We all know someone who has experienced pregnancy loss. It can be difficult to know what to say at this time, particularly when often the first time you knew about the pregnancy was as it ended.
As with all grief processes, it can be a tricky road to navigate. Words intended to be well-meaning may in fact have the opposite effect. On the other hand, the fear of saying the wrong thing can paralyse us into silence, which can be equally hurtful.
October is “Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month” and, to help avoid some common pitfalls, here are five phrases that are best avoided.
1) “You can always have another” or “You already have one”
This isn't a pint of milk that's been spilled and can be sorted by a quick trip to Tesco. Or a delivery that's been mixed up by Amazon.This is the loss of a baby. No amount of other children (actual or future) will make up for that. This child needs to be grieved, not to have its brief presence invalidated.
2) “At least . . . you can get pregnant/you were early on/are young”
The list is endless. A rule of thumb is to scrap any sentence that starts with “At least”. It is not helpful to paint an imagined silver lining on this cloud. Allow your friend to process whatever she is feeling and share it if she wishes. She doesn’t need platitudes telling her how lucky she is.
3) “I know someone that had two, three . . . 11 billion losses”
Offering up terrible stories from an unknown friend of a friend is far from helpful. If someone was grieving the loss of their mother, it is unlikely you would say, "I know someone that lost their mam, dad and two sisters" to make them feel better. It's no different in this situation. Just because the life lost was small, doesn't make the grief small.
4) “There’s an angel in heaven right now”
It’s safe to say that most people would prefer a baby in their arms rather than an angel in heaven. In general, be guided by your friend when bringing up references to angels, God or heaven. Don’t force your own beliefs and be mindful that if your friend has faith, it may have been shaken.
5) “Did you drink too much coffee?”
Women can feel guilty that their body has failed or that they have done something to cause their pregnancy to be lost. This feeling can be hard to overcome and offering well-intended suggestions can simply compound it. This is not a detective story where you have to help find clues. Be aware that in the majority of miscarriages, the cause is unknown and, if there is a reason, it is a matter for her and her doctor.
So what can we say to someone?
It is important to remember that, as with any death, everyone finds their own way to process grief, in their own time.There isn’t a magical formula of words that will fit every situation. Some people will want to talk, while others won’t and either is fine. Be guided by your friend and keep it simple. Simply being there and offering your time and a hug may be enough.Tell them you are sorry for their loss. Offer practical help like taking the kids for a playdate or bring some food.
Check back in in a few months, particularly near the due date. Knowing that you are there to talk, for however long it takes, can make all the difference. And although we are focusing on the woman here, don’t forget her partner needs support as well.
Lourda Scott is co-founder of The HeartFull Project – a Facebook space to record and remember loss at any stage of pregnancy