How Do You Help a Friend After a Miscarriage?
A couple close to our family was thrilled to find out they were finally pregnant. We just found out that the mother had a miscarriage.
What should we do or say? Is it better to avoid the subject altogether, out of respect for their feelings? My husband and I feel it would be very awkward to bring it up.
Pregnancy loss has a significant impact on couples and families. Of course we know this, in the same way that we know that any stressful situation challenges the stability of a marriage.
But a recent study in Pediatrics elaborates on the considerable strain that a miscarriage can create in a marriage. According to the study, couples who had a miscarriage were 22 percent more likely to separate or divorce.
Of equal significance, while most couples broke up within a year and a half to three years after losing a baby, the increased risk of divorce could still be seen up to 10 years after the event, especially in couples who had experienced stillbirth.
Dr. Katherine Gold, lead author of the study, points out that the results aren't meant to suggest that pregnancy loss causes relationships to dissolve. "Most couples do very well and often become closer after loss," she has stated.
But the study does underscore the importance of grieving the loss fully, with the loving support of family and friends. As your question suggests, family and friends often don't know how to help when a loved one has lost a baby. If you aren't close to the couple, you can simply say, "I'm so sorry for your loss; can I send over a meal or do an errand for you tomorrow?"
Rather than asking, "What can I do," make a specific offer. Don't avoid the subject, but if they clearly send cues that they don't want to discuss it, respect their boundaries and timing. If you are close friends or family, the greatest show of support you can provide is to allow the mother -- and father -- the freedom to lean on you as they cry, rage or sit at the window, motionless with their sorrow.
The strain on marriage results when feelings are shoved underground, often because the loss isn't considered a "true" death since the child never existed in the outside world. But to the mother and father, their baby was very much alive, and represented an entire life story that has abruptly come to an end.
The couple may attempt to sweep their feelings under the rug, carrying on in the world stoically and creating the potential for the marriage to slowly come apart at the seams.
Grief is a powerful force; when it is denied or ignored, it can eat away at a marriage, allowing anger, blame and disconnection to take over. This is where your kind presence becomes so helpful. Be someone safe enough to witness their sadness, or sit with them while they fall apart. Comfort them, and let them know you can handle not only their joy but also their sorrow.
Don't say things like, "It's nature's way," or "You can always try again." The baby was real to its mother (and father), and to fully heal, one must fully feel the range of feelings that accompany this deep loss. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to bury one. Offering your strength, courage and loving presence to friends in need is the greatest gift you can give, and will go a long way toward helping this couple survive their loss intact.
Yours in parenting support
AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.