October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month (and the 15th day of the month is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day). The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that as many as 10-15% of confirmed pregnancies are lost, so you probably know a woman who has been through it. This kind of loss is unique in that mothers who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or said goodbye to an infant who only lived a short time often feel that the people in their lives just don’t get it, and they’re right. There is no way to completely understand another person’s grief, even if you’ve experienced something similar. Please know that you don’t have to get it in order to be supportive.
Our culture is really good at setting aside months to acknowledge different causes, decorating our cars with magnets expressing how woke we are, framing every social media post with the hashtag du jour, but we are not even close to being good at actually supporting the people who need it, especially mothers. (Here’s where I’m certain I should mention that I am not saying don’t do those things; I’m saying do more than those things.)
Grief Is Scary
We don’t know what to do with grief. It terrifies us, especially when the loss is of a pregnancy or infant (infant mortality is defined by the CDC as death of an infant before his or her first birthday) because in these cases, there may be no funeral or wake or memorial service to attend. And we suck at being with someone who is in emotional pain. We like to fix things. Instantly. Relax, grief doesn’t need fixing. Yep, you heard me. Grief is painful and messy and horrible and confusing because it’s supposed to be. Oh, and it doesn’t really stick to any kind of schedule. Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it?
What To Do (and Not Do)
Now for the comforting part. You can learn how to face your fear. You can be present with another human being whose life experience doesn’t resemble yours in the least. It doesn’t cost a dime, but you may feel things that aren’t comfortable. You may be reminded of losses of your own. You may not know what to say. You may feel the urge to say something you think might be helpful just to break the silence (because silence is another thing we don’t do well). But before you speak, I’d like to offer some guidelines to help you navigate the murky waters of supporting someone who has experienced the loss of a pregnancy or infant.
Show her you remember. Put the date of her loss on your calendar, and when that anniversary date rolls around, send her a message letting her know you are thinking of her. When a woman miscarries, there is no ritual to publicly acknowledge her loss. She has not only lost a child, but also the hopes and dreams she had for her child. Her future as a mother. What she was going to look like as her baby bump grew. Her baby’s name. Her baby’s room. Whether she was weeks into her pregnancy or months into it, she will grieve. Whether she was 100% sure she was ready to be a mom or was contemplating terminating the pregnancy, she will grieve. Whether she has a loving partner or is going through it on her own, she will grieve. And as the days go by, she will feel as if everyone has forgotten her loss. You get to show her that you did not forget. And now that you know October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, you have a separate occasion to let her know you care.
Don’t say any of the following things (even if you have convinced yourself you’re being helpful). By the way, each one of these statements has multiple variations, so as a rule of thumb, if what you’re about to say sounds in any way similar to the following phrases, skip it:
“Your baby was so special, God wanted them with him in heaven.” (or another of the millions of variants of this one) Religious or not, I guarantee you this mom will not be comforted by this statement. Even if she believes in this God you speak of, she wants her baby with her, not in heaven. Furthermore, if she has other kids who hear you say that, how do you think that makes them feel?
“You can always have another baby.” First of all, you don’t know this. Secondly, so what if she can? She wanted THIS pregnancy. THIS baby is the one she is grieving for RIGHT NOW. And if she does move forward to have another baby, it will not replace the one she lost.
“It just wasn’t meant to be.” What in the world does this even mean? This is completely useless filler. You may as well say, “I am so uncomfortable with this situation and have no clue what to say right now.” In fact, say that instead. It would be way more helpful.
3. Instead of the empty and hurtful remarks cited above, say something like, “I have no idea what you’re going through. It must be awful. I don’t know what to say, so just know that I care about you.”
4. Ask her if she wants to talk or grab a cup of coffee or go for a walk. If she says she isn’t up for seeing anyone right now, assure her that it’s ok. Let her know you’ll check in with her later, and then do just that. Don’t harass her, but don’t disappear from her life either.
5. Ask her what she needs and then listen. If she says she doesn’t know, that is completely ok. Offer to come over and sit with her, listen to her, cry with her, or distract her. This one can be tough because you may feel like you aren’t compassionate enough to anticipate what should be done, but my professional opinion is that moms who have lost a baby feel like they have no control. They also may be experiencing hormonal fluctuations (but for Pete’s sake, DO NOT tell her she’s “just hormonal”) or health concerns from the complications that led to the loss. She may be feeling like her own body has betrayed her, that her healthcare providers couldn’t provide answers, that people are now avoiding her, and many, many other frustrating and often conflicting emotions. You could be the only person who is paying attention to what she needs! And that may be exactly what she needs — to be heard, to be seen, to be met right where she is at this moment.
Both Scary And Doable
I challenge you to face the unknown, the scary, the grey. Show up and be ok with not knowing exactly how to help. And don’t forget about the professional helpers out there! Mothers who have experienced loss do not have to get through it alone. Counseling with a professional who is trained in maternal mental health and loss/grief can be extremely helpful. Of course, therapy isn’t the only way to get through a loss. People do it all the time. I just happen to feel that mothers are underserved, overlooked, and undervalued, so the more we can care and pay attention to them, the better our world will be.
If you are in the Wake Forest, NC, area and interested in working with me, please visit kaycehodoslpc.com for more information. Virtual sessions are available for NC residents.
Check out my list of recommended resources here: