How to Support a Friend Coping with Miscarriage
Four research-based tips for when you don’t know what to say.
Posted Feb 16, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
A few years ago, a friend asked for my advice on how to best support her sister-in-law who had a miscarriage. In response, I breathed a long breath and said… “ugh.” My friend said, “I mean, you study this stuff, right?” Yes, I've been researching how people communicate to cope with miscarriage since 2013 when my colleague Amanda Holman and I collected our first data set. Even so, I still had to pause before answering my friend’s question. That’s because miscarriage is tough. And emotional. And taboo. And complex.
Those who experience miscarriage – the loss of a pregnancy at 20 weeks or earlier gestation – are often confronted with a mix of emotions (e.g., sadness, shame, fear), uncertainty, and stigma. The miscarrying mom and her romantic partner (if she has one) both feel the effects of the baby loss, including depression, grief, and even suicidality. Yet women who miscarry and their partner often feel silenced in telling their story. Miscarriage is a taboo topic and one with many implicit rules, including the idea that men are not to talk about it. (More on that later.)
All of this information was swirling around in my head when my friend asked for advice. But what she needed in that moment, and what this post focuses on, is some tangible, research-based advice. So here is my advice, based on my and my colleagues’ research in miscarriage and communication. I’m going to use the example of a friend needing comfort after a miscarriage, but these tips could easily apply to a family member, coworker, or others.
- Say Something. Sometimes when we don’t know what to say, we don’t say anything at all. In our research on men coping with miscarriage, my research team (including Chad McBride, Shaye Morrison, and Amanda Holman) and I found that silence can be one of the most hurtful “messages” of all. Our participants have recalled numerous examples of times when people who knew about their miscarriage avoided the topic. They were often very hurt that they disclosed such a painful event but then people wouldn’t check in with them or bring it up ever again. Many participants recognized that people just didn’t know what to say and/or didn’t want to bring up a sad topic. Yet, they still wished for their friends or family members to provide comfort and empathy.
- Keep It Simple. I have some friends who always have the perfect, most thoughtful, most eloquent response to a friend in need. I am not one of those people. For the tongue-tied of the world, don’t fret. Just keep it simple. Especially if you have not endured a miscarriage, you may not know what your friend needs in that moment. What they need is a listening ear, some validation, and a little empathy. Researcher Michaela Meyer advises that if you’re unsure what to say, just say, “I’m so sorry.” Our participants appreciated simple messages like “I’m so sorry,” “I’m here for you,” and other responses that gave them the space to tell their story.
- Leave “At Least” Behind. Starting any comforting message with the phrase “at least” is a red flag that it is not particularly helpful. This is a lesson from Brené Brown on the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone who is struggling. Although often well-intended, sympathy drives away connection because the support-provider hesitates to feel the emotions with their distressed friend. By saying ,“At least…”, we belittle and invalidate our friend’s feelings. I often hear people say, “Well, at least you know you can get pregnant” or “At least the pregnancy wasn’t very far along” in response to miscarriage. These two sentiments inadvertently invalidate the parent’s pain of losing that child.
- Validate the Loss. Instead of sympathy, focus on empathy, or feeling your friends’ emotions with them. You may simply ask, “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling about the loss?” Let them tell you. Consider what your friend may be feeling. This is important for both the miscarrying mother and her partner, who we often forget about. In our studies on men whose wives experienced miscarriage, many men told us that their grief often felt brushed off or invalidated. They remembered their friends and family saying that miscarriage was “not a big deal,” especially when the loss was early in the pregnancy (“You weren’t even really pregnant”). People feel the pain of miscarriage in a variety of ways, so be open to the many emotions they may be feeling – and hiding.
These four pieces of advice aren’t comprehensive. But they’re a research-based starting point for those who want to comfort and support those coping with miscarriage.
Horstman, H. K., Morrison, S. M., McBride, C., & Holman, A. (2019). How men integrate others’ messages into their miscarriage story: The role communicated narrative sense-making in memorable message theorizing. Presented at the meeting of the National Communication Association, Baltimore, MD.
Meyer, M. D. E. (2016). The paradox of time post-pregnancy loss: Three things not to say when communicating social support. Health Communication, 31(11), 1426-1429. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2015.1077414