On a cold day in March 2019, I locked myself on the roof of my New York City apartment building with a bottle of wine and a pack of ancient cigarettes I hadn’t smoked in years. I was determined to take what little pleasure could be gained by privately unraveling outside in very public air.
In just one year, I had been pregnant three times, but I did not have a baby. It was something I could still barely register, no matter how many times I filled out the hospital intake forms. Three pregnancies, zero children — an error, a horror, a badly done sum.
That night, I allowed myself to howl out great gulping sobs as Manhattan glowed, oblivious, uncaring. I looked at the sky, the street, the wine I hadn’t drunk for months, the cigarettes I hadn’t smoked for years, and I said to everyone and no one, “I give up.”
The first pregnancy had ended dramatically, gruesomely, on my bathroom floor. The second was lost in the scratchy black-and-white TV silence of the ultrasound room at my doctor’s office, as I heard the muted thump of a heartbeat waft through the walls from the room next door, elusive music belonging to a woman luckier than me. The third, a whisper, was gone mere weeks after announcing itself via the twofold joy and terror of the test’s double pink line.
I was 33, healthy, practicing yoga every day and eating a nutritious, balanced diet. How could this be happening?
All around me, friends and family members announced their pregnancies, a seemingly endless series of bump photos on Instagram or ultrasounds brandished over FaceTime. Seeing them resulted in a kind of feral envy that left me feeling as guilty as I was devastated. Meanwhile, my days revolved around crack-of-dawn blood draws at the fertility clinic, my desperate attempt to figure out why my babies kept passing through me like ghosts.
Though I was lucky enough to have a loving husband, family and group of friends, hardly anyone knew what to say to me. Many stumbled through “so sorry” and left it there. Much worse was the barrage of unsolicited advice, “suggestions” and inquiries into my eating and exercise habits. Even more terrible were the people who seemed to know what not to say but weren’t sure what to say. This resulted in the worst possible outcome – silence.
I, on the other hand, suddenly couldn’t shut up. After my third miscarriage, something about the depth of my despair made me incapable of lying. I decided if I couldn’t stay pregnant, then I could at least stay honest. So I told everyone – my boss, my dentist, a stranger at a wedding after she asked me if I was “thinking of having kids.”
And that was when something magical happened. I realized I wasn’t alone.
My boss? He’d experienced it once before, and he was so sorry – did I need time off? The dentist? She’d had four before having her baby. The lady at the wedding? Hers was one horrible Christmas Eve in 2003, and she has never forgotten it. She lights a candle every year with her three living daughters.
When I saw Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram post in which she shared photographs showing the heartbreaking loss of her son, I experienced the sensation of wanting to both wrap my arms around her and applaud her openness. She knew, even in the depths of her grief, the power of sharing her story. Only then can we try and find the right words in the face of such loss.
READ MORE: Chrissy Teigen’s powerful openness
So, as we embark on Baby Loss Awareness Week, here’s what I ask you to say and not say, informed by my own experience and by those who so generously shared their stories with me. One caveat: Since no pregnancy or baby loss experience is universal, not all may be right for you to say (or hear). But I list them because perhaps you are that woman on the roof, or maybe you know someone who needs coaxing down from hers. You can try to help. Here’s how.
DO say: “Miscarriage is as much a part of pregnancy and motherhood as having a baby.”
Pregnancy loss is devastatingly common. You may not think you know anyone who has had a miscarriage, but trust me, you do. An estimated one in four women will experience miscarriage, according to Tommy’s, a UK charity focused on baby loss. However, many doctors I have met along the way have told me the true number, in their clinical experience, is much higher. My OB-GYN told me that about 50% of women she saw at their first ultrasound did not have a viable pregnancy. Yes, 50%! Not all pregnancies end with birth and babies. They still matter.
DO NOT say: “Have you thought about ...”
I cannot emphasize the importance of eliminating this phrase from your vocabulary. Do you know what she’s thinking about? Her loss. The grief sits, a fog on the heart. She has spoken to medical professionals. She has combed the online message boards. She has probably blamed herself. Still, “Have you thought about” questions abound.
They’re such a plague that I’ve broken them down into the three most persistent culprits.
1. “Have you thought about taking a break?”
Do you know the only thing that will likely soothe a person who has just lost a longed-for pregnancy? Getting pregnant again and having a baby.
Taking a break does not sound soothing. It sounds like yet more agonizing waiting, and this deeply unhelpful suggestion often just compounds the frustration. Plus, if “taking a break” is indeed the right thing for her, you’d better believe that yes, she has already thought about it.
