How to be a better ally to a loved one who's just had a miscarriage
“Friends told me to see the ‘silver lining’. While well-intentioned, it was a punch to the gut that was already sore and cramping.”
“How can I mourn something I never had?” Being a practising gynaecologist for over 30 years, Dr Shoma Bharat has heard this sentiment from many patients who experience a miscarriage. They’re expected to move on, not to dwell on it. She can always try again, right? Figuring out what to do or say to someone when they’ve had a pregnancy loss is tricky. Even though an estimated 15%-25% of pregnancies ending in miscarriage, we don’t always have the vocabulary to address it with empathy.
Delhi-based psychologist Deepti Sharma believes that it’s almost taboo to talk about pregnancy losses. Some people can be very superstitious about it, so we sweep it under the rug. “It’s understandable why we can’t empathise to an extent. In a miscarriage, there isn’t something tangible that an outside person can see.”
Supriya* got pregnant during the lockdown. While the pregnancy wasn’t planned, she and her husband were ecstatic. “I had no plans of getting pregnant. It happened accidentally, but it filled me with unexpected joy. I was scared, but a part of me still felt ready.” When she miscarried, she didn’t know how to grieve. “It was barely a foetus, but you start feeling like a mother. Then suddenly that piece of you is gone,” she says.
Having a miscarriage during the pandemic made her feel all the more isolated at home, caring for her ill in-laws and husband. “I felt guilty mourning over a baby I never had while people were losing loved ones all around us.” She had a support system over the phone with family and friends. But she could hear the discomfort in their voice. “No one really knows what to say in these situations. I’ve found the most support in other women who have gone through the same thing.”
Sharma says that being the right kind of caregiver or support system for someone who’s miscarrying can help them manage their emotional and physical stress. Bharat explains that a lot of early-term miscarriages feel like a heavy period with the tissue naturally passing through the body, while some women require surgical procedures that demand a period of recovery and care.
Just because it’s common – whether due to chromosomal defects, structural abnormalities of the uterus, severe hormonal imbalance or autoimmune conditions – it doesn’t make going through it any easier.
We can be better caregivers for someone having a miscarriage by understanding their physical and emotional needs. And most importantly, Sharma says, by being open to listening.
How to be an emotional ally to someone having a miscarriage
Acknowledge that it’s a loss and “deny their responsibility”
It doesn’t matter whether you sit on the pro-life or pro-choice side of the matter, there is a loss that has taken place. Sharma says that people often dismiss the problem, because it’s easy to detach yourself when physically it didn’t exist cooing in your arms.
But it’s natural for the woman to start imagining her future the moment she discovers she’s pregnant. To think of themselves as mothers, even if it takes them time to come to terms with it. “Then in an instant, it’s all gone. There’s no switch to flip back to how things were before. The hormones flooding their body at that time also don’t allow it to happen smoothly.”
Too often, Bharat says, women are either made to feel guilty about the miscarriage, like it’s somehow their fault. Or they’re made to feel bad for getting emotional about it. “While there is a lifestyle change we advise to patients, miscarrying is not in their control. Women feel like they did something wrong, which caused it, but I deny them the responsibility,” adds Bharat.
Let them move at their own pace and talk about it
We express grief in different ways. Some people like to talk things through, dissect everything that happened to try and understand it better. Other people shut down, emotionally numb, or feeling the loss internally away from people’s line of sight.
Don’t ask them to let go and move on. Listen to what they need from you — in most cases, it’s just a listening ear.
Swagata Majumdar felt like a “jinxed woman” when she lost her twins soon after their premature delivery.
“I was deeply shocked that a few of my closest friends alienated me from their social circle. In the last two years, they have only sent a customary birthday wish, but never tried to talk to me. I heard from others that they found it awkward. I wasn’t invited to baby showers. I am a very social person, so this silence from friends was like a stab.”
A patient of Sharma’s coping with depression after multiple miscarriages, was once told by a relative “Ufff ab bas bhi karo. Kitna baat karogi iske baare mein?” (Enough, how much are you going to talk about it). Sharma comments that if women have to experience the stress of a physical miscarriage which can last for 2-3 weeks, then another month for recovery, they’re allowed to talk about it for as long as they want.
Be mindful of your words
We come in with the best intentions, wanting to cheer them up, help them feel better and lighter. We want to help when we see someone we love in pain. But we don’t always know what to say.
