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