October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. I never know what to say or feel when people mention this. I have had two miscarriages, and I still grieve them both, but I don’t know how to talk about them in public – or even if I want to. Those who have lost babies before they are born live in a strange middle ground: are we parents or are we not? Are we allowed to stand for the Mother’s Day blessing at church? Is it worth explaining to near strangers that I have three children on earth and two in heaven, or should I just answer “three” because I know that that’s what they’re really asking? Am I allowed to talk about the babies who were never born?
One aspect of pregnancy loss that surprised me is how intensely personal it is. Before losing my babies, I thought I would be the kind of woman who would speak of something like that openly without fear and without shame – as if women who do not speak of it keep silent because of fear or shame. But I quickly learned that, for me, fear and shame have nothing to do with my silence. If I seldom speak of my losses publicly, it’s because the grief is more personal than I ever expected it be, partly because, unlike the loss of a grandparent, for example, most people don’t have a context for it. Most people simply do not know what it feels like to lose a child. How do you explain that you are a mother when no one else can see that?
Ariel Levy, a staff writer for “The New Yorker” and author of the memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, recently shared her experience of losing her baby while on assignment in Mongolia. When she was 5 months pregnancy, she went into premature labor, but the baby did not survive. She remembers: “It was like a switch had flipped inside me, and I had experienced — however briefly, I had experienced maternal love. And I couldn’t get that switch to flip back, so I felt like a mother…. It was almost like an identity crisis. It was like, I know I’m a mother, but I sound crazy if I say it because I have no child.”
Although Levy’s pregnancy was further along than most when she lost her baby, her experience of having an identity crisis makes sense to me, and I suspect that it’s a common one, although not one we talk about.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that about 10% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, but that number increases as the mother gets older. By age 40, about 30% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. And, of course, these are known pregnancies. The number of known and unknown pregnancies combined is much higher.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that about 10% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage… But the frequency of pregnancy loss doesn’t make it a familiar topic for most people to talk about.
But the frequency of pregnancy loss doesn’t make it a familiar topic for most people to talk about. Since most miscarriages happen within 13 weeks of pregnancy, most women are not yet visibly pregnant when they lose their babies. And here’s the reality: when outsiders can’t see or hold the baby, it’s hard for them to remember the baby exists, and it’s hard to know how to talk about it.
Some people tie the social discomfort of talking about miscarriage to what Pope St. John Paul II called “the culture of death” in Evangelium Vitae: the way that the prevalence of contraception, abortion, sterilization, etc., has led our culture to see new life as either completely or somewhat “less” human until birth. I think that this attitude can influence how we talk about miscarriage, but I don’t think that’s all of it.
Miscarriage is an incredibly intense, and deeply personal experience. We need to consider how deeply the mother is affected because the baby was living in and died inside of her. We need to think about how both the mother and father had hopes and dreams for the baby – this baby – and how the he or she was already living a full life in their imaginations. Outsiders can express sorrow and sympathy at a pregnancy loss, but it’s tough to know how to respond to such a personal tragedy.
For all of these reasons, it’s hard to know what to say to a friend who has lost a baby, and it’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently. I am writing from my own experiences, and other women might not share those experiences, but I want to share what was helpful (or not) to me as I grieved my miscarriages.
Don’t feel the need to “fix”
I think one of the hardest things about talking to parents who are grieving is that we feel like we should try to make them feel better. We love them, and so we want to fix things for them. But, in my experience, most attempts to do that caused more pain than healing. We don’t know how to fill the space, and we know we should say something, but we often say the wrong thing.
For example, I had a good friend share statistics with me about how common miscarriages are. I know that she was trying to assure me that it wasn’t my fault, that it’s just something that happens sometimes, but she failed to understand that knowing that something is common doesn’t change the fact that it happened to me. A 10% chance is not comforting when you are that 10%.
Don’t suggest that what happened is good
Another friend tried to reassure us that both we and the baby were probably “better off,” since most miscarriages are the result of chromosomal abnormalities in the baby. Again, I understand where this person was coming from, but life is always better than death, and when we tell parents that it’s better this way, we’re also telling them that their child is better off dead.
Don’t act like all babies are the same
Similarly, a few people told us that we could “just have another,” or (the gentler form of this) “as least you know you can get pregnant.” But here’s the problem. There’s a difference between a baby and my baby. My daughter, who was born about 18 months after my first miscarriage is the light of my life, but her birth did not erase the pain of losing the baby before her.
Don’t bring up where my baby is… and is not
Many well-meaning people would say something about how the baby is in heaven or is in Jesus’s arms waiting for us. Now, with some distance, I take great comfort in this. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is John 14:3: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” I like to imagine my babies waiting for me, to be reunited some day. But in the days and weeks immediately after each loss, this thought only led to anger. I took no comfort in the baby being in heaven when he or she should have been with me.
Here’s what you can do:
Show you’re thinking of me…but give me space
A better way to help a grieving friend, I think, is simply to make space for the friend to grieve. I was clear with my friends after my losses that I wasn’t ready to talk right away, and I am so grateful for the friends who respected that by giving me space. I am grateful for the cards and the prayers and the flowers that let me know they were thinking of me without making me talk about it. I am grateful for the friends who later sat down over coffee with me, asked how I was, and waited to see if I wanted to talk or not.
Help me through the weeks to come
I am grateful for the ones who offered up their time in prayer for my pain, for the ones who offered to watch my kids so my husband and I could go to Mass and grieve together, for the ones who sent restaurant gift cards, knowing that even boiling pasta was too much to handle some days.
Share your story, too
I am grateful for the friends who did not try to fix things, who did not try to comfort me, who did not talk, but who listened, who walked with me in my grief, or who distracted me with completely unrelated conversation. I am grateful for the women, some of whom I didn’t know well, who simply said, “Me too. This happened to me, too. I understand.” I am grateful to those who made me see that I was not alone.
Be comfortable with grief
If we, as Catholics, truly believe that life has value and that life matters, then we have to be comfortable grieving when that life ends. We have to be able to say, I didn’t know your baby. I couldn’t see or touch or snuggle your baby, but, for a short while, your baby lived. And your baby’s death is tragic. And you are allowed to grieve. You are allowed to act as if you lost a child because you did.
The best thing we can do for our friends who have experienced loss is to acknowledge it, to walk with our friends as they grieve, and to help them know that they are not alone.
Theresa Woodhouse is a FemCatholic Contributor. She is married with three children and works part-time as a professor. She enjoys reading, writing, working out, and coffee (so much so that her family has told her she’s never allowed to give it up for Lent). She is writing under a pseudonym and chose the first name because every saint with a version of that name is awesome and the second name because, while she is not “handsome, clever, and rich” like Emma Woodhouse, Emma’s faults are a bit too familiar to her.