Do you know a family member, friend, or co-worker who has recently experienced pregnancy loss? Have you had a miscarriage and been the target of some of the common responses below? If so, you will probably feel validated to know that these types of remarks are often experienced as hurtful and insensitive. If you've been guilty of saying some of them on occasion, read the alternative response to learn how to give a genuine empathic response to a loved one's pain. Here is a list of things to never, ever say to someone who has just lost her baby and suggestions about what to say instead:
1. "Don't worry, nature has a way of taking care of mistakes. It is for the best."
I think this remark comes from the finding that genetic testing may reveal that the fetus was genetically flawed. The problem is that many other times, genetic testing reveals no genetic abnormality and thus, the "cause" of the miscarriage remains a mystery. Even if all miscarriages could be explained by some malformation or genetic abnormality, this does not cancel out the feeling of loss and grief when you learn that a much hoped for child is not going to be. A person who says this remark is trying to assure you that there must be a "good reason" for what happened. This is simply not always the case, and even if it were, it does not take away your right to grieve.
A more empathic response to the news of a miscarriage might be: "You must be so disappointed and hurt. Losing a pregnancy is so painful, I'm very sorry."
2. "Everything happens for a reason."
I know that this statement is intended as comforting, but if you've ever been on receiving end you know that it does not make you feel better. The underlying message is that you should not feel so bad because there is some unknown purpose for your pain. This statement comes from a particular belief system, and there is no way to prove or disprove its accuracy. However, even if everything in life does happen for a reason, you still have a right to feel grief and pain when you lose a pregnancy. Don't let this type of assertion detour you from allowing yourself to express your pain.
Here is a more supportive statement: "I don't know why this happened to you. You are so loving and will make a wonderful mother. I'm so sorry for your loss."
3. "Miscarriage is very common. You can try again."
This is accurate. Studies have shown that as many as 75% of all embryos conceived naturally end in miscarriage often before the woman even realizes she is pregnant. However, telling someone that the loss of her baby is "common," and she can get pregnant again minimizes and invalidates the significance of her loss. Rather than quoting statistics, this would be a good time to share if you've experienced a miscarriage yourself. Because miscarriage is common and it is also common not to tell others, many family, friends, and co-workers may "come out of the closet" with their own stories of pregnancy loss when they learn of your miscarriage. Hearing other women talk about the pain and sadness is very therapeutic. Warning: telling someone who has had a miscarriage that you simply "moved on," and "didn't dwell on it," is not really helpful. Such remarks do not encourage healthy and normal grieving.
A better response would be: "Doctors say it happens a lot, but that sure doesn't make it any easier. I'm so sorry this happened to you."
4. "It's all part of God's plan. It is not up to us to question His reasons."
Many religious people believe that God has a plan for each of us. When you say this remark to a woman who has experienced a miscarriage, however, she may question why God's plan included the demise of a much wanted child. She may wonder why God would hurt a baby for any reason. For many, not being "blessed" with children causes them to feel angry at God and to experience a crisis in their faith. Although you may strongly believe in God having a plan, saying this remark to a grieving woman or couple is rarely helpful.
I consulted a Catholic priest, an Episcopal priest, a Presbyterian minister, and a Methodist minister about this remark, and the consensus was that a better show of support would be a statement such as follows: "God is grieving with you. He knows how much you wanted this baby.
5. "You should not have told anybody that you were pregnant until after the first trimester."
A woman of any age is most at risk for a miscarriage during the first trimester. Because of the lack of emotional support for miscarriage in general, women have learned to not tell others about being pregnant until they are past the first trimester. The toxic component of this remark is that it is punitive toward the woman for sharing her news and has an underlying current of superstition -- if you had kept your mouth shut, maybe you would not have lost the pregnancy. Women who have experienced miscarriage often develop a more cautious attitude about telling when they become pregnant again. This is fine. But it is also fine to share your news anytime. You have a right to tell. You have a right to feel bad and grieve if you miscarry. Telling about a pregnancy does not "jinx" it.
A more supportive statement: "When you're hurting it can be so hard to have to tell the bad news to all of your family and friends. Is there a way I can help to notify others so you can rest and take care of yourself?"
6. "Maybe it just wasn't your time." OR "Maybe it just wasn't meant to be."
This is another ominous remark that implies some sort of special knowledge about how the universe works. The woman who miscarried knows far better than you when she is ready to have a baby. Don't try to take away her grief by implying that the stars weren't aligned along with her desire.
A more supportive statement: "Oh no, you were so excited about being pregnant! That is heartbreaking news. I'm so very sorry for your loss."
7. "When it is meant to happen, it will happen."
This is a variant of number 7. Again, it implies that there is a force, a plan, a reason to invalidate your loss. Do not buy into it.
A better response: "It is so hard when miscarriage happens. It hurts so much. I'm so sorry that this happened."
8. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Miscarriage happens to a lot of women."
Fact: Miscarriage does happen to many women. Fact: You go right ahead and feel sorry for yourself and for your husband and for your parents who were looking forward to being grandparents and for that sister of yours who wanted to be an aunt. Feeling sad and miserable about losing a baby are normal feelings to have and do not let anyone try to tell you differently.
A more supportive statement would be: "Miscarriage may be common but when it happens to you, it can feel like the end of the world. The pain can be overwhelming. I'm so sorry you lost your baby." Referring to the miscarriage or pregnancy loss as a "baby" helps acknowledge and validate the magnitude of the loss. Medical terms like "products of conception" or "blighted ovum" may be technically accurate but seem to minimize or dehumanize the loss. Most women from the first positive pregnancy test refer to their pregnancy as a "baby."
9. "It could be worse."
No matter how great the tragedy, yes, there is always something that can be added to the sorrow and pain to make it worse. Just because there is "always" something worse, does not negate a person's emotional pain.
If you want to convey empathy, the following statement is better: "Having a miscarriage must be so emotionally painful. I'm so sorry for your loss."
10. "Nobody ever said life would be easy."
This statement capitalizes on life's misery as if it were the expected norm and makes you feel ashamed for feeling bad in response to a very significant loss. Every time I hear this sentiment, I visualize an old, cranky woman wagging her finger at someone with the dire warning of "nobody said life would be easy." Perhaps nobody did, but they also did not warn you that losing a pregnancy could make you feel like your life was ending and that you would never smile again.
A more empathic variation would be: "Nobody prepares us for such intense pain in life. I'm so sorry that you are going through this."
Tips about empathy:
1. Genuine empathy comes from the heart.
2. Most people prefer honesty rather than over-used, canned phrases.
3. If you don't know what to say, say so. Some of the most appreciated expressions of empathy start with, "I don't even know what to say . . . I'm just so sorry."
4. Rather than saying that you just cannot imagine their pain, take a few moments to truly be in their shoes. Wear their pain for a moment. This exercise will increase your ability to empathize and will help you to imagine how they feel and what to say to make them feel understood.
5. A hand-written note may give you the opportunity to make a more personal expression of your empathy. You can create a draft and edit until you get the words right. In our modern world of texting and emailing, a hand-written note stands out and is very appreciated by the recipient.
6. Don't ask "If there is anything I can do, let me know." Pick something and do it. Like your grandmother told you, actions speak louder than words.