Check out Part One of this series, which discussed the prevalence of pregnancy loss in the United States, some public misconceptions about miscarriages, and the emotional after-effects of pregnancy loss.
If you know someone who has experienced a pregnancy loss, you are likely looking for ways to support her. No matter how your friend is grieving, she needs your support. She may be feeling alone and isolated, and her partner may not understand or be able to support her in the way that she needs. The most effective support is when someone acknowledges her loss and does not minimize the traumatic event that she has experienced. With the guidelines below, you can be a friend and offer her the comfort and emotional support she will appreciate.
Helpful Things to Say or Do
First, acknowledge the loss. According to Kelly Morrow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with women who have suffered a pregnancy loss or are dealing with infertility issues, “one of the things most women want is acknowledgment that they lost their baby and have a reason to be grieving. Miscarriage is not just a medical event; it is a traumatic emotional loss and spiritual experience for most women.” As a friend, your acknowledgement lets her know that, even though you did not experience the same loss yourself, you recognize that her loss is real and that undergoing the process of grief is acceptable—and necessary.
Say, “I am sorry for your loss.”
According to professor and author Ellen DuBois who has suffered a miscarriage herself, the single most helpful thing you can do to support a friend is to say, “I am sorry for your loss." DuBois says that this simple phrase tells your friend that you are acknowledging that she lost something very real while also conveying compassion and understanding.
Remember that your friend may be reeling from the shock of losing her child. Her body is going through hormonal changes, and she is grieving in her own way. Respect her privacy and be sensitive to her emotional needs. Dr. Morrow recommends giving your friend space while at the same time being ready to offer your shoulder for her to cry on.
Author Krissi Danielsson, who suffered several miscarriages, informally polled other women who had gone through a miscarriage, asking what had helped them while they grieved. Common answers included sending a card, calling to offer your condolences, and listening. Being there to listen, no matter what she has to say, is one of the greatest gifts you can give your friend. By listening, you show her that someone is willing to sympathize with her.
Keep the support coming.
Continue to support your friend even after the first few weeks, because even after the flowers and the cards have stopped coming, she may be still grieving. Grieving can be a long process for some women and she will appreciate having someone check in to see how she is doing. Dr. Morrow recommends providing meals, inviting her for lunch or coffee, or offering to care for the children she already has as practical ways to offer your support.
Unhelpful Things to Say or Do
The worst thing you can do for a friend who has miscarried is minimize the loss. This may cause your friend to feel further isolated and misunderstood when others implicitly downplay her loss or make it seem as if her grief is unreasonable.
Saying phrases that minimize.
DuBois cautions against saying anything that conveys that a woman’s loss wasn’t real or doesn’t matter. While perhaps said with the intention of helping the mother move forward, commonly said phrases are, in fact, quite painful:
“You’re young; you can have another.”
“It was meant to be,” or “It was God’s will.”
“At least you have other children.”
“At least you weren’t that far along.”
Phrases like these can add to the suffering, mistakenly giving the message, "your grief is overblown."
Say or do nothing.
Another thing that invalidates your friend’s loss is to not acknowledge it at all. Pretending as if it did not happen will not lessen your friend’s grief or help her get over it faster. Saying nothing, according to Dr. Morrow, sends the message that you do not care about her loss (even if that is not your intention). Your friend may be left feeling as though “she should not be grieving, that there is something wrong if she is sad, and that she is alone in her grief,” says Dr. Morrow.
Dr. Morrow recommends avoiding imposing your ideas about the grief process onto your friend’s experience. Sometimes, Dr. Morrow explains, people believe the grief process is shorter than it actually is and ask, “Isn’t it time you move on?” Instead of unintentionally increasing her pain, Dr. Morrow suggests that, “it is much better to just give a woman a hug and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
It is also important to be aware of the signs that your friend may need more support than you can offer listening or accompanying her to medical appointments. Women who have suffered a miscarriage not only experience feelings of guilt and shame but are at increased risk for mental health issues including anxiety and depression, depending on the woman’s mental health history.
In Dr. Morrow’s experience, many of the women she works with struggle to make sense of their loss. She says, “Some of these attempts to make sense of the traumatic loss of a baby contribute to the development of psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.” One study found that 15 percent of the women in the study who had miscarried experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety for up to three years after the pregnancy loss. In another study, women who miscarried were found to be at an increased risk for experiencing anxiety symptoms both right after the pregnancy loss and for about four months afterward. For women who have a history of major depression, the chance that they will experience depressive symptoms increases—54 percent of these women experienced major depressive symptoms following the miscarriage.
Pay attention to recognize when your friend may need professional help. It is normal to go through the process of grieving, but if your friend has suicidal thoughts, trouble getting out of bed, insomnia, panic attacks, or symptoms that interfere with her ability to function in her day-to-day life, it is very likely that she would benefit from professional help. Even without these symptoms, your friend may benefit from counseling to help her with the grieving process in general. According to Dr. Morrow, some women find it helpful to join a pregnancy-loss support group where they can talk with other women who have had similar experiences. This can help them feel less alone and to deal with the guilt and shame they may feel. If you think your friend needs professional help or would benefit from a support group, broach the subject in a gentle and empathetic manner.
Note: This article is not meant to serve as a substitute for professional medical and behavioral health care. If you have immediate concerns about your own or your friend’s physical and/or mental health, please contact a medical or mental health professional.
Photo by Tina Sosna