“Friends I opened up to who told me to see the ‘silver lining’. You hadn’t planned this pregnancy, anyway. ‘Right now I think we should all be happy to be healthy,’ said one. While well-intentioned, it was a punch in the gut that was already sore and cramping,” says Supriya.
There may not be a right thing to say when someone is grieving but we know what is wrong. Statements like ‘It’s God’s will, he has a plan’ or ‘Everything happens for a reason’ help nobody. Especially with their ambiguity, allowing someone who is emotionally/mentally spiralling to dive even deeper into self-doubt.
“You have to weigh your words carefully. Your words should empathise with the person, not patronise them,” explains clinical psychologist Anupama Kapur.
Sharma adds that if you’re unsure, keep it simple and heartfelt. Acknowledge their loss and offer help. “I’m sorry for your loss, please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make this easier.”
Don’t push for another pregnancy
Some friends and relatives often told Supriya “you can always try again” as if it made the experience any easier.
The possibility of trying to get pregnant again in the future doesn’t take away from the present. Again, you could have come in with the best of intentions. Trying to show them a way ahead, but this positivity can become toxic when it dismisses the loss a couple has experienced.
Bharat explains that the trauma of miscarriages can linger. Especially for women late in the pregnancy or those who’ve had multiple miscarriages. “There’s a lot of fear and anxiety that builds up. People can become obsessive. ‘I did or didn’t do 1, 2 and 3 the first time. Now I must avoid or do it all.’ If things don’t go right then, the after-effect is even more severe.”
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Things that can help physically and emotionally cope
Comfortable Baby Hug nursing pads
In late-term miscarriages, Bharat says it’s possible for women’s breasts to still produce milk. By avoiding stimulation and taking certain medication, the production of breast milk can be suppressed and subsequently stopped. But they can leak milk too, and that can be very distressing for some women.
Nursing pads can help reduce the sensitivity of the nipples against clothes, but also absorb the milk and prevent staining. These, by Baby Hug, are made using three layers of comfortable and breathable bamboo fabric. They’re easily washable and reusable with an outer leak-proof lining.
The Compassionate Pad by The Woman’s Company
Anika Parashar, co-founder of The Woman’s Company, knows what pregnancy loss is like having experienced it herself. Being trained as a birth professional, lactation counsellor and pre/postnatal therapist, she has also seen the grief of others up close and personal.
In collaboration with Facebook, TWC launched the world’s first sanitary pad for women going through pregnancy loss. The Compassionate Pad is extra-long, made using biodegradable materials and has a 7-layer absorbent core which allows more absorption, as compared to the regular heavy-duty sanitary pads women often wear, without making it bulkier.
These make the bleeding in this process more manageable, eliminating the need to wear uncomfortable adult diapers while preventing leakage. Each individual package also comes with little notes of empathy and care, acting as small reminders of self-love.
Aksobha herbal multipurpose hot/cold pack
Cramping during a miscarriage can be severe and a hot water bottle can provide some relief. This herbal pack makes things a bit easier. It is malleable enough to bend however way your body needs. Instead of waiting for the kettle to go off, they can pop this in the microwave and it’s done.
Tucked-in weighted blanket
Weighted blankets operate on pressure therapy. When anxiety and stress weighs you down, this dumbbell of a blanket will do the heavy lifting to give you the uninterrupted REM sleep you deserve right now.
According to Martin L Levinson, a physician at Penn Sleep Centre, “The pressure of weighted blankets puts your autonomic nervous system into ‘rest’ mode, reducing some of the symptoms of anxiety, such as a quickened heart rate or breathing. This can provide an overall sense of calm.”
A journal by Nappa Dori
A journal may feel like a cheesy, even trivial gift in such moments, but hear us out. For the women feeling a loss for words to talk about their own grief, or discomfort saying it out loud, they can put their thoughts down on paper.
The mental health benefits of journaling include reducing anxiety and stress. It allows for emotional catharsis and can act as a form of meditation, adds Sharma. “A journal can act as a kind of baby book. All the things they would do or say to the child they couldn’t have. Including the woman’s own feelings in this experience. It can be a record or a memory to hold onto which helps a lot of women. This, in turn, can help in the grieving process to move towards acceptance.”
The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young
If they can’t find the words themselves then the poetry of others could help. Kevin Young has put together some of the most poignant poems about grief and loss from the likes of Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore, Derek Walcott and Emily Dickinson. The book is divided into five sections – Reckoning, Rememberance, Rituals, Recovery and Redemption – to help readers through the stages of the process of overcoming loss.
*Name changed upon contributor’s request for anonymity.