Look, there’s a lot of pressure to “say the right thing.”
There’s something terrifying about grief– it feels messy, overwhelming. Like if it goes on too long, regular life will shrink in the distance to a tiny, unreachable speck on the horizon. When the terrible thing happens, you want to offer real support. You want your wife, your sister, your best girlfriend to know how much you care.
In our effort to make everything seem more manageable, you might offer something intended to make the other person feel better. Like:
#1 YOU’LL HAVE OTHERS…
Chances are, if the woman you’re looking at is feeling upset about her miscarriage, she’s not worried about “having others” right now. She likely wanted *that specific, special child*… who she just lost. Pregnancies are not interchangeable. And, there is the reality that this particular woman may actually NOT be able to have others– maybe she struggles with infertility, maybe her relationship is falling apart, maybe she cannot fathom the idea of ever risking this kind of devastation again. It intends to shift her focus away from her grief– which she needs to feel right now in order to heal.
#2 IT JUST WASN’T MEANT TO BE…
Telling a woman it just wasn’t meant to be is tantamount to telling her she isn’t worthy of her deepest desires and hopes for her future. It tells her that this terrible suffering was specifically intended for her. It also creates a peculiar power dynamic wherein the speaker has some sort of divine spiritual knowledge that is more complete than the woman’s own understanding of her experience. Let her define her experience in her own terms.
#3 THERE WAS PROBABLY SOMETHING WRONG WITH IT
Really, this gets bandied about far too often. Even if this child did suffer a genetic abnormality, it is still her child. Even if miscarrying was the perfect biological response to a fetal abnormality, it is of little actual comfort to a woman who is grieving. The loss is still real, whether the fetus was developing according to plan or not.
#4 I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL– I WENT THROUGH XYZ…
Now is actually not the time to launch into what you believe is a comparable personal experience. If you haven’t asked how she’s feeling, you don’t really know. Listening actively is different than listening with the intent to respond. And now is not the time to make the situation about you– even if you have had a parallel experience.
Instead, slow down. Listen. And know that you really don’t have to make everything okay for her. She really doesn’t expect you to… and knows that you can’t all too well. Offer her the chance to talk about it, and if she declines, accept it with as much grace as you can. You might not be the right person for her to open up to, or she might be physically and emotionally exhausted. If the loss is something she is grieving, if the pregnancy was deeply wanted, the following below might an appropriate response.
“That’s so unfair!” was actually something that I LOVED hearing after my miscarriage. On some level I knew that life would continue on and that I would find a way forward. But it sucked. And I loved it when others could acknowledge how deeply it sucked. I felt joined and less alone. I craved that more than anything. Grieving can be such a lonely experience. When someone tapped into my outrage, I felt more powerful. I felt that even though I had no say in the matter, I could at least protest. For a kind of loss that is often invisible, naming the magnitude it actually carries can feel like a small victory against chaos.
Even ten years later, I remember the friend who sent me an arrangement of delicate white lilies in a simple vase. I loved this petite funereal arrangement. Because it’s reserved for when there is a death in the family. And there had been. It felt good to have access to the mourning scripts afforded other people when their loved ones die. Or try leaving a home-cooked meal on the porch, just as you would after someone gives birth. Because, in truth she has. She does not have the benefit of a living baby, but her body has been through all the contractions, dilation, and hormonal shifts that occur with birth. She might not be up for company or talking. But she’ll need to eat at some point, and you are looking after her needs in a concrete, practical way.
If she has named her baby, don’t forget to include him or her in future conversations. People really do live on through our remembering. She may not have known her child for long, but if she has named him or her, it is for a reason. Naming things is a powerful ritual that brings something out of the plane of communal consciousness into the specificity of individuality.
Being mindful of listening to her experience without trying to manage it by minimizing, rationalizing, or comforting prematurely keeps you from prioritizing your own comfort over hers. When you approach with compassionate curiosity, you may feel your way into an authentic communication from the heart, which is, I believe, what everyone wants, right?