You don’t say

No, really. You don’t say these things…at least not to someone who’s suffered a miscarriage.

“I don’t know what to say.”
“You could say it’s really shitty,” she suggested.
“That’s really shitty,” I echoed.
The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

— ∮∮∮ —

I experienced a wide range of responses when I shared about my pregnancy loss with people.1 I experienced a whole other range of responses when I opened up later about the subsequent infertility my husband and I were dealing with as a pretty-newly-married young couple. We had some wonderful, amazing friends and family support us…and we also had some truly baffling, unintentionally hurtful things said to us, too.

Now, before you think none of this applies to you, wait a second. Even if you don’t have friends going through this particular thing, This concept is widely applicable and worth sharing. People want to help when their friends are hurting. They want to listen, yes, but they often view someone sharing a hardship as a plea for advice. I’m guilty of this myself, and I’ve really had to remember that I am not a font of knowledge about everything. But it took a lot of misplaced responses to my story for me to own up to my own shortcomings in that area.

The Optimist

The first encounter I had with a Not Good Thing To Say was actually with my doctor. I really liked her, so this wasn’t a case of me just not liking her response based on a previous issue.

“Well, at least we know you can get pregnant!” she said cheerily as it turned out that yes, I was losing that pregnancy.

While miscarriages might have been part of her day-to-day routine, they weren’t a part of mine, and the fact that I was upset seemed to confuse her. But beyond that, her words were hard for me longterm. For most women, her response would have been accurate; only 10 per cent of the population deals with infertility. At the time, there was no reason to think I’d fall into that category.

Unfortunately for me, I did. I ended up being in the percentage of women for whom that first easy pregnancy (it only took six months!) was a total freak anomaly. As time passed, it seemed that I couldn’t get pregnant. OK, yes, technically my doctor might have been correct in that it DID happen once, but it sure didn’t feel like it as a year passed, and then another, and we saw several doctors, all of whom couldn’t figure out what was wrong with us. Sure, I’d gotten pregnant once, but it seemed almost like a curse in that it kept doctors from taking us seriously as those years passed. Her words haunted me. I wanted to march back into that office as we hit the “trying for two years with nothing to show except that freak six-months-in miscarriage” mark and say, “Hey, so, you said something to make me feel better but now it’s actually making me feel SO MUCH WORSE.”

While her words might have been accurate, they trivialized my pain and (inadvertently) ended up making me feel worse because they sure didn’t seem to be true.

The Advice Giver

I encountered a lot of these. “Adopt a kitten! It will turn on your maternal instinct!” is still my “favorite” of all the forms of advice I got. It was so utterly insulting to be told that the reason I couldn’t get or stay pregnant was because I wasn’t fit to be a mother. It was patently ridiculous and demeaning and SERIOUSLY?! I’d gotten a Corgi puppy in 2010, which as everyone on the Internet knows, is the cutest animal IN THE WORLD, so clearly that hadn’t worked, even if it could have. Which, NO.

It really hurt to hear the types of “advice” that seemed to be thinly veiled darts at my capacity to be a mother. And frankly, there is some batshit crazy advice out there. Just relax. Just adopt. Just go on a vacation. All of them seem to begin with “just”–and none of them are really good advice if they’re coming from someone who has no real concept of the pain and grief the advice-ee is going through. The “just” advice trivializes the issue. There is no “just” about any of those options.

The best advice I got was to ignore the advice people were giving me.

The Non-Responder

When I lost that first pregnancy, I told a handful of people mostly via email/Facebook private message. Most responded with an appropriate “I’m so sorry, let me know if I can be there for you,” which was truly what I needed. But there were also a few people who didn’t reply at all.

But the thing is…I did that once to someone, too. Before our fertility struggles even began, a friend sent a message similar to mine, and I’d seen it. She stated that she really didn’t want to talk about it, so I left it at that. I said nothing.

After my own loss, I felt tremendous guilt over my radio silence to her. While she said she didn’t want to talk about it, I now feared that she hadn’t meant that she literally did not want any replies. Finally, even though a long time had passed, I sent her a message saying how sorry I was that I had never sent her any sort of message, and that while I knew time had passed, I was still so sorry for her loss.

It sounds cliche, but sometimes a simple “I’m so sorry” really is the best thing to say to someone going through this experience. You don’t have to give advice. You don’t have to offer to bring a meal, or be a shoulder for them to cry on, or anything like that if you don’t want to. They make sympathy cards with that exact statement for a reason: it’s pretty universally accepted as an appropriate response.

When I got that same radio silence from some people, I tried to remember that I, too, had done just that. I hadn’t known what to say, and at the time it didn’t occur to me to say the most obvious thing in the world.

