Monday, January 5, 2009

Why saying certain things you think are comforting could be really, really hurtful.

OK, I haven't talked terribly much about this because I was extremely lucky with my losses. Only one person said something really offensive to me, so the most I had to cope with was being driven mad by people telling me they were sorry.

It is difficult to talk to someone who has suffered a loss of any kind. And it's made even harder when you can't directly relate because you haven't been in that position. I know I feel awkward trying to offer comfort to someone who has lost their parent, because I still have mine, for example. I never got to know my grandparents well, so I don't know how to give solace to someone who was extremely close to their newly deceased grandparent.

Of course all sympathy and comfort are reduced to platitudes and are not terribly helpful in a loss, but we still try. We know there are safe things to say. 'I'm sorry for your loss' and 'Please, if there is anything I can do, let me know' and 'I'm here to listen to anything without judgment or advice if you need someone to talk to' - these are always safe territory. Yes, they feel inadequate, but that's because they are inadequate. Not one thing you say can take away the pain and hurt or restore the dead to life again.

But often, we feel the inadequacy of those words and feel awkward and we have a tendency to start spewing out words to fill the silence. Words we think are comforting or are meant to provide some solace. In fact, these ramblings often stick a knife further in, and make the pain worse.

This is especially true when it comes to miscarriage, because already, we feel conflicted. The baby was never a person, wasn't someone we knew. It wasn't someone whose features we remember or whose personality will be a sore loss. There is no body to bury, and there is no sign of that baby left. Outside the mother, everyone (even the father) is at one remove from the loss, because there was never a physical person. So many of us who suffer pregnancy losses feel guilty about our emotional reactions and our sadness, because there was never a baby in our arms. Likewise, people are unsure how to react, precisely because of the lack of physicality in this loss. The baby was never a solid, real thing to them (at least with early losses), it isn't much more than a concept to anyone other than the mother who is so physically affected by it so early.

Additionally, a large part of what we lost was our innocence. Our hopes and our dreams and expectations for our lives and families are gone. Just as we've adjusted to the expansion and have made plans for the new addition, it is suddenly not there anymore. The months ahead suddenly have a gaping hole in them, where days before were markers of growth and excitement and hope and expectations of events (ultrasounds, planning the nursery, showers, maternity leave). Never again will we approach pregnancy with the same openness and hopefulness. Never again will we assume that a baby will be in our arms in so many months.

Also, we don't know why it happened. Some of us will get a partial answer - a previously undiagnosed (and hopefully fixable) medical issue, a random lightning strike of chromosomal defects, bad luck. But even those answers don't address the core issue of why. We will never know why, this side of life anyway. We will never know why that sperm or egg was bad or why the cell division didn't work correctly (or sometimes which it was). There is always room for doubt and guilt - even if you know that it was nothing you did, you wonder if past living created that bad egg or late implantation.

Finally, we don't know if it will ever happen again. While the numbers suggest that many women miscarry and go one to have healthy pregnancies, and that the vast majority of pregnancies are healthy - the stories inevitably come out of the woodwork after a miscarriage. You go places you never would have before, having previously had no reason to be there. You learn frightening stories of women who miscarry 4, 5, 6 times in their quest for their babies. You learn of women who try for years and can't find anything wrong. You learn of women who find out too late their eggs are not of good quality and their only options become expensive fertility procedures, adoption or donor eggs or surrogacy. You are suddenly in a sorority you never though you'd be in, and you are already one of the small number of pregnancies that didn't go well and didn't work out. What is to stop you from being a part of an even smaller number of women unable to carry a pregnancy to term? God knows I am battling the fear that threatens to rise up and choke me since I've had two miscarriages back to back. You don't know if you will ever get pregnant again, and you know now all too well that getting pregnant is only half the battle. Where two weeks before you were filled with hope and joy and expectation, your future now is totally unclear and there are no guarantees.

So all of that is to say - there are certain things that you may find on the tip of the tongue if you are trying to comfort a friend who has had a loss. There are things you may feel strongly about, that you think would comfort you. Unless you know that person as well as you know yourself, bite those words back that threaten to tumble out into an awkward pause or silence.

