Miscarriage: What Friends Can Do
By Liz Johnson
When people ask me how many children I have, I don’t really know how to answer. The proper response is “four,” because that’s how many I tuck in at night – three beautiful boys and a darling baby girl. But in my heart, I want to answer “five.” And then I guiltily admit that I feel like I should want to answer “seven.”
I have had three miscarriages. In many ways, it’s such a cruel medical term for something that can be so profound and painful, but nonetheless, that’s the word we use. I lost my very first pregnancy when my midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat at my first appointment. After dragging in the ultrasound equipment, we discovered that she couldn’t even find a baby – I had a blighted ovum, which essentially means that a fertilized egg attached to my uterine wall, but a baby never developed. My midwife asked if I’d like to wait for the miscarriage to happen naturally, or whether I’d like to have a D&C. I chose to wait and see if the baby would pass. After the miscarriage failed to happen during that week, I chose to have a D&C one week later.
My second miscarriage (third pregnancy) happened when my son was only nine months old. I had gotten pregnant rather quickly, and we were in the midst of a cross-country move. I was six weeks pregnant, and after we had loaded up the truck and cleaned our apartment, I noticed blood. I was in between insurance coverage and didn’t have a doctor to go see, so the miscarriage wasn’t ever medically managed.
My third miscarriage happened after what appeared to be a miracle pregnancy – despite actively trying to prevent pregnancy, my husband and I had been at the temple and had both received separate promptings that we were to have another baby, and that we would have a girl, and what we were to name her. To our surprise, I found out a week later that I was already pregnant. We excitedly decided that this was obviously something that was meant to happen for our family. You can imagine my shock when, at 16 weeks, I woke up to the sound of my water breaking. A few minutes later, I delivered a still baby girl into the palm of my hand.
I guiltily admit that my first two miscarriages didn’t really affect me – I hardly even felt sad. I just chalked them both up to “things that happen” and focused on getting pregnant again. With my second miscarriage, I even felt a twinge of relief – I hadn’t expected to get pregnant so quickly, and the thought of having two children just 17 months apart (with my husband in his first year of law school) was a bit overwhelming. And so I generally stayed quiet about them. I heard other women talk about their grief and pain with miscarriages, and I just figured that we coped with these things differently. I didn’t know exactly what to say, since I couldn’t really relate.
My third miscarriage, however, was the single most traumatic experience of my life. Suddenly, I knew what these other women were talking about when they said that they were hurting, or that they were sad, or that they were angry. I had nightmares about it for months. I would think about it and have a physical reaction – my heart would race, my palms would get cold and clammy, and I would get so dizzy that I often verged on passing out. I had debilitating panic attacks with both of my subsequent pregnancies that ended up requiring medication. I admit that I was intensely angry at a God that would promise me a baby, and even give her a name, and then take her away before she ever took a breath. The grief process that followed this miscarriage was such a raw, physical, all-encompassing process that it took months and years to fully process… and sometimes I’m not even sure I’ve fully completed it.
Miscarriage is tricky. Just like in pregnancy, women experience the same basic physical event in wildly varying ways. Just like some women have horrible morning sickness in pregnancy and some get barely nauseated, some women are completely knocked to the ground by miscarriage, and some are hardly fazed. This doesn’t make one experience more valid or more real than the other – it just shows that there is a broad spectrum of experience in relation to the loss of a pregnancy. This makes it especially difficult to talk about, as well as find empathy and support. And most miscarriages happen so early in pregnancy that unless a woman reaches out, most people around her don’t even know she was pregnant to begin with.
This is complicated by our tendency to explain miscarriage, either based on our own experience or the experience of somebody else we know. I have talked to dozens of women about miscarriages, and the feelings they have about their babies and pregnancies vary dramatically. Some feel like their miscarried baby came to their family through a subsequent pregnancy. Some feel that their miscarried baby received a body and will be part of their eternal family, and that they will be able to raise them in the next life. Some feel that their miscarriage was simply a biological event and feel no bond nor tie to the baby that could have come from that pregnancy. None of these are invalid or wrong approaches – all mothers are entitled to their own personal revelation about this tender subject.
Despite it being a complicated and delicate matter, it’s crucial that we support women as best we can through miscarriage. If you have a friend who experiences a miscarriage, here are some ways that you can support her.
1 – Let her talk as much or as little as she wants. Some women need to verbally process things more than others. Some women will want to talk for hours and in lots of different settings, and some women will want to process it internally. Some women will need to discuss it for months; others won’t need to discuss it at all.
2 – Share your experience, but be careful not to project your own (or others’) experiences onto hers. As illustrated above, every miscarriage is different. It’s easy to say “I know how you feel” or something similar, but the fact is that you don’t. Instead of projecting your emotions and experiences onto hers, state your own experience, and then ask if she shares in it. Saying something like “when I miscarried, I was really angry. Is that how you feel?” or “my mom said that the first few days after miscarrying were really emotional – how have yours been?” can give her the opportunity to expound on her feelings and help you understand if her experience is similar to the ones you know about. It can also be validating to have you state your feelings first, particularly if she’s feeling emotions that she perceives to be atypical.
3 – Similarly, be careful about making assumptions about the status of this miscarriage as it relates to the mother’s family. While you may feel strongly that a baby you lost will be part of your eternal family, suggesting that to a mother who feels differently can actually be quite painful. I had a friend who lost a baby at 18 weeks, and despite the advanced state of her pregnancy, she did not feel any bond to the pregnancy, nor any reassurance that the baby was part of her family. In fact, she had a lot of peace in knowing that her pregnancy simply wasn’t meant to be. When people would try to reassure her by telling her that she would get to raise her child someday, it actually gave her a deep sense of guilt, because she didn’t feel any bond to the baby she had lost, and somehow felt that she was damaged or not coping properly because her experience didn’t mirror the experience of other women. Instead of comforting, these well-meaning platitudes actually injured her further in her healing process. We need to be careful to not prescribe a universal answer to a very individual question, as it can further complicate the grieving process.
4 – Just do something. So many times we’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, or not doing enough, but it hurts infinitely more to not do anything. Bring over a card or a small gift. Write an email to let her know that you’re thinking of her. Offer to babysit other children or bring a meal. Call her and ask if she wants to go out, or if she’d like visitors. If you don’t know what to say, then say that. Just hearing “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling, but I’m sorry, and I’d like to help” means so much. Even if a woman is coping just fine with her miscarriage (as I was after my first two), feeling that outpouring of love and support is really comforting. It’s better to give too much support than not enough.
Women who experience miscarriages, despite undergoing a similar physical occurrence, have wide-ranging and diverse reactions. This can make it difficult to fully support and understand. It’s important that we acknowledge and honor a woman’s experience, however similar or different it may be from others we’ve encountered, and allow women to grieve and process their experience in a way that best suits them. In doing so, we can provide some of the most genuine and sincere support possible.
Liz Johnson is the mother of four (five) and resides in Northern Indiana. She has a BA in International Development and is two postage stamps away from being a certified doula (DONA). She loves to write, bake, and sing at the top of her lungs while her children beg her to stop.