October. The air grows chill, and the leaves begin to fall. Pink ribbons decorate the stores reminding us that it is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Much lesser known is the fact that October is also Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. Statistics say that among women who know they are pregnant, 8-20% will lose their child to miscarriage by the 12th week. That’s as high as 1 in 5 pregnancies ending in loss. There are countless women who bury the grief of miscarriage in their hearts, rarely ever speaking about it.
Having gone through several miscarriages in a row since the birth of my youngest, I know a little about the shroud of silence surrounding pregnancy loss. Sometimes I have been silent because I wasn’t ready for my kids to know about them, just yet. (Kids have an uncanny way of blurting out information at the most inopportune moments.) Sometimes I was silent because I was afraid of losing my composure. And sometimes I have been silent because what people say about miscarriage can be more hurtful than helpful.
What are the words that hurt and the words that heal? What should you say and not say to a friend who just miscarried?
Don’t say: It’s nature’s way of cleaning, or The baby probably had a genetic disease, so it’s better you miscarried. No one wants to hear that their baby died because of a genetic defect, even if it is true. Yes, the sad trend nowadays is to abort babies who have been diagnosed with Down syndrome or other genetic abnormality. But there are those of us who would have lovingly carried our babies to full term and cared for them irregardless of the test results.
Instead: Acknowledge the preciousness of the lost one. Your friend may have very little to remember her baby by, maybe not even an ultrasound picture. So, a small keepsake such as a prayer card, mass card, or journal is far more helpful than undermining the value of the baby lost to miscarriage.
Don’t say: At least it was early. True, an early miscarriage resembling a hellish period is probably not as heart wrenching as losing a child at birth or during infancy. Nonetheless, an unborn child of six weeks is no less human than a child at birth. Your friend is not grieving over a blob of tissue, but over a beloved child and whom he/she could have been. In all fairness, with my really early miscarriages I have told myself those very words. At least it was early. At least, this time, I did not have to endure all the discomforts of the first trimester, all the while wondering in agonizing suspense whether this baby would live or die, only to suffer the pangs of labor and the loss of death. But, even though I’ve thought this, they’re hard words to hear from anyone else. Phrases that begin with at least seem to undermine the value of the baby’s life and our need to grieve.
So don’t say: At least you have another child/other children. Of course, children who are living are a great consolation and blessing. But having other children does not diminish her need to grieve the one she’s lost. Each child is a pearl of great price; each child lost is a shaft to the heart.
Instead: Acknowledge the depth of her suffering and her right to grieve. If you’ve had a miscarriage before, the simple words, “I know how it is” can be so consoling. The silence surrounding miscarriage can make your friend feel isolated, so knowing that others understand her sorrow takes away a little of the loneliness. If you’ve never been through a miscarriage, words like “I can’t even imagine how hard this is for you. I am really so sorry,” tells your friend you genuinely want to be sympathetic. Remember that during a miscarriage, the fluctuating hormones alone often cause strong feelings of depression and emotional fragility. Even if the miscarriage started a day after the pregnancy test, your friend might really be hurting.
Don’t say: You can always have another baby. After the first miscarriage, those words might offer consolation. After repeated miscarriages, they sound cheap. In either case, you don’t really know. Leave those words for the doctor to say.
Instead: Gently help her to see beyond her sorrow. After my third miscarriage, I had to face the hard fact that I probably wouldn’t have any more kids. I felt as if I were closing the door to a chapter in my life which I had loved and relished. My sister reminded me that every stage in a child’s life is wonderful and that there were still so many things to look forward to in the lives of my other children: birthdays, sports, reading books together, game nights, family dinners, summer vacations… the list is endless. I was so grateful for that conversation with her. Whether your friend has no other children or whether she has ten, there are always things to look forward to. Help her to remember that when God shuts one door, He always opens another.
Don’t say: It was God’s will. Of course it was God’s will. But at times like this, accepting God’s will can be really hard. Sometimes these words only incite more anger and bitterness. Hopefully, with time, healing and acceptance will come. But we need to remember that just as depression often comes with miscarriage, so does deep spiritual desolation.
Instead: Encourage her to express her sorrow to God in prayer, as Christ did, when hanging from the cross, He cried out, “My God, My God, why have forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). A dear friend who suffered from infertility told me, “Let Him know how angry you are, how hurt you are. Go ahead and yell at Him. God’s tough. He can take it.” When we wrestle with God, as did Jacob (Genesis 32: 24-32), He actually blesses us, and healing begins to take place. And then, let her know you’re praying for her. Your prayers, along with the prayers of other family and friends, form a net that keeps her from falling into despair, especially when she feels incapable of prayer.
Finally, assure her of God’s love and mercy for her unborn child. Although the Church does not give any definite teaching about what happens to children who die in utero, she encourages us to place great trust in the mercy of God.
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. – CCC no. 1261
A couple who miscarried a baby asked St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “What is going to happen to our child? The child did not get baptized.” In response, St. Bernard wrote:
Your faith spoke for this child. Baptism for this child was only delayed by time. Your faith suffices. The waters of your womb — were they not the waters of life for this child? Look at your tears. Are they not like the waters of baptism? Do not fear this. God’s ability to love is greater than our fears. Surrender everything to God.
Last Christmas, my daughter gave my husband and I this painting she had made. Perhaps it was her own way of dealing with the loss of so many unborn siblings – she had been praying so hard for another baby brother or sister! But what consolation it has given us and continues to give us! It is a reminder that God willed each of our unborn children into existence and gave them immortal souls for a reason. Perhaps they play a role in our salvation, perhaps they simply glorify Him by their innocence. But as short as their lives were on earth, their lives and after-lives have meaning and eternal purpose.
This month of October, let’s pray for God’s mercy on the souls of all unborn children and for the healing of all parents who have lost children in utero or during infancy. Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us!