It’s a question I’m asked regularly: “My friend/sister/cousin/[insert female relation here] just miscarried. How can I help her? What should I say?”
I’ve had four miscarriages and spent years getting to know other women who have similar histories. Based on this experience, I’ve compiled a list of things not to say when someone miscarries. Somehow, most people’s instincts are to say one of these things, so knowing what not to do is as important, or even more so, than knowing what to say.
Ultimately, all of this advice comes down to thoughtful sympathy. Think about how what you say could be interpreted by a grieving soul, and choose your words, actions, gestures, facial expressions, and other body language carefully. Remember that this is not about you; it’s about those who are grieving. Listen actively, discover where they are in the physical process and in their grief, discover how open they are to discussion, and follow their lead.
What Not to Say:
1. “At least . . .”
Beginning a sentence with “at least” minimizes the griever’s experience. It suggests a silver lining to a major physical, emotional, and hormonal trauma. It’s not that silver linings don’t exist, but in the heart of the trauma, most women aren’t in a place to process the bright side.
Examples of such statements you should absolutely not say:
“At least you know you can get pregnant.”
“At least you weren’t further along.”
“At least you’re young; you have plenty of time.”
“At least it happened at a time when things are slow at work.”
“At least you already have (a) healthy child(ren).”
“At least it wasn’t actually a baby.” — This one is common for very early losses, or for people who suffer from blighted ovums (the pregnancy begins but the embryo never develops, despite a gestational sac growing normally.) No. Just no.
2. “You can try again soon.”
Talking about trying again is tricky. Some women are terrified to try again, while others are desperate to get that process rolling. Some women spent years of stress and tears and doctors appointments and ovulation tests and shots and hormones to get to the pregnancy they lost. “Trying again” can be very loaded. Only discuss it if they bring it up.
3. “I’m sure . . .”
“I’m sure” is sort of like “at least.” It’s not minimizing, but it’s still an absolute no.
You see, a miscarriage is a brutally stark reminder that nothing is certain. It makes most people who experience it question many of their beliefs about life, fairness, certainty, control.
Saying “I’m sure” suggests a certainty you don’t have, and someone who is going through such an uncontrollable process is especially aware that you don’t have it.
You’re not sure it’ll be different next time. You’re not sure that it was an unhealthy baby. You’re not sure there was a good reason for this loss.
Empty assurances are upsetting; they make you feel better, not the person you’re trying to comfort. When you try to assure a griever of something you can’t be sure about, you’re really just reminding them about the vast chasm between their experience and your understanding of it.
4. “This is really common.”
Yes. Yes, it is. It’s true.
And while it’s important to understand how common it is because it helps women experiencing it understand that they’re not alone, your intention can be misconstrued easily. Hearing that miscarriage is something that happens all the time minimizes the accompanying grief, as if losing a pregnancy somehow matters less because it happens all the time. What a griever hears is rarely what you intended to say.
5. Anything that projects your belief system onto someone else.
This is true even if you know that person generally shares similar beliefs.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“This baby just wasn’t part of God’s plan.”
These maxims make you feel better. And here’s the thing: This is not about you.
6. “When you do have a baby, you won’t be able to imagine life with a different one.”
The weird thing about this one is that it’s usually true, but absolutely no one wants to hear it. I still mourn all of my losses, but I also know that I wouldn’t have my precious, snuggly, extroverted, feisty little guy if I’d had any of the babies I lost.
I wouldn’t trade my son for anything, but that’s something I had to learn for myself later. It’s not something to bring up during the trauma.
Maybe this is a Southern bible belt thing, but I have heard it so much and it’s woefully inappropriate and hurtful.
Why? It places blame on the person grieving.
When someone says “just pray about it,” a griever often hears, “if only you’d prayed harder/better/more authentically, then this wouldn’t have happened.”
“It’s your fault,” they hear. “If you’d been better/more pious/done X/done Y, you might still have your baby.”
I know this isn’t what people mean, but again, it’s not about what you mean; it’s about what’s being interpreted.
8. Anything that could be construed as casting blame.
Let me give you some facts:
It’s not something the mother did.
It’s not the beer she had before she knew she was pregnant.
It’s not the cup of coffee she drinks each morning.
It’s not the fact that she didn’t cut back at the gym.
When I had my first miscarriage, my doctor looked me straight in the eye and said something so important:
“You did nothing to cause this, and you could’ve done nothing to cause this. Short of jumping out of an airplane, there is nothing you could have done. It’s something that happens for a number of reasons that we know, and a number of reasons we still don’t know. Nothing you have or haven’t done could’ve changed the outcome. This is not your fault.”
Let me repeat that last part one more time for the crowd:
MISCARRIAGE IS NOT THE MOTHER’S FAULT.
A Reminder of the Importance of Listening Carefully and Thinking Lovingly
When someone is experiencing trauma, they process information differently than normal. What you mean is not necessarily what they hear. Try to imagine anything you say from the perspective of the traumatized (this is true of any trauma, not just miscarriage.) Imagine how they could negatively interpret any words you say, because negativity is a griever’s default. If they find positive spins, go with it, but don’t push them.
Remember, oh please remember:
This is about the person grieving. It is in no way about you.