It’s difficult to know what to say when someone experiences a loss. People get weird about death. Some cultures or religions offer guidance on how to mourn and how to support others. In our culturally diverse and somewhat culturally-diluted society in North America, we receive mixed messages and little guidance on how to support the grieving.
Pregnancy loss is often referred to as an “invisible loss”. This makes it very challenging for grieving mothers, couples, and families to get the recognition or type of support they need. And yet pregnancy loss is so common, with approximately ¼ of all pregnancies ending in miscarriage. And then there are other lesser-discussed losses such as terminations for genetic abnormalities, stillbirth (loss after 24 weeks gestation), and postnatal deaths.
Over the years, I’ve sat with so many women and couples who have had the painful experience of pregnancy loss. I decided to create a list that sums up the most common reports of what loved ones say to try and help, but actually makes couples feel even more isolated. Keep in mind everyone’s grief journey is different. However, I hope this list allows you to be a little more attuned and present to the needs of your loved ones during such a challenging time.
What not to do
Don’t try to make meaning from their loss
“It was for a reason”
For many the loss is senseless and has no meaning, while for others there may be a greater meaning. But that’s for the person who experienced the loss to decide. It’s not up to you to impart some kind of meaning or greater purpose.
Don’t try to find the “silver-lining”
“At least you know you can get pregnant”
“At least you already have a child”
“Now you can go on that trip and enjoy your summer”
Too often we try to bring people out of their grief, mostly due to our own discomfort of seeing them hurting. However, being in mourning is important. Parents need to sit with their sadness and all the other emotions that come up.
Don’t minimize the impact a pregnancy loss can have
“You can get pregnant again”
“You weren’t that far along”
Loss is loss. When a woman becomes pregnant, she and her partner begin to envision the future with that child. When a loss happens, they’re also grieving everything that could have been.
Don’t allude to any type of blame for the loss
“Do you think you did something during your pregnancy to cause this?”
“Do you think you were exercising too much/carrying something too heavy?
An absolute NO NO. A woman will already be racking her brain, going through all her actions wondering what she did to cause this, even though she knows logically that the loss was out of her control. This is a normal part of the grief process. Insinuating any blame just compounds her already difficult experience.
avoid Advice-giving on getting pregnant again
“Have you tried x, y, z… to conceive”
“Being stressed won’t help you conceive”
“It’ll happen when it’s meant to happen”
Women who have fertility challenges or experienced pregnancy loss are extremely well-informed on the topic. They have gone to great lengths to understand their own fertility and how to best support themselves in conceiving. So unless they outright ask you for advice, it’s best not to give it.
What you Can Do
Things to say:
“I’m sorry for your loss”
“How are you doing?”
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m here if/when you feel like talking”
“Can I help with housework/cooking/cleaning/organizing/shopping?” (don’t make them feel like they have to host you)
When in doubt, just listen. Avoid the need to fill the silences.
Be sensitive to your surroundings:
A pregnancy loss creates all kinds of triggers that weren’t there before: seeing a pregnant person, going to a baby shower, talking about parenting. Your loved one may not be up to attending a baby shower, holding your newborn, or going to social gatherings where there are pregnant people or new parents. Be compassionate to their not wanting to be as involved. Give them time.
After some time has passed:
A common fear for parents is that their loss will be forgotten by others. It can seem like life just carries on for everyone else. Ask them if it’s ok to check in from time to time and see how they’re doing. Provide a safe space for them to talk about the loss if they want to. They may not always feel like talking, but it’s nice to know they could if they wanted to.
When a loss happens further on in the pregnancy, ask if they gave the baby a name. Naming a baby that was miscarried, terminated for genetic reasons, or stillborn helps parents honor and remember their child’s existence. Parents tell me that when someone close to them refers to their son or daughter by name, it helps validate that this little being actually existed. Check in to see if this is ok with the parents to call their baby by name.