I am a therapist by trade. Occasionally, in my work with new moms, I am bestowed with the great honor of having a front row seat to her grief after the loss of a pregnancy or a baby. I describe this as an honor because there isn’t a better word for it. I am honored that she trusts me enough to shed tears in my presence or to admit that she’s angry with God. I sit with them in the darkest of spaces and while I wish I could say, “and I offer them a light”, the truth is, I can’t. I don’t have those powers. I sure wish I did though. I wish I had the power to grant her that one simple wish, the wish for her baby to not be gone.
Estimates show that 1 in 4 pregnancies will end in miscarriage. That means many women will experience a miscarriage. The chances that someone you know will or has experienced this pain are almost certain. It’s more common than we care to discuss. When I reflect on my own experience nearly 10 years ago, I am reminded of a sadness like no other, and an unexplained emptiness for which I had no precedent.
I was a graduate student and a bartender at the time. When I returned to work a week or so after my loss, I remember very clearly the words of the head bartender. He reached across the bar in the middle of our shift, held my hand and said, “Hey, I heard what happened. I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that happened to you”. And he walked away to pour a beer.
I remember his words because they were what I needed, what I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to be coddled, or patronized. I didn’t want anything except my baby back. And the only words that rang true in my head, the only words that didn’t make it hurt worse were “I’m sorry that happened to you”. The irony of this is, I never really liked him. I found him to be arrogant and haughty. He was a great bartender, but mostly he was an asshole. Yet, this guy, despite his egregious flaws, knew the exact right words to say to a grieving human.
So, in honor not only of the babies no longer with us, but most especially of their mothers, I think we should have a little chat. If you are ever given the honor of knowing that a woman has lost a baby, I want you to take a very deep breath and give her, and you, any combination of the following phrases:
“I’m here if you need m.e”
“Is there anything you need?”
Here’s what I absolutely don’t want you to say, and why I don’t want you to say it:
“At least you know you can get pregnant.”
I get what you’re trying to do here. I do. You’re trying to help her see the positive. That’s very noble, but it isn’t kind. Not right now. She very likely thinks her body is broken. She very likely thinks her body killed her baby. She very likely feels emotions you can’t comprehend. What she will not benefit from at this time is a consolation prize. She doesn’t want a consolation prize, she wants her baby back.
“You’ll have other babies.”
No. Just no. Stop it. You don’t know that. You can’t predict her future. She is devastated. She is terrified. She does not need you to tell her that she’ll have other babies. She doesn’t want other babies, damn it, she wanted THAT baby.
“There’s a reason for everything.”
In general, this is a gross thing to say to someone in grief. If you can actually identify the reason that her baby was supposed to die, then by all means, carry on. Then, if you wouldn’t mind, I think we all have some questions for you.
“It’s all part of God’s plan” (or any other deity)
I am not a religious person, I feel that necessary to say here. My perception on this is based solely on my work as a therapist. When a woman hears that her baby died because God planned it that way, she is likely to get angry at God. I attended a funeral last year for a young family member who was killed in a motorcycle accident. The Methodist preacher that offered the service said something like this, “God does not plan tragedy. God plans love. When accidents happen, when children die, God is sad too.”
When a mother is grieving, perhaps we could allow her a world in which God is also sad her baby died.
Here’s what you can possibly say if the rules apply:
You are ONLY allowed to say, “I understand” if you in truth understand. And by understand, what I mean is: You too have lost a baby. You too have gone to the bathroom and have seen the blood and known nothing good would happen next.You too have buried your child. You too have gone home from the hospital to an empty crib that will always be empty. You too have felt empty arms. If such is the case, I’m sorry, and I understand.
Death makes us uncomfortable. You don’t have to lean into the discomfort here. It’s ok if you don’t know how to best hold space for her. All I ask, and I request this sincerely, is please, if you’re not good at holding that space, please hold your tongue instead.
I’m not kidding.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month. If you are in Memphis, TN, Beth and Apple Seeds, Inc. are honored to offer an Afternoon of Remembrance on October 29. You can find more information here.
If you are not in Memphis but wish to honor your loss you can visit MEND.org to find a remembrance ceremony near you and links to resources that may be of assistance to you.