Your girlfriend, sister or coworker has just texted you the news of her pregnancy loss. Maybe you’ve known she was pregnant from the beginning, and had been excitedly walking with her every step of the way until this setback. Maybe this is the first news you’re getting that she was even pregnant in the first place.
No matter what the situation, it isn’t always clear what you can do to help a person going through it, say experts who specialize in supporting women through pregnancy loss.
While every person will have unique needs, there is one rule of thumb, according to Kate Metten, a birth and postpartum doula from Louisville, Kentucky: Think of ways you would naturally support your loved one if she was going through either a death and a recent birth.
“It’s important to understand the mom is still going through a postpartum period, just as if she had given birth to a live baby,” said Metten, who has herself experienced three miscarriages. “That recovery process, [and] the hormonal changes and things that are happening in that postpartum mom are an important part to pay attention to.”
That advice rings true for Olga Verschoore, who at 28 years old experienced a miscarriage at 10 weeks after one in vitro fertilization cycle and two rounds of frozen embryo transfers. She remembers sitting at her desk at the office a week after her loss and remarking that she was having a “crappy” day. Her co-worker, who was close to her and knew about her loss, asked what was wrong. When Verschoore answered truthfully that she was sad about her miscarriage, her co-worker responded, “Oh, you’re still upset about that?”
“I know she didn’t mean it like that, but that was definitely a gut punch,” Verschoore remembers. “Of course I’m not over it yet, are you crazy?”
In addition to acknowledging that pregnancy loss grief takes time to heal and may be influenced by post-pregnancy hormones, here are a few more simple principles to help guide your support of your loved one, according to doulas who support women going through loss ― and those who have experienced pregnancy loss themselves.
Offer tangible ways to help
Like all grieving people know, other people’s offers to “help” or “be there” when needed can be made with the best of intentions but turn out to be empty promises. So offer to help, but don’t let yourself off the hook. Think of a tangible task to help grieving parents, like running errands, bringing a meal or helping around the house, and then commit to it, says Metten.
“Sometimes family and friends really want to help, but they don’t know how,” she said. “Tangible tasks can help the mom rest and recover the way that she needs to.”
“Just show up, listen, stop giving advice, clean something, cook something, love her,” said 31-year-old Emilee Saldaya, co-director of the LA Doula Project, a collective of birth professionals and women’s rights activists who offer pro bono doula services, support for abortion and fetal loss, and childbirth education programs to underserved women and communities. “Don’t wait to be told ― women historically are trained not to ask for help, and there are deep implications in our culture that she should know how to handle this on her own.”
“Stop by and do some laundry, bring a meal, clean the dishes or walk their dog,” she continued. “It’s really the same advice I would give to friends and family of someone who has a new baby, ironically.”
Be mindful of what you say
It will hurt you to see your loved one in so much emotional pain, Metten said, but make sure that your discomfort at seeing someone else’s suffering doesn’t turn into an impulse to say anything to help them feel better, or point out any positive aspects about the pregnancy loss.
Platitudes like “this just wasn’t meant to be” or “everything happens for a reason” can be enraging for people who just want to be heard, as it negates their emotions about their experience. Even worse are exhortations with the implicit command to look on the bright side of pregnancy loss, like “At least you know you can get pregnant” or “At least you already have one child.” We would never approach a grieving friend at their mother’s funeral and say, “At least you had a mother” — so why do it for pregnancy loss?
“I will never forget when one friend told me to just forget about it ― one child was a blessing and that should be enough,” said 45-year-old Jennifer Greco of Chicago, who has had three pregnancy losses. “I felt that wasn’t her place to tell me this, as it’s a personal choice how many kids one should have.”
Verschoore has a measure of compassion for people who stumble to find the right words to say. What could anyone possibly say, she reasoned, to make her feel better about the fact that it took her years of infertility and $28,000 to get to her miscarriage? But for people going through reproductive treatment, these cliches can be even more hurtful.
“There’s no guarantee — I could do this 10 more times and I might just never get pregnant again,” she said. “So this whole, ‘Oh try again, no big deal’ mentality was really hurtful, especially when people knew that it had already taken me three years to get to this point.”
For people who aren’t sure what to say, keep things simple and honest, Saldaya advised.
“I don’t think there are any magic words when dealing with a friend going through loss, whether it be the loss of a child, a parent or a friend,” she said. “’I am so sorry, I am here, I will help you’ is really the most honest, loving and truthful thing you can say.”
Understand that grief isn’t linear
Grief doesn’t start off big and reliably diminish over time. It can flare up unexpectedly or ebb and flow much longer than people are prepared to acknowledge. In your effort to help your loved one heal from a pregnancy loss, don’t try to hasten the process or pretend the loss isn’t there, adds Laura Garland, another co-director of the LA Doula Project.
“The temptation might be to change the subject as quickly as possible, but many parents may prefer to talk about the loss — how old the child would be now, what they remember about their experience of pregnancy and loss,” Garland said. “It’s true that every couple is unique, but if someone mentions a loss, there is often a need to express more.”
And while support from outsiders will probably begin to diminish over time, take the effort to be that close friend or family member who keeps checking back in, said Metten.
“Support might be there the first two weeks or so, but because there’s no baby physically there, that support kind of dwindles and people go on with their life,” she said. “Learn to check back in and continue to offer support.”
For Metten, grief over pregnancy loss is lifelong. She has two children, but she had always pictured herself with a large family. Metten said it sometimes hurt to look at her family and see the way that the pregnancy losses have shaped it.
“The ideal picture of what I thought my family would look like doesn’t match my reality,” she said. “Coming to terms with my new reality has been the most challenging part of dealing with miscarriage.”
Talk about your own pregnancy loss
A 2015 survey on miscarriage beliefs found that 28 percent of study participants who had experienced pregnancy loss felt less alone with learning about celebrities’ experiences — and this number shot up to 46 percent when it was their own friends telling their miscarriage story.
An estimated one in four pregnancies ends in loss. But even though it’s incredibly common, women and couples who go through the experience can feel alone, as the same secrecy around miscarriage can discourage people from coming forward with their own experiences about it.
When Greco experienced her losses, all she wanted to do was talk to others who have gone through similar experiences. The only problem? She didn’t personally know anyone she could turn to, because people weren’t as forthcoming about their miscarriages seven years ago. Because of this, she intentionally tries to put herself out there are a resource for people going through something similar — even for people she doesn’t know.
“I’ve helped and counseled quite a few people, including friends and friends of friends,” she said. “I found that lending an ear to people is more powerful than anything, and being there for others at this devastating time is priceless.”
Listen to Part 2 of IVFML below:
IVFML is a HuffPost Podcast hosted by Anna Almendrala and Simon Ganz and produced by Nick Offenberg. Send us an email at IVFML@huffpost.com.