After I’m sorry, those are the two most prevalent words I’ve heard the past few days. The number of women and their partners who have experienced miscarriage is staggering, although it shouldn’t be surprising from the statistics. An estimated one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage (although many are within the first month, so often the woman may not even know– or may not be able to verify even if she suspects– that she was pregnant). So if so many couples have experienced it, why don’t we talk about it? Why don’t we know what to say? What to feel? How to mourn?
I’m collecting thoughts on that (and a great many other things about what I’m experiencing).
1. Historically speaking, infertility and miscarriage carried a stigma for the woman particularly and for her husband potentially. Whether seen as a divine punishment or something weak in the person’s virility or a genetic aberration, it’s not cool to talk about that. How do I combat that? I talk about it. A lot. I wouldn’t hesitate if my friend died, so I don’t hesitate now. I hurt; listen, or get out of my space.
2. We don’t know when life begins, and so we don’t know what we’re grieving. Is it a person (yes!)? A baby (yes!)? A hope and a dream (yes and yes!)? A child, a legacy, a sibling, a promise, a little one. Doctors will use language like conceptus or tissue or only possibly fetus to describe, you know, what was lost, anything that doesn’t sound baby-ish. But that’s not what the expectant parents are experiencing. I wasn’t terribly attached to my tissue. My baby, on the other hand…
This brings me to an important tangent and lesson in what not to say. I don’t care what your thoughts are on when life begins for the purposes of debates on abortion. You’re not being judged on that right now. If you are speaking with a woman who has lost an unborn child, call it whatever she calls it. Baby. Child. Person. Sweetheart. Now is not the time to say “It wasn’t really a living person yet.” Maybe not to you, but frankly, you don’t matter here. “It didn’t feel any pain.” Great. Thanks. That bloody well makes one of us. Also, for the record, don’t say “you might be able to conceive another one right away.” While this is true and may be what some women need to hear, it should be offered in response to a question along those lines, not as an expression of condolence. When someone’s dog dies, we know enough not to say that they can get a new puppy right away, like that somehow replaces old Spot. Why would someone possibly think it would be comforting to say that about my kid?
3. It feels like an over-reaction. Because of some of the responses I just listed, I kind of feel like I might be over-reacting. Oh, it wasn’t a real baby. Or I didn’t know the gender yet, or the hair color yet, or we hadn’t picked a name or felt the baby kick, so we hadn’t really bonded. There aren’t polite words for this line of thinking, or for people whose insensitivity makes you feel this way. My advice to a sister going through this: if anyone suggests you are over-reacting or it wasn’t a real baby or that their pain was so much worse because they miscarried two months further along than you did, punch them in the nose. I normally (never) advocate violence, but this is an extreme case.
4. There’s no body. Except in cases where the fetus baby had to be removed medically or miscarriages in the later stages of pregnancy, most women miscarry stuff that mercifully is not recognizable or formed. Nothing to bury (which is a very different thing than nothing to grieve, as anyone whose loved one is missing and presumed dead or died in some sort of tragedy where the remains were not recovered can tell you). Nothing to kiss goodbye, for those who need that closure.
5. On a related note, there’s nothing missing that we can see. Again, late in pregnancy there would be a visible difference in the shape of the grieving mama’s body, but mine looks the same as it did before. Yes, I lost eight pounds overnight, and I can feel the difference quite keenly in fact, but there’s no empty chair, no person that was walking around here yesterday who suddenly isn’t, no pictures to remind me (except the ultrasound photo, which my husband took off the fridge), no physical representation of a person’s life. So you can forget. Kind of like we do when another person dies and we think later oh, Martha would love this; I can’t wait to tell her! and then the wave of grief hits us (different from shock, where we don’t really forget so much as need some time for our brains to actually catch up with what’s happened). Except you can do it a lot in this case, the day after it happens, even. Which then makes you feel really really bad. What kind of parent forgets that their child died? The kind who lost that child to miscarriage.
6. At the same time, pregnancy reorients your life in a way that nothing else really does. You put doctor’s visits, trimester milestones and due dates on your calendar. You change your wardrobe. You get in the habit of refusing alcohol and tuna fish and unpasteurized cheese and non-tylenol pain killers. You skip the grocery store aisle with the maxi pads (which all of a sudden, painfully, brutally, every freaking time you go to the bathroom, you need again). And so reminders are everywhere. And because you just forgot for a second that you can in fact take aspirin, when you remember it hurts like hell.
7. There are no memories. When we celebrate a person’s life at a memorial service, one of the best parts is telling stories. Happy stories, sad stories, funny stories, bittersweet stories. We celebrate the person’s humor or tenderness or brilliant smile. I don’t have any stories about my baby that I lost. So far, talking about the hopes and excitement we felt at the idea of that child hasn’t helped, although it might in the future. I’ll keep on that, mostly because I think I need to keep talking about it.
8. Without memories, stories, a physical representation, and so on, there’s very little community around this loss. Most grief, as my friend Amber pointed out, is communal. Others who knew the person can share their feelings too, and can even conceptualize the loss. With this loss, I understand and feel it the most, where even my spouse has a harder time really grabbing on to it. The circle widens through the immediate and extended family and friends network, but most folks outside our siblings and parents are sad for us, but don’t have grief of their own about this little one who wasn’t able to be in the world. That’s okay, but grief is so much easier a burden when it’s shared.
If you have other ideas about this, whether intellectual thoughts or from your own experience or that of someone close to you, please feel free to add them. Maybe we’ll even create a little resource of some kind that helps someone. Ideas, like grieving, are better and more helpful when shared.
[So this might be where I get feedback that I detach from my emotions or I live in my head, because I'm able to wax all intellectual here. Hey, it helps me, and it may one day help another woman, so that's not a bad thing. I didn't cry while I wrote this, which is a milestone, or a sign of detachment. I did, however, shake. Like, a lot. So maybe not so much with the detachment thing, see?]