Words can comfort, unite, infuriate, inspire, and everything in between. The words we choose to say — and not to say — can mean the difference between a phrase being a weapon or a drug. (“You can be amazing. You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug.” — Sara Bareilles, “Brave”)
“Miscarriage” and “stillborn” are words heavy with weight and meaning. A miscarriage of justice is what they say when a criminal gets away — but a miscarriage of pregnancy is when your baby gets away.
Stillborn means your late-term or full-term baby was born dead, but when separated into its component parts, we’re reminded that this child was still born. Language is strange and powerful. But the most important tool in helping your friend who has suffered pregnancy loss is, in fact, your words — the words you choose to say, and those you do not.
My dear friend Lindsey Smith (not her real name) from rural Ohio has 7 beautiful living children and has also suffered 5 first-trimester miscarriages. She agreed that the most (unintentionally) painful words she ever heard were: “It wasn’t meant to be,” “There must have been something wrong with the baby, so this is God’s way of taking care of it” and — “You’ll have more, I’m sure.”
It seemed these people never acknowledged the loss of a real child and instead found words to diminish or dismiss her grief.
Can you imagine saying one of these lines to someone who has lost a close friend? "It was meant to be." Or, "You’ll have more friends, I’m sure." How thoughtless that would be!
Deana Ruston, a birth and bereavement doula and grief and bereavement counseling student in London, Ontario, pointed out, "There is no timeline for grief. It is unique for each individual. If you don’t know what to say, ask. There’s no harm in asking. You can learn together. You don’t have to face this alone. Ask your friend how she is doing and what she needs. She may not know right away and that’s OK. She will let you know. It shows you care."
Another close friend, Kristen Hatten from Dallas, told me, "The most hurtful thing you can do to a woman who has miscarried is expect her to get over it. There is no time limit on how long it will take you to get past it."
After her first pregnancy ended in an early miscarriage, she said anyone who started a sentence with "At least…" was bound to say something hurtful.
So take this advice to heart. Steer clear of saying:
"At least you weren't that far along."
"At least it was just a blighted ovum, so it wasn't really a pregnancy."
"At least you already have kids."
"At least you still have one left." (This is often said when a twin is miscarried.)
"At least you can get pregnant."
My friend from Detroit lost three children, including David, who was stillborn at 37 weeks (which is considered full term). She wishes friends would say, "My dear friend, I am so sorry!"
She also wishes they "would ask to do something with me to feel like I was normal again. Most people stayed away, because they didn't know what to say, or how to act. I really needed interaction with people. So much of my life post-loss dealt with funerals, doctors, and things of that nature. I wish people were around to justlisten."
Women like Hatten who have lost babies near term also face physical challenges as well. They're not only recovering from labor and delivery (or a C-section), but they also have the heartbreaking problem of stopping lactation. There are specialty herbal teas, cabbage leaves, and binding techniques, but nothing can stop the onslaught of emotions when your body desperately wants to feed a baby that is not there.
I asked each woman what they wish their friends understood about suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth. Kristen Hatten put it this way: "If there were one thing I would want people to understand, it's that it takes a long time to heal, physically and emotionally. I miscarried in my first trimester — but it took me until my baby's due date to start feeling closure."
Lindsey Smith wanted more opportunities to talk about her losses. She noted poignantly, "I wish people knew it’s OK to ask how I’m doing, that it helps me to talk about it. They seem afraid to bring it up. I wish people knew how heartbreaking it is, how you feel like a part of yourself is gone — how even years later, the memory comes flooding back and sends me to tears."
Kristen Hatten, who lost her son David at full term, needs her friends to acknowledge that her "son was given a name, so please don't be afraid to call him by name. And if you ask about him, be ready to listen without pressure, prying, or a time limit."
The common thread that runs through all of the unique stories of mothers grieving the loss of their precious baby is the visceral need for connection. Saying nothing at all is worse than saying the wrong thing. Call her, write her, visit her, ask her how she is doing — then just be there for her and listen.
Many grieving parents are comforted by remembrance photography. Most hospitals offer parents footprints and snapshots of their babies. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) is a wonderful non-profit group of photographers all over the world who offer free professional portraits of parents with their babies. Cheryl Haggard, a co-founder, lost her son, Maddux, a few days after his birth and notes on the website, "That night was the worst night of my life. But when I look at the images, I am not reminded of my worst night. I’m reminded of the beauty and blessings he brought."
Jewels Green is a mother, writer, public speaker and advocate for the right to life from conception to natural death. She lives in a suburb of Philadelphia and is featured in a new book, We Choose Life: Authentic Stories, Movements of Hope.
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