weeks old and in utero or older, whether they have other children or if this is their only one, and whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned. I think for the one grieving, minimizing their loss in some way may be a coping mechanism, because I have observed nearly every grieving mother I have talked to doing it. They say, “It could have been worse. At least I lost my child so early on.” Or if they were far along they say, “It could be worse, at least I have other children.” If they don’t have living children then they come up with another reason why “it could be worse.” Maybe it’s a way of looking on the bright side, or maybe it’s a way of avoiding grief. However, even if it is “just” losing a baby very early in pregnancy without any other compounding issues, their child died. That in and of itself is big, and it’s important to acknowledge that because it allows the grief process to begin.
- Allow your loved one to grieve. Grief is like childbirth. I have written before that in labor the woman has a choice. She can tense her body and disallow the fullness of the contractions, though doing so will prolong labor. If she can fully allow the contractions and relax into them, labor will progress more quickly. Similarly, grief can be rejected, but it cannot be avoided altogether and doing so may actually prolong the grieving process. When speaking to women and couples grieving the loss of their child, I often see tears as a sign of a “successful” meeting. I don’t want people to cry for crying’s sake, but I know that the only way out is through and the mother and father will be better in the long run if they can grieve. Though not everyone will grieve with tears, and that’s okay, the physical act of crying can be very cathartic and comforting in and of itself. Often, simply saying, “Your child died, and that’s a big thing to deal with,” is all that’s needed for the tears to come. It’s like they were trying to hold in their grief and that permission and acknowledgement of their loss from someone else is all that’s needed to allow this release. Sometimes, friends and family are afraid to mention the baby that died for fear that mentioning him or her will “make” the mother cry. I assure you, mentioning her child will not “make” her cry but it may allow her to cry.
- Grief is often different for an early loss, but it is still grief. When an adult or older child dies, the parents and loved ones have to grieve the person who was known and now has been lost. When a child dies in utero or shortly after birth, often the parents will have to grieve all the unknowns, and the earlier the loss the more unknowns they will have to grieve. When an infant dies, loved ones have to grieve what they don’t know and will never know this side of eternity. What would their child’s favorite color have been? What would their personality have been like? For an early miscarriage, they may even have to mourn that they don’t know what their child would have looked like, or even something so basic as not knowing if their child is a boy or a girl. The earlier the loss, the more unknowns they will have to grieve.
- When a couple experiences multiple losses, their grief will likely intensify with each loss, so it’s important to keep showing up for them. Each time a person experiences a loss, it will bring up all previous losses, and any unresolved grief will surface. So when a couple experiences their second, third, fourth, or more loss, they will grieve not just for the child they lost at this time, but each additional child that was lost previously. Furthermore, they will likely grieve even any unrelated losses that they haven’t fully dealt with, like lost relationships, previous traumas, or any other events not fully grieved. While it is common for a couple to receive an outpouring of support for their first loss and then the support to decrease with additional losses, it is more important than ever to keep expressing your love and support and offering assistance each and every time.
- Remember that not just the mother grieves. While people may remember to express condolences to the mother, it is appropriate to acknowledge the loss that is often felt by others who knew of the pregnancy. The father of the baby, siblings, grandparents, and others may all be grieving the loss as well. In fact, when it comes to grandparents, it has been said that they sometimes grieve the most, since they grieve for the pain that their child is going through and they also grieve for themselves at having lost a grandchild.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. Sometimes when a miscarriage occurs, loved ones can unknowingly leave the parents to grieve alone for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I have found, however, that simply acknowledging their loss and making an effort to express a simple, “I’m sorry,” will go a long way in giving the parents or others comfort in the knowledge that you care and can help them begin their healing by giving them permission to grieve.