Thursday, August 27, 2009

What do you say.....

I had a very wonderful time with my friends at bookclub last night. I tried my first rose wine (that wasn't Boone's Farm) and we sampled spumoni cheesecake (better than you think) and warmed baklava (as good as you imagine) for dessert.

One member of our bookclub was absent because she just suffered an ectopic pregnancy, her 3rd miscarriage after two years of trying. In short, we - her friends - are wondering what to do for her as she and her husband grieve this loss and try to move forward.

I can only say, given my history of recurrent miscarriage, what not to say to someone who has suffered a pregnancy loss. And over the course of 4 miscarriages, these were all said to me:

“It was meant to be.” Why not say this? Because it does not help. Do not say it.

“You can always try again.” Why not say this? Because she will never have this baby. And that is the baby she wants and grieves. Or, maybe she is unable to try again.

“At least you know you can get pregnant.” Why not say this? Because getting pregnant did not result in anything but heartbreak and loss.

“It wasn’t really a baby.” Why not say this? Because no matter how early, or what the woman’s belief system of when life is conceived, the loss is real. The heartbreak is real. And this statement is an insult to the love and grief felt by the woman. That grief is not diminished by thinking or knowing that there was a problem with the baby, nor by the idea that there was not yet a baby. Yes, I know intellectually that losing a 2 year old child is much more devastating than losing a 4 month pregnancy. But the point is this: in that moment, the grief gripping that woman for the loss of that pregnancy doesn't give a shit. Heartbreak is heartbreak. I remember having this very conversation in my own head and thinking, well, at least if I lost a child, I would have known what it was to have a child. See what I mean about grief?

“Well, at least you’re okay.” Why not say this? Because she doesn’t feel “okay.” She feels tormented mentally and emotionally and physically.

“It was just a miscarriage. Get over it, already!” I have to admit, I thought this at one time. Before it happened to me. The reason not to express this sentiment is that, in addition to just being rude, it invalidates the grief the woman is suffering. And if you want to help, you want to validate the loss, and help her to process it.

“Shouldn’t you be over this by now?” A milder variation of the above statement. Everyone grieves differently. Some people need more time and space than others. There is no wrong way to grieve. If you detect signs of depression, urge her to see a grief counsellor.

“At least it was early, before you really got attached to it.” Why not say this? Because she is attached. Hence, grief. Any woman who has ever been pregnant, and wanted the pregnancy, will tell you that within the first week of knowing about the pregnancy, she has imagined holding that baby in her arms, what time of year that will be, who the baby will look like and put her hand on her stomach. There is a primordial connection between a mother and child, and it starts in the womb.

“God had a reason for this.” Why not say this? Because why would God have a reason for ending a pregnancy? It is illogical. It is hurtful. And, even if you believe it to be true, it will not help the woman grieving.

“This is because you…” or “If only you hadn’t…” Why not say this? Because chances are, she already blames herself. At one point or another, every one of us blames ourselves for losing a pregnancy. In my case, I blamed the fact that I went up to altitude at Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s nonsensical. Don’t rub salt in the wound.

Do not discuss any information you have regarding child abuse, the crack whore who is having her 5th child, your own miscarriage(s) or stories describing the triumph of fertility against long odds. Even though we all think about those things. Why? Because the woman does not want to hear it. Discussing these things will, in turn, make her angry, enraged, resentful and pissed off.

What others can you think of to add to the list? (I enabled anonymous comments).

Now, of course, is the more difficult question: What do you say? The truth is, there is nothing anyone can say or do to stop the pain of a pregnancy loss. But what I found most painful about grieving the loss was that hardly anyone really understood it, acknowledged it, validated it. So I suppose that what you say is whatever you can to comfort the woman, and her partner.

Examples of what to say:

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“You don’t deserve this.”

Or just complete honesty: "I don't know what to say, except I'm sorry, and I love you."

And one more nugget of wisdom I have learned over the years....

Instead of saying, "What can I do?" or "Let me know if you need anything," (which I have said many times in my life), just do something. Anything, really.

This applies to anyone in crisis: medical, financial, emotional.... just do the thing. People in crisis do not have the ability or energy or whatever to organize and ask for what they need. Plus they probably feel guilty about it.

Again, we are not going to fix the problem anyway. So what I have learned is best, having been both the person in crisis and the friend not knowing what the hell to do, is just do....something.

Bring the dinner, send the flowers, buy the wine, mow the lawn, send the chocolate, show up with stupid magazines, mail a card, order the gift card, write the email. Or call. Just call and if you get voicemail, because they are screening no doubt, tell them you are thinking about them. Tell them you love them, you are praying for them, you are hoping their hopes, you want to buy them lunch, just something to express that you are there, and they are not alone.

And if they don't call or write you back? You call or write them again. Not in a stalker-esque manner, but just to let them know that they - the person grieving or in crisis - are not alone.

Because when it comes down to it, isn't that what counts the most? Ensuring that your loved ones know that they are not alone, through all the pain, which you can't cure anyway, and through all the joy, because it multiplies when celebrated together, is really the most and the best that we can hope to receive.

Henri Rouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and writer, said it best (this is this quote's second appearance in less than a year on this blog):

When we honestly ask ourselves
which person in our lives mean the most to us,
we often find that it is those who,
instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures,
have chosen rather to share our pain and
touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion,
who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement,
who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing
and face with us the reality of our powerlessness,
that is a friend who cares.

And it does not matter if you do not know the person that well. Some of the most poignant moments I experienced after Brody was born and we were waiting and terrified were from virtual strangers, the friends of friends, the friends of sisters, who reached out to me, via email or a card in the mail. Sure, you probably don't want to do the whole "I love you" thing to them, but you get the idea.

Finally, one wonderful service that the March of Dimes has is to send out a free, (yes, really free) bereavement packet for the loss of a pregnancy from conception to one month after birth. The March of Dimes explains:

When a baby dies, a bit of hope dies too, a bit of our dream breaks away, a bit of our future is erased before ever being written. Besides the physical loss, there is an emotional loss and a loss of all that a new life promises. This is true whether the baby died as a newborn or before birth due to miscarriage, stillbirth, or other reasons. Society has been slow to recognize that the impact on the parents can be the same, regardless of when the loss occurred. Parents' grief over a miscarriage is as valid and real as their grief over the loss of a full-term baby.

You can order the bereavement materials for yourself or for someone else. Click here.


Hef said...

You're awesome. You know that, don't you? 'Cus it's true.

Dawn said...

GREAT post!!! I feel like I may be a better friend now to others after reading that. Thank you!!!

Robyn said...

I can't believe people really say those horrible things. Wait. Yes, I can.

"I'm so sorry." That's about it. Also, maybe, "I can't imagine what you are going through, but I want you to know that I love you." Also, some form of "I validate you and your feelings." Depending on the situation.

And, yes. Do the thing.

Robyn said...

Because I hate it when people pretend to understand your feelings when they have never gone through anything remotely similar. So fake.

feitpingvin said...

Wow, the stuff on the "things not to say" list are pretty damn rude. You should also add to the list "well, you can always adopt" because I doubt that helps the situation either...

SaRaH said...

I love you.

Stacy and Jon said...

"feitpingvin" stole my suggestion: "you can always adopt." This is coming from an extremely happy adoptive mother of two. Of course, I wholeheartedly encourage anyone interested in adoption to do it! And I will help and advise you through the whole process. But adopting one child does not "cure" the grief of losing a different child. A failed adoption, for example, is much like a miscarriage. That lost child isn't replaced by a different one either.