According to the American Pregnancy Association, miscarriage is defined as a pregnancy that ends on its own within the first 20 weeks of gestation, with the risk for healthy women ranging from 10-25%. Although miscarriage is, by data standards, a common occurrence, it is no less devastating for those involved.
Naturally, friends and loved ones will want to offer support to those who have experienced a miscarriage. Oftentimes, however, their well-meaning actions can end up causing more distress than comfort. Although every person’s needs differ, it’s important to remember that miscarriage brings forth multiple types of pain. The more understanding you have about miscarriage, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one during this difficult time.
Why is miscarriage so traumatic?
“Miscarriages are sudden, they are ‘not part of the plan,’ and they impact your physical, hormonal, emotional, and psychological health,” says Julia “Jill” Garrett, Psy.D., PMH-C, the founding psychologist and program director of the Motherhood Space, the maternal mental health program at Baptist Behavioral Health in Jacksonville, Florida. In addition, Dr. Garrett warns that following a loss, “subsequent pregnancies are marked by an increase in anxiety in about 80-90% of women,” which can make them more susceptible to Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders like perinatal anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
The trauma of miscarriage is also palpable because “the loss of the pregnancy goes beyond the pregnancy itself,” says Lillian Ostrach, a planetary geologist based in Flagstaff, Arizona, who has endured multiple miscarriages, and posts about her fertility journey under the Instagram handle @inconceivablyflagstaff. “It goes to the baby they’ve already dreamed about their whole lives. Every single possibility of a future is gone.” From Ostrach’s standpoint, going from pregnant to miscarriage is moving from a feeling of “infinite possibility” to complete anguish. “There were so many hopes and dreams and plans and a whole life that had been imagined as soon as that positive pregnancy test happened.”
What to say to someone who has had a miscarriage
There is no doubt miscarriage is a delicate topic, but there are still plenty of supportive things to say to a friend or loved one experiencing loss — without delving into platitudes or shifting into problem-solving mode (the latter of which both Ostrach and Dr. Garrett acknowledge is a natural reaction, albeit usually not what the person who’s had a miscarriage needs at that moment).
1. “I am so sorry.”
Simplicity is key here: “It can be helpful to ask yourself what you might like to hear from someone if you were in their shoes,” says Dr. Garrett. This could be, “I’m sorry to hear your sad news. I’m here to talk or just listen.” Ostrach concurs, commenting that the mere act of saying, “I am so sorry. This must be really painful” goes a long way toward comforting the person who is hurting.
2. “I can imagine how hard this is for you.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Ostrach says that “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you” is “one of the hardest things to hear,” because it actually is possible for other people to understand the depth of miscarriage loss. “You can imagine it,” she says, “because you can imagine what it’s like to lose one of your children, or a parent, or somebody who you love so much dying.” While Ostrach understands that saying, “I can’t imagine how hard this is” is meant to evoke empathy, she emphasizes that people can also picture “the worst moment of their life,” and that feeling is identical to the pain of miscarriage.
3. “I am here for you/I am sitting with you/I am with you in this darkness.”
If you’re trying to support someone who’s had a miscarriage, Dr. Garrett recommends focusing on acknowledgment, empathy, and emotional validation. This may just mean allowing the loved one to sit in their pain for a time, and saying something like, “This just sucks.” “Respect people’s wishes,” she advises, “so if they’d rather not talk, that’s okay. They know you are there for them.” Depending on the loved one, continue to check in with that person if you know that’s what they want. Keep in mind, though, that even if the person doesn’t respond, your checking in with them means the world: “They will appreciate it even when they aren’t able to reach out to you,” says Ostrach. “Don’t be offended if all you get is an emoji response because they’re dealing with their own stuff. It’s not about you. It’s about them.”
What not to say to someone who has had a miscarriage
It’s human nature to try to take away someone’s pain with words of kindness, but a lot of well-intentioned remarks tend to “do more harm than good,” says Dr. Garrett. If you find yourself at a loss for words when comforting a loved one who’s had a miscarriage, here are a few things not to say:
1. “At least you got pregnant/At least it was early, etc.”
“Comments like these tend to be dismissive of one’s experience and feelings, and make an intensely sad time even harder,” says Dr. Garrett. “Do not say anything with ‘at least,’ advises Ostrach. “It minimizes the complete implosion of this person’s dream.”
2. “It was God’s plan.”
Since you may not know the person’s religious beliefs, it’s best to leave God out of this discussion. “It’s trite,” says Ostrach, “and diminishes the gravity of the situation.”
3. “Things happen for a reason.”
Trying to justify a miscarriage with logic, just feels like an extra punch in the gut. “Every loss matters,” says Ostrach. “[Miscarriage] is a terrible loss for anybody who has experienced it, no matter the gestation.”
If you’re trying to support a loved one who has had a miscarriage, it’s important to remember that the person in question is likely experiencing a “rollercoaster of feelings,” says Dr. Garrett. Therefore, Ostrach has just one suggestion: “Be gentle.”
“Depending on the relationship you have,” she says, “reach out, say you’re sorry, and let them know you don’t expect any response.” On that note, make sure you don’t ask them any questions that require a response.
Once you’ve acknowledged, empathized, and validated the loss, it’s time to step back and let your loved one grieve, because that’s what people recovering from a miscarriage genuinely need.
“They will reach out when they're ready,” assures Ostrach.
Sarene Leeds holds an M.S. in Professional Writing from NYU, and is a seasoned journalist, having written and reported on subjects ranging from TV and pop culture to health, wellness, and parenting over the course of her career. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, SheKnows, and numerous other outlets. A staunch mental health advocate, Sarene also hosts the podcast “Emotional Abuse Is Real.” Visit her website here, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.