The Inadvertent Debater

Whether or not you believe life begins at conception, at a heartbeat, at quickening, at birth, or somewhere in-between, the important thing to remember is that a loss is still a loss of a future.

When a person has a very-much-wanted pregnancy, the assumption is that at the end, he or she will end up with a very-much-wanted baby. When that doesn’t happen, that’s a loss. Even if people might not be grieving something they ever got to name, they may be grieving the loss of a future they thought was theirs. Regardless of what you or the people directly experiencing the loss believe, a loss is neither the time nor the place to bring up that debate. They are grieving. Don’t make any assumptions about what they’re mourning or the specific details of their grief. Just accept it.

An imagined-but-assumed future lost is a loss. Don’t say things like “It wasn’t a real baby.” Likewise, telling them that they have an “angel baby” might not be that comforting either, even though you may mean it kindly. In short, maybe don’t venture too deep if they don’t invite you into that pool.

— ∮∮∮ —

As life goes on and people experience joy and pain and all the things in the middle, I try to remember that if they’re telling me something, they aren’t necessarily asking for advice or a reason why something happened. They might just be telling me because they want to share with someone. It’s a knee-jerk response to want to fix whatever problem someone is presenting, but as a confidant, don’t worry too much about being the fixer-upper. Just be a friend. Just be there. Just acknowledge how shitty something is.

Those are the best “justs.”

Photo by: njyo

  1. This is a “closing statements on the issue” column for me about this area of my life, I hope. 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Thank you for taking these feelings that I can only assume you’ve wrapped quietly in delicate papers and put in the furthest corner of your heart, and unwrapping them for us in order to educate and bring awareness. <3

  2. I’m glad you brought up how helpful and powerful an “I’m so sorry” can be. I’ve found that most of the time–at least when a tragedy first hits–people just want you to sick in the muck with them, acknowledge that it *is* muck, and just let them be sad, let them feel it.

  3. Katherine on said:

    ugh, “angel baby” is just creepy. I’m recently pregnant, very eager, and scared it’ll vanish in an instant with a miscarriage. Thanks for writing this, you’ve probably saved a handful of people from saying hurtful things to people in pain.

  4. Carrie on said:

    Beautiful words. Having someone to listen and know that they’re in the wings for you is what helped me. Fortunately, I did not encounter anyone making comments as you have, but I do fear that I may have made comments similar in the past to others. It does come from a place of wanting to help, wanting to fix, wanting to take that pain away. What I needed was silence, a silent hug from friends/family was the biggest comfort to me.

  5. Stephanie on said:

    This is both moving and eye-opening. Thank you so much for sharing.

  6. Susan on said:

    Yes to all of it.

    I got some odd responses and no responses, and wonderful responses.
    I think one of the best things was my father in law shared a story of his and his first wife’s miscarriage and how it affected him. And for a tough guy football coach – it was amazing. Whereas my own awkward father sort of pretended it didn’t happen because he didn’t know what to say.

    Also what helped was knowing that it wasn’t just me (which I knew intellectually). When I mentioned it to girlfriends, there was one who told me her story. That was comforting.

    Its such a shitty thing and I blamed myself for so long.

  7. Thank you for posting this Hayley. I was so fortunate to have a wonderful doctor who, after my first miscarriage, sat me down and told me “People are going to hear about this and say a lot of crazy things to you. Just remember that their hearts are (mostly) in the right place. And, whatever they way, your loss is real and tragic and you need to mourn in your own way.” She was absolutely right. And, like you, I learned that there are a lot of people who say nothing at all because they don’t know what to say. “I’m sorry. Let me know if there is anything you need” and a good hug is the best anyone can do. Way better than the people who said things like “you baby died because it was god’s will. If you carried it to term it would have been deformed” or (my favorite) “I know exactly what you’re going through because once when I was pregnant I started bleeding. But it turned out everything was fine.”

    Something else not to say…. Don’t grill people about how long they have been married and why they don’t have kids yet. It may just be their preference (as in “Actually, I’m not really in to kids. Why do you have them?”) or they may be going through a terrible personal struggle that they just don’t care to share with you. If you really want to know, try asking where they see themselves in five years or what their biggest dream is. You’ll probably get a far more interesting answer.

  8. my MIL actually said to me “Well, you probably wouldn’t have wanted a mongoloid anyway”. This was 2 whole years ago. I still haven’t gotten over it. Don’t think I ever will.

  9. Thank you all for your kind words. Please know I read your stories and wish I could go hug you all in person, as sappy as that sounds.

    (And MM, holy crap, your MIL was so out of line, I am so sorry.)

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