How to talk to someone who has lost a baby
Oct 14 2020
Trigger warning: contains references to miscarriage and shame
Its baby loss awareness week, which happens to coincide with a few days of full body flashbacks to my last miscarriage which happened back in June, just after the last Beyond The Ridiculous show. Throughout the lead-up and aftermath of last Saturday's show, my body decided to provide me with echoes of losing my last child. These things happen, grief looks for opportunities to express itself. After a few wobbly days, I am OK; grounded, safe and curious.
I haven't spoken publicly about losing my three babies until now. If anyone else was writing this, I guess you'd think “Fair enough, miscarriage is an incredibly painful and private thing to go through.” But for me, the woman who spills her mental health all over stages, pages and screens and encourages others to (safely!) do the same, you'd be forgiven for thinking it odd that I haven't spoken up about this massive life-changing trauma that I've been experiencing.
Throughout the last 4 years of trying to make and keep a baby with my partner, I have filled endless notebooks with stories, feelings and thoughts. There they all are, sitting on my shelves, gathering dust and waiting for the right moment, maybe when I've found the right medium, maybe when I've processed enough of the grief, maybe when I get the happy-ever-after ending and I can look back on the miscarriages through the wise eyes of milk-stained motherhood...
I want to put my story out there, because I want to connect with other women who've experienced the unique grief of baby loss. We don't talk about it enough, which means many women suffer alone. My work is all about connection and healing through providing safe spaces for people to tell their stories and be compassionately witnessed. I endeavour to live my message and yet, I haven't felt able to speak about my experience of losing babies, outside of my very close community. Every time I try, something stops me.
At first I thought it was my old friend, SHAME. I've sniffed the familiar whiff of shame hanging around me like a toxic cloud every time I've glimpsed the glistening trickles of blood in my knickers. As my heart fills with tears, shame picks up its megaphone and shouts; “YOU ARE NOT WOMAN ENOUGH TO NURTURE A BABY!”
Having spent a lot of the last 20 years exploring my relationship with shame, I am generally able to spot it and listen to whatever it's ranting about with the compassion of a saint. But shame is devious and it has many ways of sneaking in. Over the last 4 years, I've found myself being grabbed by the arm and led off on all sorts of nasty little head trips by shame; believing I am not good enough to be a mother, believing there's something wrong with me and believing this is nature's way of making sure I don't fuck up another human. Luckily I have a meditation practice, a therapist, an amazing partner and a tribe of really good friends, all of whom help me to spot these shame-induced stories and disentangle myself from the grip of the naughty head-trip tour guide.
So if it's not shame that stops me from speaking out, what is it?
When I tell my story, I never know what response I'm going to get. The old adage states, “it's always good to talk,” but is it, really? When I share my story, I put my vulnerability out there and not everyone knows what to do in response. We've been taught by our society that happy is good and if someone is sad, we should cheer them up or give them advice! But this incessant bright-siding and advice-dispensing devalues people's experiences of feeling sad. Whenever this happens to me (which is more often than not when I tell my miscarriage story), I come away feeling sadder and more alone. The result is, I don't talk about it much. This huge yearning and grieving Mother part of me remains hidden in the shadows.
I want to be able to talk about my experiences of pregnancy and losing babies and I want other women to be able to talk about theirs, I want to normalise this devastatingly common experience, so that women can be supported in their grief. No-one should have to suffer alone. So I've written some guidelines based on my experiences for anyone who has contact with a person who has lost a child. Everyone is different, of course, but this might be a good place to start.
How not to talk to someone who's had a miscarriage
When you say: “At least you know you can get pregnant”
I hear: “Chin up love, sweep those ugly feelings away and BE POSITIVE!”
When you say: “There was probably something wrong with it, better this, than a life-time of suffering.”
I hear: “Never mind, it's all for the best, stop feeling your feelings.”
When you say: “Oh my sister's friend's auntie had a miscarriage and now she's got 8 kids!”
I hear: “Squash down those feelings and LOOK AT THE BRIGHTSIDE!”
When you say: “Have you tried homeopathy / reflexology / herbalism / putting your head in a bucket / changing your name to Donovan...?”
I hear: “No time for feelings, you should get proactive! Try harder!”
When you say: “It'll happen one day.”
I hear: “Hope not grief! Hope not grief!”
What to say to someone who has lost a baby
“I'm here for you.”
“How are you feeling?”
“What do you need from me?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you want me to sit here quietly with you?”
“Do you want a hug?”
“Wow, that sounds tough.”
“I see you're suffering.”
“You're not alone.”
“Hearing your story makes me feel...”
“Me too, would you like to hear my story?”
All grief needs is a compassionate witness. Hearing stories of loss is a privilege and all you need to do is sit and listen. You don't need to fix anything or give advice, just give the teller your full attention. Then when they've finished, tell them how their story touched you.
Thanks for reading. If you want to tell me how my story touched you, do send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more support, see the Miscarriage Association website.