By the best available statistics, 25% of women will experience a miscarriage, stillbirth, ectopic pregnancy, or other type of infant loss at some time during their lifetimes.
Let that sink in a moment. Think of four of your closest friends. The chance is very good that one of them has experienced or will experience this very deep, personal loss. However, unlike other types of losses, there are very few sympathy cards, meal trains, or prayer circles held for women who have experienced miscarriage, especially early in pregnancy. Many times you may not even know that it has happened to your friend, because despite how common the experience is, there is still a stigma attached to miscarriage and infant loss that causes people to hide their loss, not talk about it, and bury the feelings of grief and mourning while attempting to go on with life as if nothing had ever happened. Miscarriage and infant loss are things that are generally not talked about. The topic is swept under the rug, spoken about in whispers, and hushed as much as possible. It makes people uncomfortable. And even though the best medical science says that nearly all early miscarriages are unpreventable, and caused by random chromosomal abnormalities, there is still a stigma amongst many that someone (usually the mother) did something wrong to cause the tragedy.
Exactly one year ago today I experienced the crushing pain that is early infant loss.
The whole experience started innocently enough. A small pinkish spot on the toilet paper when I went to the bathroom on a Wednesday morning. It was light and I had no pain, but I called my provider anyway and was reassured that many women experience light bleeding early in pregnancy (I was just shy of 9 weeks along at the time). I was offered an appointment, but I declined at the time and decided to wait and see what happened. Sure enough, by noon the spotting had stopped and I went on with my day sure that nothing was wrong. We were excited for the coming weekend when we had planned a family get together, where we would reveal our pregnancy and have a wonderful weekend celebrating together.
Then Saturday morning the bleeding started again. Light at first, then slightly heavier. Unsure what to do, we carried on with our announcement to our immediate family, but did pull our parents aside to let them know that we weren’t sure exactly what was happening.
By afternoon the bleeding was heavier and I was starting to feel pain. Another call, this time to the hospital. I could go to the ER if I wanted, where they could tell me for sure if I was having a miscarriage. But there was nothing they could do to stop it, so as long as I wasn’t hemorrhaging or unable to cope with the discomfort, it was my choice. I opted to stay home.
Saturday night into Sunday were frankly awful. Every time I went to the bathroom I prayed that I wouldn’t see that streak of red on the tissue. Every time I was disappointed as the stain spread larger and heavier. The pain changed from annoying to pressing in my low back. There was no longer any doubt in the logical part of my brain what was happening, even though my heart clawed at any shred of hope I could find.
By Sunday night I was so uncomfortable that I did the only thing I could think of to do…I got myself into a nice hot bathtub and attempted to relax.
Somewhere there in the steamy water, between waves of pressure and pain, it was over, and our little child entered the world, 31 weeks too soon.
I don’t even remember much about the rest of that night. My wonderful husband gathered me up, held me close, and let me cry and rage. I cursed God, the heavens, my body, and everything else I could think of. Even though he too had lost a child, he was my rock that night as I cried out questions that no one could answer. Why? Why us? Why now? What did I do wrong? Could I have done anything to prevent this loss? Finally I fell into an exhausted sleep where I was haunted by dreams of which I cannot recall the content, just the feelings I had upon waking, and realizing that the night before had been reality and not just a nightmare. The next morning I pulled myself together enough to call my provider and make an appointment, where an ultrasound confirmed to my husband and I what I already knew: I was no longer pregnant.
There was no baby in my womb. The dreams we had been sharing over the past 2 months were not to be.
The weeks that followed were filled with medical tests, follow-up appointments, and grief. Plenty of grief. I have to say I moved out of the “denial” phase pretty quickly and sunk myself into anger for quite some time. I was short on patience and quick with temper. Couple the anger involved in the grief process with the awful hormonal roller coaster I was riding (think the worst PMS ride you have ever experienced) and I’m sure I wasn’t a very fun person to be around. It was difficult to concentrate on work or home responsibilities, and the smallest thing could set me off into tears. I am generally a pretty private person, so I did not share our loss with many people.
When I did start to open up, however, I found support in so many places. I quickly learned that I was not alone in my loss, as other women would look at me with pain-filled eyes and whisper, “That happened to me too.” I began to heal, both physically and emotionally. However, I did not, have not, and will not ever “get over” the loss. Even now a year later I am writing this blog post through tears. The loss happened. I was pregnant and my baby died, and that fact has been incorporated into my being and will be a part of me forever.
