Words are powerful. As a writer, I always thought I knew that inside out. I could always express myself on paper.
I believed I could in person too. But when it came to losing babies, a hobby we picked up in 2015, we found ourselves strangled by a new, unknown silence. The words stopped.
A Miscarriage Association survey on attitudes to pregnancy loss is revealing: while the majority of respondents believed talking to someone who’s had a miscarriage would help that person, 32% said they would not feel comfortable doing do, even for a close friend – and when asked why, the most-cited reason was not knowing what to say.
Given we keep pregnancy a secret before 12 weeks in case it does go wrong, the hush around it when it does is hardly surprising, from both those going through it and the people around them.
After five consecutive miscarriages, believe me when I say I understand how hard it is to puncture that distance, and that I know why people couldn’t find the right words to connect with us. But, as the charity’s new SimplySay campaign drives home, if you’re struggling to articulate your support, there are only two words anyone needs to start with.
For some, “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, of course it’s not. But it’s not about it being enough. It’s about opening up the conversation across the silence.
Scroll down for a list of suggestions for what to say and what not to say, but know that I’m sorry is a start. I’m sorry says you’re there. I’m sorry says you acknowledge this as a loss, as a pain, as a reason to be so unhappy. If you don’t feel you can say anything else, don’t. But it’s a far better route into being there for someone than saying nothing at all.
My husband and I had three miscarriages before we discussed them with anyone other than each other. By the time we were in A&E for the third time, it’s no exaggeration to say I was losing the ability to function day to day. When I tried to sleep, a never-ending reel of graphic images flickered into life, remembered feelings as sharp as the originals playing over and over (looking back, I believe I was one of the four in 10 women who experience symptoms of PTSD following pregnancy loss).
Then there’s the guilt, which is hard to overstate. It’s not just the misplaced worry that you caused it somehow – too old, too boozy, too into eating soft egg yolk – but guilt over being so affected when there’s much worse in the world. For taking so long to get over it. For wanting it at all. For being a bad friend.
I reveal these details to illustrate that these horrendous, debilitating feelings are exacerbated by isolation and misunderstanding. Secrecy is the problem, and talking, we have learnt, is the only way through. To each other, of course, but to friends and to family. In some cases, to strangers. In our case, to newspapers, websites, anyone who’ll have us.
It’s easy to see why many choose silence; the fear of saying the wrong thing can trump the desire to be supportive. And it’s true that many go-to sentiments are unintentionally painful, however much love they are delivered with.
The campaign encourages those who have been through miscarriage, molar or ectopic pregnancy to share pictures of themselves holding up signs that reveal the most and least helpful things said to them, under the #simplysay hashtag.
In support, find below a #say and #dontsay list based on my own experiences and that of many I’ve spoken to. They won’t fit for everyone, but may help you find a way through.
Start the conversation. Even if you say nothing else, it acknowledges that they’re going through something painful and tells them you’re there.
“I’m here if you need anything”
Say it and mean it. Often, all that need will be is someone to listen.
“Do you need company while you recover?”
Like the above, it says you’ll be there, but if you’re not sure if they want time alone you’ve given them space to say so, while leaving the offer open.
“I might not be the person you want to see right now, so I just want to let you know I’m thinking of you”
If you’re pregnant or have children, you might worry that seeing you will be painful, and yes, it might be. But it might not. Although it can feel awkward, try to be open about it; radio silence can hurt.
“It must be awful”
Just after our third miscarriage, I contacted a former colleague whom I knew had gone through the same. One line in her email left me in tears: “You must be on your knees”. Just knowing someone else thought it was a horrible thing to go through, that I wasn’t crazy to feel so low, was a real help.
“It’s OK to grieve”
Many people – especially if it’s the first time they’ve experienced it and they don’t know anyone who has gone through the same – feel they should be moving on quickly and not making a big deal of it. It’s an assumption entirely down to the needless taboo that still exists. If you think someone is struggling with this, remind them it is a loss; they are allowed to mourn.
Be sensitive to the language they use
Some find it painful if others don’t acknowledge their loss as a baby, or feel uncomfortable with terms such as ‘angel’ and ‘rainbow’ babies. Try to note how they refer to it themselves.
Send cards, flowers and anything else you’d send someone in recovery
It’s not a shameful secret; they’re going through something horrible, physically and mentally, and it’s helpful for them to know others care. We very much appreciated a box of cheese.
Acknowledge each loss
Recurrent loss is hard, and you might feel like you’ve run out of things to say. All I can tell you is that the people who have helped us most are the people who take each miscarriage as seriously as the last and didn’t make us feel we were a drain on their compassion.
It’s natural to want to help by offering solutions, but often, just having someone to listen is seriously all that’s required. They may find they have an urge to discuss graphic details and are in search of a sympathetic ear. Or they may want to get messy drunk and cry all over a pub. Just being there is incredibly helpful.
“At least you can get pregnant”
Particularly with someone’s first pregnancy, it’s understandable that this feels like a positive comment – at least they know they can conceive. But there’s little comfort to be found in that once you’ve been through loss, and trust me, they’ll hear it everywhere.
“Maybe it’s because…”
Age, lifestyle, that 10-mile walk? It’s natural to try and find a fix, a reason – especially knowing that most people will never find out why their miscarriages occurred. You want to give them hope that there’s something that could change next time. But statements like these inadvertently imply that they did something wrong this time. Despite the tendency to turn blame inwards, the fact is that it is incredibly rare that anything a woman did or didn’t do affected the outcome of her pregnancy.
“Look after yourself next time”
Again, while you’re trying to express comfort and affection, this taps into the guilt mentioned above. It sounds like there’s something that they could have done differently.
“At least it was early / just think of it as a bunch of cells / it wasn’t a proper baby”
See also: “In my day, you wouldn’t class anything before X weeks as a miscarriage” and “Some people wouldn’t even have realised they were pregnant at X weeks”.
While early miscarriages are less likely to require surgical or medical intervention, there’s no scale of trauma to tick off week by week and a loss at any stage is incredibly upsetting. Some things in life are not as bad as others, but pain is pain; comments such as these can undermine people’s feelings and compound shame. Those cells, that ‘not real’ baby? They represent the picture they’d built around it, the life they expected to have.
“You should have left it a while before trying again”
There is no scientific evidence to back this statement up. In fact, recent research says a pregnancy is more likely to be successful the sooner the conception, though some may prefer time to recover psychologically. Whatever they choose to do, the decision to try again is highly personal and fraught with emotion. Statements like this pass judgement on their choices.
“When will you try again?”
Coming from anyone other than a very close friend, to me this felt like glossing over what I was going through. As mentioned above, trying again is a very difficult, personal decision, not taken lightly.
“There’s always next time”
Again, it’s entirely understandable that many want to help their friend, relative or colleague by looking to the future, offering something positive, but it runs the risk of not acknowledging what they’re going through now. Trying to chivvy someone past a traumatic event can make them feel rushed and like they’re overreacting.
“It wasn’t meant to be / it’s nature’s way of saying there was something wrong with it”
Yep, miscarriages are often because the pregnancy wasn’t up to scratch (though until investigations start there’s no way of knowing). The person you are saying this to likely knows this, and it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
“Well, you’ve already got children”
If the person you are speaking to does have a child, yes it’s a different situation compared to somebody who does not, but they are still in pain. This can make them feel like they don’t deserve to be upset.
Visit the Miscarriage Association website for help and support
The helpline is manned Monday to Friday, 9am-4pm – 01924 200799 or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Images: iStock / Miscarriage Association