Don't say things like this:

'It's all God's plan/ It's all part of a greater plan' - well, that's a shitty plan then. I'd like to know why it was planned for me to go through a whole lot of physical and emotional pain and to bring hurt to those I love because I couldn't carry a live baby. If there is a good reason, fine, but I'd sure like to know. And I'd like to know that the plan includes children in the future too, because at the point of loss, you can't help but wonder if you'll ever be a parent or if your only chance is now gone. I'd also like to understand the blueprints of a plan that take my baby from me, a stable woman in a stable, loving relationship who is financially and emotionally prepared for the responsibility of bringing a new life into the world and raising it - especially when there are multitudes of women bringing children into less than ideal circumstances, and multitudes of women having (or not having) unwanted children or harming their children. That is a plan I don't understand and can't quite get behind if someone won't explain it to me.

'God doesn't give you more than you can handle' - see above. My reaction is along the lines of fuck that. I don't care how much I can handle. I don't want to handle this. I want my baby back. I don't want the physical pain, I don't want the emotional pain. I don't want to look at my husband and cry because I've let him down and I don't want to relive every decision I've made to eat this or that or drink this or that and wonder if it's all my fault. I don't want to have to handle the decisions about natural vs. misoprostol vs. surgery or how much time to take off work when I have to think that this is eating away any potential maternity leave I have.

'It's better in the long run/There was probably something wrong with the baby' - you know what? We don't know that. Maybe there was something wrong. Maybe the miscarriage has saved us a lot of agony down the road. Nevertheless, you don't get to say that, and most especially not before any pathology reports are back. Remember, that was our child that we have lost. It's difficult at the point of loss to think anything in this pain could be to benefit. That is something that may come later, but some people will never, ever believe that.

'Better now than down the road.' See above. There is never a good time to lose your child. I would have preferred, given the option, to have lost Chickadee when Chickadee stopped growing, rather than 4 weeks later. But I'd rather have never lost Chickadee.

'You're young/healthy/got pregnant easily. You can get pregnant again.' or the related 'You already have X number of children. It's ok' Would you ever say to someone who lost a friend that they can make more, or to someone who lost one parent or sibling that they still have others? Of course not. It demeans the loss of the child who was wanted and loved to suggest such a thing. Even if there are other children or we can get pregnant again - this child, this pregnancy is gone.

'It wasn't a good time anyway.' Again, not appropriate. There may be family issues, financial issues, uncertain economy, whatever - it is never a good time to lose a child, and it is never appropriate for someone outside to suggest a silver lining.

So there you are. I hope this gives some insight into why people who have suffered a loss shudder when they hear statements like those above. We get it - we know they are well meaning. Many of us have uttered something similar at some point. We know that people don't know what to say and we know that some people truly believe these things and think they will be offering comfort by sharing.

But if you are ever faced with a friend or relative (female or male - men experience the losses too) in this situation - please, keep your mouth shut. Stick to expressions of love and support and offers to help (concrete offers like bringing over dinner or arranging a gift certificate, or offering to clean, whatever are invaluable when someone is mourning - but don't be offended if they aren't up to chatting on the phone or company), stick to expressions of sorrow for their loss. Talk to them later as well. Many people move on quickly, but for the mother, her body can take weeks to adjust to the loss and emotionally, it can feel like you are stuck or moving backwards because everything around you continues and your immediate life is shattered. Allowing them space to talk weeks or even months later - checking in on them - is so much appreciated.

I hope your loved ones are never in this situation. But if they are - think of what you are saying, please, for the love of everything holy, don't make it worse for them.


The Schultz Family Blog said...

thank you for this post. i just had a conversation with my husband last night about losing innocence since our miscarriage. i'm so sad that i will have my previous miscarriage hanging over my head if i get pregnant again. i told him that i have lost that pure excitement and joy that goes with getting a positive pregnancy test. i still can't believe that this is my story. it still feels like a horrible nightmare.

CottonSocks said...

I'm sorry you are going through a loss. It is a nightmare. To possibly break my own rules, it will get better though. You will wake up at some point, and the fear will fade some. Talking about it helped me a lot; and remember that it is ok to feel whatever you feel. You may feel angry or bitter or you may not. Either are ok. You may feel sad or not at any given moment, and that's ok. I needed someone to tell me it was ok to feel how I felt and I needed to know it was ok for me not to be ok for awhile. Once I stopped kicking myself for not feeling a certain way by a certain point, things were much better.

Good luck to you, sister.

The Schultz Family Blog said...

You were right's not a fun club to be a member of, but the members are amazing! good luck to you.


oh wow. (it's mrsmacias)
You just wrote everything I was thinking. Thank you for this.

M said...

Well done, darling.

krp said...

this was a great post, i think you just said everything ive thought since my own miscarriage... it was the hardest thing we have ever gone through, but the sadness did eventually lessen and were pregnant again... and i am definitely fearful for this one. thanks so much for sharing something so personal.