October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. “Pregnancy and Infant Loss” is an umbrella term that encompasses miscarriage (when an embryo or fetus passes away before the 20th week of pregnancy), stillbirth (when a fetus passes away between the 20th week of pregnancy and birth), and infant loss (when a newborn or infant passes away before their first birthday).
The most common of these losses is miscarriage. Because up to 15% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, it’s highly likely that you know someone who has experienced a miscarriage.
However, despite the prevalence of miscarriage, our culture has not prepared us to talk about or process the experience. As a bereavement doula and a loss mom myself, I have three simple suggestions for you to consider when your friend suffers a miscarriage.
1. Instead of saying, "Everything happens for a reason," say, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
When someone loses a loved one, we might have the urge to tell them that their sorrow is meaningful. But, for the person in grief, any potential meaning may be far out of their reach while they process and mourn their loss.
Women who experience a miscarriage often blame themselves - and sometimes doctors, friends, or family can reinforce that blame by saying things like, “I told you not to carry that laundry basket,” or “I wish you had taken prenatal vitamins for longer before getting pregnant.” Sometimes, telling someone who has suffered a miscarriage that everything happens for a reason can actually sound like you are asking her why her body miscarried, which is, in all likelihood, not something she had any control over.
It can be scary to say anything to a grieving friend if you’re worried about saying the wrong thing. One good go-to phrase to use is, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Miscarriage is a real loss, and expressing your sadness at that loss is a concrete way to communicate to your friend that you understand and validate her grief.
2. Don't avoid your friend. Instead, be flexible in how you are there for her.
Although it can be difficult or uncomfortable to be around people in grief, I encourage you to be present to your friend anyway. It isn’t important if you don’t know what to say. Even the best, most eloquent sentiments can’t fix your friend’s grief by bringing her baby back to life. Being present and listening fully and wholeheartedly, even when uncomfortable, is a beautiful way to walk with her in her grief.
Processing grief is a long ordeal that involves many iterations of how grief appears in someone’s life, so being flexible for your friend is important. For example, you may have plans to go to a new restaurant, and she may decide to cancel at the last minute because she saw a baby at the grocery store earlier and can’t stop crying. Being flexible might look like asking your friend if she wants to hang out at her house (or some other baby-free zone) instead.
Or, she might not feel sad at all. She may withdraw, feeling guilty that she isn’t feeling sad enough. In this case, being flexible might look like reminding her how much you love her and want her around. Understanding that your friend’s mental health takes precedence is a great gift that you can give her.
3. Don't put a deadline on her grief. Instead, remember her child with her.
One concrete way to continue your support is to put an alert in your calendar for the day of her loss (or a few days before) every year to remind yourself to send her a card or to reach out to her. If she named her child, refer to her child by name.
She might be in what we grief workers call “proximate grief” for some time – the kind of gut-wrenching, debilitating grief that makes everyday life nearly unbearable. But even when she grows around that grief and its impact becomes less pronounced, it is still there. Grief doesn’t end; it just changes. And your way of being there for her as a friend might change, too.
If you are looking for other ways to support a friend through an early loss, here is a list of more ideas.