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A Few Tips for Responding to a Pregnancy Loss

I have written about pregnancy loss before, but several experiences in the past month or so have prompted me to write again.  While the earlier post was about understanding how a pregnancy that ends in miscarriage or stillbirth can lead to complicated grief, today’s post is intended for those responding to a pregnancy loss.  I have often been pretty floored by things that clients have heard after a loss.  I have to believe that these responses weren’t deliberately hurtful, and in fact, they often come from people who care very deeply for my clients.  So, I’m going with the assumption that these responses were meant to be helpful–even though they often have the opposite effect.  I know that many people are uncertain about the proper response to a miscarriage.  I’ve also talked before about how hard it is for us to watch people that we care for suffer or be in pain.  So, I’m offering a few suggestions of ways that you might choose to respond.

Responses to Avoid:

  1. It’s good that this happened so early.  While you might be trying to convey that a later pregnancy loss would be more physically complicated, it’s possible that the parent who just lost a pregnancy will only hear “It’s good,” and wonder why you think that there’s anything good about this physically & emotionally painful experience.
  2. I know how you feel. You don’t.  Even if you have also had a pregnancy loss, you did not bring this person’s life experience and expectations to this pregnancy.  You don’t know what is happening in their mind or body.  This is even more true if you have not had a pregnancy loss. While this response may be intended to show empathy, it often pushes the other person further away.
  3. You can get pregnant again soon. Again, I think the intent here is to reassure. However, it can be heard as “you can replace this pregnancy/expected baby with another one.”  If you’re talking to parents who were excited and hopeful about this pregnancy, telling them to focus on the next one can feel like you are dismissing their loss.
  4. This happened for a reason.   You can also file any responses about “things going according to plan,” etc. in this category.  That may be how you make sense of the difficult things in life.  It may even be how the parents who lost the pregnancy make sense of the difficult things in life.  But you don’t know that.  You’re assuming that they feel how you feel. Assuming is dangerous–and saying that “this happened for a reason,” can feel like “you didn’t deserve to have this pregnancy.”  That’s not quite what you intended, right?

In general, I think that people stumble in responding to pregnancy loss (and this is true for other losses as well) in several key ways:

  1. Assuming that the person you’re talking to is identical to you.  For example, you may feel that a pregnancy loss in the tenth week is “no big deal” because it’s early in the pregnancy.  But if the person you’re talking to was deeply invested in the pregnancy, or had struggled with infertility, it can be a very big deal.  In the same way, things that might feel comforting to you may feel condescending or dismissive to the person who just experienced a loss.
  2. Feeling a need to “fix it.”  I know that many of my clients report feeling pressured by family and loved ones to “be okay,” or to “get over it.”  It is very hard to watch someone you care for suffer.  But when you try to rush them to “better,” there is a risk that you may be adding pressure to someone who already feels stretched.
  3. Minimizing the grief process.  For many folks, losing a pregnancy is a physically and emotionally draining experience.  Depending on attachment to the pregnancy, they may feel as though they have lost a child.  It is unreasonable to expect someone to bounce back from the loss of a child in a few days.  Try to make sure that you aren’t placing your expectations on their process.
  4. Forgetting the fathers.  Often, pregnancy loss is treated as if it only affects women.  But many expectant mothers are in loving, committed relationships.  And while fathers don’t have the physical effects of pregnancy loss, they are just as likely to experience grief–both for the loss of the pregnancy and out of concern for their partners.

Responses to Choose:

This section is quite a bit shorter.  And that’s because the heart of caring response to pregnancy loss, or any loss, boils down to just a few things.

  1. Listen more than you talk.   People who have had a loss often feel overwhelmed by the barrage of advice and feedback that they get from others.  It can be refreshing to have someone just ask, “How are you holding up?”
  2. Offer the support they need.  It’s okay to say, “Do you want to talk right now, or do you want to focus on something else?”  It’s great to be someone who is safe to cry around.  Ultimately, you want to make sure that you are listening well enough (back to listening) to offer support that’s needed.
  3. Don’t put your needs up front. If you’re a family member of someone who experienced pregnancy loss, you may also be feeling sad.  Make sure that you’re not asking the person who had the loss to be your support.  It’s not their responsibility to console and reassure you.  Get your support elsewhere.
  4. Listen.   Important enough to repeat!

I know this is a sensitive topic.  I also know there is a lot of collective wisdom out there.  I would love to hear feedback in the comments about your choices for responses to avoid or choose.

 

Image Credit: Photo by romana klee

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7 comments

  1. Great suggestions. So many people just say nothing because they don’t want to say the wrong thing…which can feel diminishing. A simple, “I’m so sorry,” can go a long way. People don’t expect you to make them feel better. But, they do appreciate efforts not to make it worse.

    1. Colleen,

      I love the though that, “They do appreciate efforts not to make it worse.” I could have used that as a tagline for this entire article. I think too often true that we put more effort and attention into trying to reduce or deny suffering–and that often only makes the suffering worse. Thanks so much for that reminder!

      Warmly,
      Ann

  2. Hi Ann – nice post about pregnancy loss and grief. Seeing many women around pregnancy loss issues in my counseling room, I think also it is good to remind the grieving mom that people are really trying to help, and that no one is perfect in the way they express their condolences. I know pregnancy loss was not recognized so much as a true death until recently, and I ‘m glad that is changing, but most people are just trying to be helpful although in a clumsy way. But your suggestionsare very helpful!

    1. Kathy,

      I think that the reminder that most people do intend good is an important one. Thanks for advocating kindness all the way around.

      Warmly,
      Ann

  3. Ann,
    Another very good post. You are right that the people who say hurtful things really want to be helpful. I think that the way you present this will help people understand what is really needed and why the other responses are hurtful. Thanks so much for a very useful, sensitive post.
    Best,
    Carolyn

    1. Carolyn,

      One of the things that I love about blogging is that I get a chance to share things that I (and my patients) have learned the hard way–with the hope that that sharing paves an easier road for others. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Warmly,
      Ann

  4. […] A Few Tips for Responding to a Pregnancy Loss Dr. Ann Becker Schutte […]

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