Pregnancy Loss Awareness: How to Help Others

Mark Zuckerberg gave us clues, and now we need to join the conversation.

Posted Oct 14, 2016

Public Domain, Pixabay
Source: Public Domain, Pixabay

Mark Zuckerberg had the courage to tell the multi-million followers of his Facebook blog something very personal. “Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect on you – as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own”, he wrote.

The websites and blogs from other people who have also suffered miscarriages tell much the same story. Many of them express the same longing and wish: for others to understand the depth of their grief, the fact that it doesn’t just dissipate – it’s painful for years.

Spreading that message is what October’s Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month is all about. But why is a month for Awareness even needed?

 The Roadblocks

There is a ‘conspiracy of silence’ around miscarriage and stillbirth. And that silence comes from both sides.

Many couples have difficulty in revealing that they’ve had a miscarriage. Even more difficult is talking about the thoughts and feelings it has triggered.

On the other side, many of us feel uncomfortable and unsure of what to say, should we notice that a pregnancy has ‘disappeared’, or should someone reveal that to us.  So we are not eager to open a conversation, either. And then it’s not hard for the sufferer to pick up the unspoken message that it is something we don’t want to deal with.

Let’s look more closely at the problems, and then the ways to help.

The Psychological Impact of Miscarriage

The psychological impact is profound, because it is so deeply connected to an individual’s sense of identity and self-esteem.

There’s the feeling of being damaged, with intensely painful shame about that. There’s the loss not just of the pregnancy, but one’s hopes and dreams for that child into the future.  There’s the feeling you’ve lost control over your life.  

The deep anxiety, despair and grief caused by miscarriage is even greater when it occurs during the course of infertility treatment. When there have been failures of in vitro fertilization, the couple’s mourning after a miscarriage piles on top of already-existing frustration and despair.

Fear of Social Stigma

Fear of social stigma adds yet another burden.  As Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “…you worry your problems will distance you or reflect on you.”   As a result of this fear of stigma, people keep silent.

This fear is not unrealistic. But the sad thing is that it prevents sufferers from receiving the very thing known known to be one of the best ways of reducing stress in any number of situations: social support from others.

How to support friends or relatives who have miscarried

     - Acknowledge the loss

The simple act of acknowledging that miscarriage is a very painful loss can be tremendously supportive. Simply saying: “I’ve heard, and I’m sorry for your loss” shows you understand and are not afraid of talking about it.

     - Don’t worry about finding the right thing to say

There isn’t one right thing. What’s important is to convey compassion and support. For example, a simple hug can express what is needed.

Asking, “Would you like to talk about it?” demonstrates that you’re willing to listen– and this is, in itself, a source of support

     - Let Her/Him Take the Lead

If you don’t get an encouraging response, you can indicate understanding by saying: “I’m always ready to listen whenever you might want to talk about it.”

If your friend indicates she would like to talk about it, let her steer the conversation where she needs it to go. A simple response, such as: “I can understand why you feel so devastated” can be enormously supportive.

As a profound loss, a miscarried baby must be mourned. And, like all grieving, it’s a process whose course varies from day to day. A person may have been open to talking about it one day, but not the next. Take your lead from her:  don’t press. When you ask how they’re feeling, If there’s a short answer, like “OK”, and no more, let it rest. You’ve conveyed the message that you care and are available to listen whenever it’s wanted.

    -  Don’t try to cheer them up with success stories about others

It’s better not to try to cheer them up by sharing stories of others who have succeeded in having a child after miscarriage do this. It may only make them feel even less competent by comparison, and even more frustrated.

Support What’s Necessary to Reduce Social Stigma

What’s needed is more open, compassionate discussion of reproductive failure. There are signs of efforts by the media and the arts to do just that

 Our job is to encourage more of the same.

    - The Media

Newspapers and other established media need to increase their reporting of scientific and personal stories about miscarriage and infertility. That can provide the daylight so necessary to help diminish stigma. Our comments online about what we’ve read can have an impact by showing such articles are of interest

    - The Arts  

The arts have power. Through fictional characters, we are brought closer to experiencing the intense feelings of those burdened with infertility and miscarriage

Recent films and novels are honing in on infertility and miscarriage. In the book/movie The Light Between Oceans, the deep despair of a woman distraught after multiple miscarriages is poignantly portrayed. The Girl on the Train is about a woman who is alcoholic and depressed because of her infertility. The film: When the Bough Breaks tells the story of an infertile couple who decide to hire a surrogate. In my own novel: The End of Miracles, a woman whose deep need to bear a child is sabotaged by infertility and miscarriage is propelled into a journey across the blurred boundaries between sanity, fantasy, depression, madness and healing.

There need to be more such books and films.

But there is a way we, too, can make a difference:  by expanding the topics of our  conversations with friends about such movies and books. When we compare our thoughts about  the actors, the setting, the plot, the suspense and so on, we can talk about one more thing: the book/movie's overarching theme of pregnancy loss. 

In this way, we can magnify the impact the arts have in creating awareness and empathy, the key tools for eliminating silence and social stigma.

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