Words matter. Words can hurt, but they can also heal. Back in August, the brilliant people at The Miscarriage Association launched an equally brilliant campaign on what to say when someone you know has a miscarriage. Everyone’s different, of course, but based on real-life experiences they’ve put together a list of what’s helpful to hear – and also what really isn’t.
For me, the important thing is to say something. Almost anything. As long as they’re meant in sympathy, any sort of words, in some sort of order, are likely to be helpful. (Though if you are in any doubt, there are some examples here that really are best avoided. These too).
Miscarriage is just grief in one of its many guises. Grief for the tiny person we never got to meet. Grief for the life we could have had, for the people and parents we could have been. I say ‘just’ grief – but of course, that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to know what to say.
Everyone wants to say the right thing, the thing that will make it all better.
I am no different. I’m still not very good at talking about what’s happened to us in real life. I am also painfully aware that in the past I have been a terrible friend to people I knew who lost loved ones or faced serious illness. I never knew what to say. And I was desperately afraid of saying the wrong thing, of making it worse, of reaching for a cliché. So I said nothing.
Here’s what I wish I knew then: Something is better than nothing. Don’t worry so much. You’re extremely unlikely to make it worse. Because, actually, nothing you can do can make it better, either. Not materially. This isn’t meant to be discouraging, it’s supposed to take the pressure off. You can’t make it go away, and you’re not expected to. In her wonderful, useful book A Manual For Heartache, which I have clung to in recent weeks, the author Cathy Rentzenbrink says that perhaps the very essence of the shock of grief is ‘that stunned feeling of being inconsolable’.
So there you go, you’re not supposed to be able to fix it, just acknowledge it.
By far – by far– the worst thing in the aftermath of a miscarriage is the looming silence. It closes in on you from all sides. There are often no real answers about what’s happened to you medically, or whether it might happen again (and again). Hardly anyone knows you were pregnant in the first place, or even that you were/are trying for a baby. No one official checks up on you – there is no routine medical follow-up, providing the miscarriage is deemed ‘complete’ (ugh, horrid clinical phrase) and there is no mental health assessment. You are expected to just keep quiet and carry on – and it is crushing.
I should say, at this point, that Dan and I have been incredibly lucky in the support we have had this year. For example, while it doesn’t fix it, it is a salve when people tell you they went through the same or a similar thing. It makes you feel more normal. Because, unfortunately, this IS normal.
We have had no crass comments, no ‘it wasn’t really a baby was it?’ or ‘so what do you think’s wrong with you then?’ No one called it ‘just a bunch of cells’ or suggested I was simply too stressed. We have had cards and flowers, kind messages, and so so much love – far more than do most people who are not, for whatever reason, able to ‘go public’ as we have.
The Miscarriage Association nails it when it says that, if in doubt, simply say ‘I’m so sorry’. Beyond this, I don’t want to set down rules for exactly what you should or shouldn’t say, because it just adds to the paralysing fear you’ll get it wrong. And everyone feels differently. For example, one of the common things a lot of women say they hated to hear after their miscarriage was ‘at least you can get pregnant’, because, of course, what good is getting pregnant if you can’t stay pregnant? Believe me, I get it. However, after our first miscarriage this was nonetheless a comforting thought for me. It had taken us 7 months to conceive the first time around and I was starting to worry. After the miscarriage, that fear, at the very least, had dissipated. I had been pregnant. I would get pregnant again. It was something to hold on to.
So no rules, but here are a few gentle pointers based on our experience…
1. A cliché is better than nothing
Seriously. No one’s giving marks out of ten. It doesn’t have to be creative. ‘I’m so sorry’. ‘Let us know if there’s anything we can do’. ‘I can’t imagine how you’re feeling’. They all work. Clichés are fine by me. In a similar vein, you don’t suddenly need to think of something Dalai Lama like in its wisdom and poetry. We’re (just about) the same people we were before this happened. The humour/sarcasm/sweariness remains in tact. If you think it’s a shitty thing to have happened to us, tell us that. One message I appreciated a lot after our second miscarriage said simply: Why does Donald Trump get to be president but bad things happen to people like you?
2. Sometimes actions really do speak louder
Cards are good. Flowers were gratefully, tearfully received. As was a box of mail-order cake from two old friends (this was actually genius). But you don’t have to send anything, or spend money. One friend made the effort to ask me out for a coffee, just because. We didn’t talk about what had happened directly. Just had a natter about this and that. Another took me and Dan to the cinema to watch something stupid and violent a few days after our third miscarriage, even though we were both monosyllabic with sadness. We must have been abysmal company, but it’s comforting when someone just accepts that and sees you anyway. Then there was the work colleague who – after I first blogged about what had happened to us – just quietly squeezed my shoulder one day as I started my shift. Anything that says I’m here, I see you – that’s what helps.
3. Break pregnancy news gently
This is a hard one. I won’t lie, it can be difficult being around pregnant friends and family, especially those who are expecting a baby when yours would have been due. But uncomfortable as it may be, it’s definitely better met head on. Unless you’ve specifically been told otherwise, don’t avoid telling a couple who’ve miscarried your happy news just because you feel awkward. Yes, I will be jealous. And no, I don’t feel good about that. But we can be happy for you, and still be sad for us. And in my experience, it is far, far worse to find out from someone else – or to have it sprung on you at a party, or similar. A message to say ‘I know this must be hard for you, but I didn’t want you to feel blind-sided…’ goes a long way.
4. Cut us a little slack
On a similar note, try to remember that a miscarriage doesn’t end once someone is back at work and physically fine. And actually, the hardest days can be further down the line – the day you had imagined telling people officially, father’s/mother’s day, the due date. There might be days when being around lots of children is out of the question. Or you might get birthday presents for little ones that seem a little perfunctory. (No one has received any baby gifts from me this year because I can’t bring myself to shop for them. It sounds so selfish written down, but there we are). Please don’t be offended. And please don’t stop inviting us – baby showers, christenings, group holidays. We appreciate it, truly. Accept our feeble excuses and forgive us.
5. If in doubt, ask
Finally, I think it’s a bit unfair to expect people to know exactly what we’re going through or what to say because, even now, miscarriage just isn’t a mainstream conversation. And the only way this is going to change is if people talk about it. If you don’t know what to say or what might help – ask. Before I had a miscarriage, I honestly didn’t have a clue – and I’m a health writer. I had no idea, for example, that a miscarriage could be silent or ‘missed’. Or that it could require surgery. So ask how someone feels. Ask if they want to talk about it (they might say no, fair enough). Ask about what you don’t understand. Otherwise, nothing will change.
- A version of this post was first published for Tommy’s