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Things not to say to a couple that has lost a pregnancy

I’ve been back at work for a week and a half, and one of the biggest struggles I have is with social anxiety. If you know me, you know that I am a friendly, extroverted person who is generally at ease in most social situations. Also, my job is in sales. So I’m not used to feeling so anxious about encountering people. Before my first day back, I was anxious about facing my team. Ripped that band-aid off. Now, I’m anxious about running into people in the elevator, at the pantry, in the bathroom, speaking to clients – every “first” encounter is like ripping off a new band-aid. With some people, they treat me normally, and it is a relief. With others, I get what Sven and I call the “double eyes” – first, the excited eyes from seeing you for the first time in a while; next, the shift to the sympathy eyes paired with, “How are you?” (In a tone that means, “How are you holding up?”), and maybe a shoulder tap. This is a little awkward, but easily deflectable.

But then, there are the people who say things that are just hard to hear. It’s so difficult because I know in my heart that every single person means well, and that it likely takes them a great deal of courage to address their sentiments at all. This post is not meant to discourage people from sending their love or condolences, it is only meant as a guide, solely from my (and Sven’s) perspective, of things I think people should avoid saying to couples who have experienced a devastating pregnancy loss.

“It wasn’t meant to be.” First of all, there are just so many better things to say than this. The thing to remember is that this is the loss of a very much wanted child, so to say this can be insulting at worst and simply not comforting at best. You would never tell someone that the life of their loved one who passed away “wasn’t meant to be” – so don’t say this about someone’s lost baby. It may not have been a living, breathing child to you, but it was to them.

“Everything happens for a reason.” This. Is. Not. True. People don’t get cancer for a reason, women are not raped for a reason, genocide does not occur for a reason. Get the point? The grieving process is hard enough – we are looking for reasons even though we know there are none. The suggestion that there could be a reason for something so horrible can bring up feelings of guilt, regret, anger…generally not comforting feelings. There may be positive outcomes despite a crappy event, but that does not mean the crappy event happened for a reason.

“I believe these things are for the best.” Honestly, I would never believe that anyone would actually say this, except IT IS IN AN ACTUAL TEXT MESSAGE ON MY PHONE. (Ok, I’ve since deleted it.) I hope it is clear why you shouldn’t say this exactly, but I’ll also include anything that falls in the category of “your own personal belief system.” It’s not appropriate to impose your own beliefs on how to explain the inexplicable to those that are grieving. Even if you know that a person shares your beliefs, tragedies like this often shake that very belief system.

“This happens to a lot of people.” OR “My friend/sister/cousin also lost a pregnancy, and she is doing great now.” If someone’s dog died, would you try to comfort them by saying that it happens to a lot of people? What about if their grandparent died? Or if their mom or dad passed away? After all, most people outlive their pets, grandparents, and parents. Did I make my point? A miscarriage is the loss of a baby – a person. I understand that the sentiment people want to convey is that I am not alone, that it happens to other people, and those people get through it. They want to give me hope for a positive future outcome.

Yes, it is true that 20-25% of pregnancies result in miscarriage – a sad, and scary stat no one ever seems to talk about until you’re actually pregnant. But every loss is unique and personal to the individual, so to say “this happens to a lot of people” can come across as diminishing the unique loss that the person feels. For me personally, a loss at 21 weeks due to a fetal anomaly happens in less than 1% of pregnancies. Our specific anomaly has an occurrence rate of .0001%. So yeah, “this happens to a lot of people” was pretty frustrating for me to hear, and I never wanted to explain that no, it actually doesn’t. That said, some of the most amazing, comforting, and inspiring words were from women who had experienced a miscarriage. The sentiment that I am not alone, and that things will be better, from people who have been there or can really empathize, has been very much appreciated.

“At least you know you can get pregnant.” Can I be honest here and admit I hate this one? I’ll include nearly anything that starts with “At least…” in this category. It’s just a little desperate to say, “at least…” because the situation is so bad that you are grasping for straws. I do not find comfort in the idea that I was able to do something that others struggle with. Pregnancy loss and experiencing infertility are two completely different struggles. Unfortunately, there are people who probably have experienced both, but back to a previous analogy, if your dad passes away, telling someone “At least you have your mom” is not a helpful sentiment, even if there are people out there who have lost both their parents. I don’t find comfort in knowing other people may have it “worse” than I do, in fact, it makes me feel worse because I know how bad this is. I understand that a person saying this is looking to point out positives, but what a grieving person needs is compassion, not comparisons.

I also am not a fan of this comment because, well, I did get pregnant, and that didn’t exactly turn out so well. If I do get pregnant again, I will be riddled with anxiety about my ability to carry a healthy child to term. I know Sven is anxious about this, too. The thought of getting pregnant again may be too traumatic for a grieving mother (or father!) right now, so let’s put this one to rest, okay?

“You’re so strong.” But what if I’m not? Isn’t that okay, too? The grieving person may have pulled themselves together for you, or may just be having a good day, hour, or moment. But they probably do not feel strong. I didn’t, and I still don’t always. I know it’s meant to be a compliment, but it can make someone feel bad if they’re not actually feeling strong, put pressure on them to be strong when they’re not, or even diminish the pain they feel simply because it may not be on display. As someone who is not very outwardly emotional, I didn’t like hearing I was strong, even if I knew it was a compliment. Perhaps using a different word for strength may achieve the same sentiment without the pressure of “strength.” Some alternative suggestions: You are displaying such grace. You are handling this with dignity.

Again, I really want to emphasize that I know everyone means well with their words, and it is a difficult and awkward situation for both sides. However, the fear that people will say something to me that may be inadvertently upsetting or uncomfortable is something I cannot control, and that is what gives me great social anxiety. So, hopefully this is a helpful guide if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of knowing someone who has experienced a pregnancy loss.

I will end by sharing some of the best things to say:

“Thinking of you.”

“I am here for you.” 

“Sending you love.”

[Heart/Cat/Smiley emojis…any cute, fun emoji, I don’t discriminate.]

I loved knowing that people were thinking of me. It’s all the good vibes with none of the awkward confrontation. It gave me space, but also let me knew I had someone to talk to if I needed.

Not saying anything at all. Our first social encounters after the loss were the toughest. First, there is the courage it takes just to get out of your sweatpants and go out into the world at all. Then, there is the fear that people are going to be awkward around you or bring up your loss. It may be best to assume that if the couple has decided to attend a social event, it means that they’re ready to do something “normal,” so treat them as you normally would. I know that is what Sven and I wanted, especially around the holidays. At one holiday party, we were having a great time for what seemed like the first time in ages. But as we were leaving, when we hugged someone goodbye, they said, “I’m so sorry for everything you guys have been going through.” And it was sobering. Literally. In an instant, we fell out of our “normal” buzz and back into our harsh reality. We left without saying goodbye to anyone else. Of course, we knew that the person meant well, this is just an example to keep in mind that perhaps social gatherings aren’t the best time and place to remind people of their loss, even with the best of intentions.

So my advice is to do your best to say and do whatever may make it easiest for those who are grieving. Don’t worry about having to say the “right” thing, or anything at all…because sometimes the best thing to say is nothing, or simply let them know they are in your thoughts.

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