Thursday, February 08, 2007


On helping a friend through a miscarriage

I was blissfully engrossed in the task of finally getting around to framing some old photos, while also making dinner and tidying the living room, when the phone rang late one Saturday afternoon. I was so engaged in what I was doing that even though I had picked up the phone and said "hello", my mind was still on everything but the telephone.

The voice on the other end, breathless with surpressed excitement and without preamble, announced "I'm pregnant!!"

I knew instantly who it was, and struggled against a flood of conflicting emotions to make any sort of response. After a moment of silence that stretched on half beat too long, I gushed with excitement and asked the obligatory questions, but I could hear the strain in my own voice.

It's still hard. This is one of my best friends in the world: the woman who had the courage to tell me that my ex-husband was being unfaithful when none of my other friends could; the woman who held me when I cried over our infertility diagnosis; the woman who asked me to be the godparent of her two boys; the woman I asked to be in the delivery room when Tristan arrived. She's suffered through at least four miscarriages (how horrible is it that past a certain point, I've lost count) and I couldn't be happier that she's pregnant. And yet, in that first shocked moment, I froze.

I froze because what I thought was deeply buried was actually just below the surface. While I am overjoyed at my friend's wonderful news, I guess I'm still not quite 'over' the miscarriage, despite my best efforts to leave it behind. And it took me that long and breathless heartbeat to slam closed Pandora's box and recompartmentalize my own latent grief so I could properly celebrate her joy.

I mention all of this because twice in the past week or so, I've been approached by sweet, caring women who have asked me for advice on how to help a friend deal with a miscarriage. And I thought that maybe by reflecting on it here, I could both share my own insight and solicit yours. After all, I wouldn't dare assume that even after three loses I could understand what another person is going through, but maybe collectively we can offer some varied perspectives.

My first thought was that you have to keep reaching out to someone who just experienced a loss. She might not be able to reach back just yet, and she might not be ready, but I think it's important that you keep sending her notes, or giving her a call, just to let her know that you are there and that you care. Do what you can to make a 'safe' place for her to tell you about her feelings, no matter how dark. On the flip side, it's also okay to try to make the world normal again, it's okay to laugh if she's ready (laughter being one of my main coping mechanisms), and it's okay if she wants to ignore the grief and pretend all is well - for a while, at least. In other words, take your cues from her, but keep reaching out to make sure she knows she can come to you if she needs to.

One of the most important things is to simply acknowledge the miscarriage, even with a casual acquaintance. In the days and weeks after the miscarriage, I found it awkward talking to people if I wasn't sure if they knew about the miscarriage or not. A simple "I'm so sorry" at least lets her know you know, and you care. I used to think that by saying something, you might be reminding someone of their grief in a time when they weren't thinking about it, but I've realized that for much longer than I would have thought, you are always thinking about it, even in the back of your mind. So don't be shy about approaching her. It was hard, so hard, accepting people's sympathy those first few weeks, but I think it would have been worse if nobody acknowledged my grief.

When I lost the first baby, back in 2001, a friend of Beloved's called to say hello and share his sympathy, and he told me about losing his mother when he was very young. I still remember that conversation, and how much it meant to me. He wasn't equating the two losses, just saying in his own way that he had grieved, too, and I was more comforted by the attempt than the substance of his call.

So what do you say? That's the hardest part. Say that you are sorry, tell your friend you love her and that she can talk to you if she needs to. Say what's in your heart. Tell her how sad you are and share your feelings. Mostly, though, listen to her. Make sure she isn't feeling guilty, that she doesn't feel like the miscarriage is a failure on her part. Make sure she knows she can come to you. And don't forget to acknowledge her partner's grief, too.

I can share a couple of thoughts on what not to do, too. Don't avoid her because you don't know what to say. Don't minimize her loss by saying things like, "You can always get pregnant again" or "It wasn't meant to be" or by thinking that because she was just a few weeks pregnant that the loss is any less traumatic. Don't judge her behaviour or her coping mechanisms, because everybody reacts to grief differently and moves through the stages of grief in different ways. And, in my humble opinion, don't send flowers. A well-meaning friend sent a huge bouquet when we lost our first baby, and I hated the sight of them. I had to throw them away after a couple of days.

Finally, keep reaching out to her. She'll probably get a lot of support in the first couple of days, but after that first period of grieving, people tend to stop talking about the baby and the loss. While it's true that an insensitive comment can be hurtful, silence is worse. And keep talking to her about it. When you're going through it, you need to talk it out to make it real. After a while, you need to talk to remember and heal. It takes a long time, much longer than I would have imagined. I truly appreciated the effots of a few friends who asked me, weeks later, how I was feeling and making sure I was okay.

After I wrote this, I did I little surfing and found this link to a fact sheet on American Pregnancy .org on supporting someone after a miscarriage, and it might have been more expedient for me to just link to them in the first place - it's a good resource.

Anybody else care to share some thoughts?