2. “Have you thought about adoption or IVF (in vitro fertilization)?”
Both of these are immensely personal decisions that, in most cases, require huge amounts of money, time and, in some cases, a very specific medical prognosis. If either choice is the right option for someone, she’ll walk either of these excellent paths to a baby. These questions, when directed at someone who is just trying to get through the day with her grief, are overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.
3. “Have you thought about acupuncture/giving up dairy/purchasing a very specific and expensive crystal from an ancient mountain range?”
Yes, she has thought about it. She might have tried some of it already. It hasn’t worked yet though, has it? Keep your crystals to yourself, please.
READ MORE: Losing a pregnancy is complicated. Trying again in the pandemic was right for me
DO share: Any pregnancy news via text, and acknowledge the person’s experience when sharing. It won’t take away from your joy.
If you are pregnant, please understand that when you share your news with someone who has suffered a miscarriage, she will simultaneously feel happy for you while feeling a dagger straight to her heart. This is normal. At my lowest, a new pregnancy announcement was an ambush that could leave me sobbing under the duvet for days. On an intellectual level, I knew that the person did not have my baby. Yet it still hurt so, so, much.
When it comes to sharing pregnancy news, texting works great. It allows the person to be able to process her emotions privately while also being able to respond with all the authentic and loving well wishes she has for you. Remember that your experience and your grieving loved ones can coexist. Say it with me one more time, “Miscarriage is as much a part of pregnancy and motherhood as having a baby.”
DO NOT say: “I don’t know what to say” or “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”
These are useless phrases, placing the burden on the person who has just shared something devastating with you. When you say “Gosh, this is so awful, I don’t know what to say,” you did say something. The grieving person hears this: “Not only are things as truly terrible as I thought, but now I’ve really upset you and need to make you feel better.”
Don’t put that burden on them.
DO NOT say: “Try not to stress” or “Stress causes miscarriage.”
I couldn’t believe how many well-meaning people said variations of this phrase, a toxic cocktail of gaslighting and blame, to me. Miscarriage is stressful. Terribly so, and it can’t be avoided. There is no evidence that stress causes miscarriage. Do not say it.
READ MORE: Postpartum depression: A family hopes their loss will help others
DO NOT: Ask if someone is “feeling better.”
They weren’t ill, though in the course of their loss they may have gone through immense pain. They are bereaved. The physical recovery, though significant in some cases, is secondary to the grief, which is immense and long-lasting. There is also the tremendous work of dismantling the life that could have been, which takes time. The medical bills to pay, the appointments that need to be canceled, trying to get a refund on the pricey prenatal Pilates class pack. Remember, too, that the hormonal roller coaster that comes after a pregnancy ends lasts for months.
DO say: “You will be happy again.”
The singular agony of miscarriage is that it completely eliminates any sense of certainty in your path, in your body. The one thing you want to hear is that you will get pregnant, you will stay pregnant, you will have your baby, and of course that’s not something anyone can guarantee. This is why having people look at you and tell you things with great certainty is tremendously helpful. A simple “This is terrible now, but I promise you will be happy again,” can be a healing rain of a phrase, especially if you’ve had a miscarriage yourself.
Then there was also this: About a week after that night on the roof, I found myself confiding, as I did routinely by that point, in a perfect stranger at a party. And she did the most amazing thing. She looked me square in my teary eyes and said, as simple as can be: “Your baby is coming.” We hugged. I left.
One year later, almost to the day, my baby was born.
My daughter arrived on March 9, 2020, 6 pounds 15 ounces, beautiful, preternaturally sunny, life, life, life. Over the last seven months in isolation, she has learned to sit, to bash the keys of my mother’s piano with her furious baby fists, and to suck cold apple slices between her aching gums.
During this time, I have been known to indulgently describe her as a miracle, which, of course, she is not. She is a normal byproduct of the staggering amalgam of luck and life and death that is the business of making and birthing babies.
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My path was filled with anguish, but it was not unusual. Sadly, nothing about miscarriage or baby loss is unusual. But we must get better at caring for those in the throes of it, holding them up and placing their grief front and center, where it belongs, and where we can best care for them, loudly, lavishly, outside of the culture of silence that has festered for so long.
You will make mistakes as you try to love and reassure and comfort your friends and family in the midst of their loss. My suggestions may not work for you, but is that any reason not to try? Please try. There is reassurance, there is hope. There is so much to say.
Alexandra King is a writer, filmmaker and journalist on CNN’s original video team.