5 Ways to Support Someone Who Experienced a Loss
Many things happened in the immediate aftermath of my miscarriage, some helpful, some not. Recently I have been looking back at some of the things that were most comforting to me and most helped me to move through my journey of grief in the loss of our child. Even as awareness of the prevalence of miscarriage and early infant loss grows, it can still be a very difficult topic for many women to raise. Whether you have been through the experience of infant loss or not, when a friend tells you she has had a miscarriage, realize that she is letting you in to a very raw, painful part of her life, and that she needs you in that moment more than ever.
1. Validate her concerns and questions.
When we saw my provider that Monday morning, the first thing she did was take my hand and tell me, “This was not your fault.” Although I wanted to believe her, I also had written down a list of questions which included a list of things I had “done wrong” in the past 9 weeks. She could have simply repeated her original statement, but instead of waving me off in that way, she took my list, read each one out loud, and answered the question with a resounding “No.”
No, my daily cup of coffee did not cause this miscarriage. No, running a 1/2 marathon at 6 weeks pregnant was not the cause. No, forgetting my vitamins several days in the beginning did not lead to the loss. No. No. No. It seems like a simple thing, but although my logical brain knew these things, my breaking heart needed to hear validation that I was not at fault, and that there was nothing wrong with me. This caring action by a healthcare provider filled that need for me, and helped me to put those nagging thoughts, if not away, then at least aside for the time being.
2. You may not know what to say, but that’s okay. Your presence may mean more than your words.
There were days that I would cry at the simplest of things. A few weeks after I miscarried we sang a new liturgy in church. I don’t remember the line that set me off, but all of a sudden there were tears streaming down my face that I didn’t have the energy to even try to stop. A good friend sitting in front of me glanced back, noticed, and silently reached back and took my hand. That gesture said more than any words could have, and it was exactly what I needed in that moment. My pastor came to our house and shared a cup of coffee, conversation, and prayer. Another friend gave me a gift of a soft blanket and pair of socks, with a card saying that in grief sometimes we all need something warm.
3. Ask her how she is doing, and accept whatever she says as the truth in that moment.
Everyone grieves differently, at different rates, and by different paths. Some days I felt good, and really the last thing I wanted to do was talk about or remember the loss I had experienced. I appreciated in those moments the people who would joke and laugh with me and help me to remember that life does in fact go on. Other days I needed someone to listen as I talked about what I was feeling. I had flashbacks about the experience for months and sometimes I needed to talk about how it had happened, to process it out loud in a safe environment. The most supportive people in my life understood and accepted when I wanted to talk and when I didn’t, and let me set the pace of my own healing.
4. If you’ve been there, tell her.
Another good friend had walked this road before me, more than once. She was able to give me a bit of a road map as to what lay ahead. “The due date is hard,” she told me, which I might not have anticipated (it was). “You may feel fear when you get pregnant again” (I did–sheer terror actually). She was able to recount her experiences to me and offer me a check when I wondered if what I was feeling was “normal” (if there is such a thing). It was also valuable just being able to talk to another person who truly understood the feelings of guilt, doubt, anger, and sadness all wrapped into one strange package.
5. Remember that her partner is also grieving.
Although the child had been growing in my body, my husband also lost a baby in this experience. Looking back I realize that sometimes he got a bit lost in the shuffle as the people closest to us focused most of their attention on me, my pain, and my loss. He picked up the slack at home when I was unable to handle responsibilities like cooking, cleaning, and caring for our toddler. He took care of me in my most vulnerable time. It was good for him to have family and friends as well who would check in, and be sure that he was handling his own grief, in his own time, and in his own way.
I am 1 in 4. Everyone who experiences infant loss does so in his or her own way. Some tell their stories right away, and others, like myself, keep things quiet for a long time. Until now only a handful of my closest family and friend had heard of our experience. Over the past year I have learned much about grieving, friendship, and healing.
To all the mamas out there who have been touched by infant loss, I hope that you have found the love and support to heal and grow from the experience. And although everyone grieves differently, I encourage you to never feel that you need to “put it behind you” in order to move on with life. Whether you carried your child for 2 weeks, 9 weeks, 20 weeks, or 40 weeks and beyond, your child EXISTED, and your child MATTERED. Never let anyone tell you to move on and forget. Tell your story however and wherever feels right to you, and you may help someone else in their most difficult moment.
If you have walked or are currently walking this very difficult and lonely road, take heart in the fact that there is support available, and you don’t need to make the journey alone.
The Iowa City Mom’s Blog hosts a private Facebook group, which is a safe and welcoming place where you can talk about your experiences of loss or infertility, offer support to others, or simply read and listen if you are not yet ready to talk. Find us by searching “ICMB Pregnancy & Infant Loss” on Facebook or click here, and send us a request to join. We would love to have you.