Nearly one in five women will experience a miscarriage in their lifetimes, making the issue relatively widespread. It's "one of the most common forms of trauma that many women go through, but it's often unrecognized and unreported," says Cecille Maria Ahrens, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker.
Given that miscarriage isn't often discussed, many people aren't sure how to respond when someone they know loses a pregnancy. What you say will naturally depend on your relationship with the person, but there are some general guidelines to keep in mind. Below are suggestions for supporting and talking to someone who's had a miscarriage, whether it's a friend, family member, or coworker.
RELATED: What Happens After a Miscarriage?
What to Say When Someone Has a Miscarriage
Keep It General
Less is more, Ahrens says, especially if you don't know the person well. She suggests validating the person's experience, perhaps by saying "I'm sorry that happened, please let me know if there's anything I can do to help." She explains: "If you don't know what to say, I always tell people [that] you can start with that. You can say, 'I'm not really sure what to say or how to help but I want you to know that I'm here for you.'"
Listen and Follow Their Lead
People often avoid the topic of miscarriage altogether out of desire to avoid discomfort. This is a mistake, as it invalidates the person's experience, says Tarra Bates-Duford, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "The best thing we can do is listen. Listen, don't offer advice, but really listen and validate their feelings," Dr. Bates-Duford says. And if the parents had named the baby prior to the miscarriage, "it's important to use that baby's name."
RELATED: What Causes Miscarriage to Happen?
Check in if Something Seems Off
Miscarriages often happen before people share that they're pregnant. If a friend seems to be having a hard time, it's usually fine to point out what you're seeing and offer generalized support. "A lot of my patients just before they were at the cusp of announcement, a miscarriage occurred. So often, they sit and suffer in silence," says Dr. Bates-Duford. "Perhaps that could be the encouragement that that person needs."
Along those lines, miscarriages can spark episodes of major depression. If you know that someone close to you has experienced a miscarriage, says Ahrens, you can offer observations if their behavior or mood has changed significantly.
Ask How Everyone Is Doing
Don't only ask about the status of the person who was carrying the pregnancy. Spouses and partners are also grieving the loss. "You don't want to imply that that child was any less important to the other parent," says Dr. Bates-Duford. "You want to acknowledge that this was a loss from both of them."
Keep the Context In Mind
Pregnancy loss is painful enough on its own, but some circumstances can compound the trauma. Couples who conceived through IVF, or who were expecting a baby via a surrogate, face extra feelings of "powerless and helplessness," says Ahrens. They may have gone through an expensive and grueling process to become pregnant, underscoring the enormity of the loss —and the difficulty of trying again if they choose to do so. Recurrent miscarriages also take a particular emotional toll, and they can affect what to say when someone has a miscarriage.
Ask Permission to Help
Offering to return baby gifts or pack away items can be a helpful gesture, but should only be done with permission, says Dr. Bates-Duford. Some people won't be able to face a baby's room they had prepared, but others would want to sit with it, and take it down themselves when they're ready. "Don't try to fix it," for the person who miscarried, Dr. Bates-Duford says. Also, if you've bought a baby gift that you haven't given yet, quietly return it. Don't put that on the grieving person.
RELATED: The Hidden Heartbreak of Having a Miscarriage after Healthy Pregnancies
Be Sensitive in Future Pregnancies
Many people who experiences miscarriages go on to become pregnant again. But losses can leave scars that other people don't understand. The pregnant person may not want to have a baby shower or otherwise prepare for the baby, fearing the worst will happen again.
Friends and family "may need to temper their own expectations around some of those traditions that they themselves might have been excited about because they need to support the feelings of the pregnant woman," explains Dr. Bates-Duford. If you want to buy something for the baby, don't mention it, she continued. You can always gift it later, when the happy moment comes.
For Managers, HR Professionals, and Colleagues: Don't Ask Invasive Questions
A miscarriage is a medical event that can have physical and emotional repercussions that require time away from work. In some cases, disclosure of a miscarriage will be the first time that an employee lets their employer know that they were pregnant.
Bosses and human resource professionals should minimize their requests for information, especially if it will be provided anyway on short-term disability forms or other requests for leave. A better approach, explains Dr. Bates-Duford, is to offer to help with any needed paperwork and get the process rolling.
For other colleagues, "a general, 'I'm so sorry for your loss,' would be most appropriate," says Ahrens. "You don't want to overstep your bounds. You're not friends, you're not family."
What Not to Say After Miscarriage
If you know someone who has had a miscarriage and you want to offer words of comfort, here is a list of phrases you should avoid saying.
"It wasn't a real baby yet."
For many people, bonding with their baby-to-be happens the moment they learn they're pregnant. No matter how far along the pregnancy progressed, the baby was real, plans and dreams were formed in the family's heads, and life had already changed.
"At least you weren't further along."
It's true that the further along you are in the pregnancy, the more complications can happen during the miscarriage—but this phrase tries to diminish pain, and it perpetuates the idea that a baby lost in the first trimester doesn't necessitate any grief. The physical and emotional pain is very real, even in the early stages.
"It wasn't meant to be."
During the grief of loss, this phrase can compound feelings that you've done something wrong or that the speaker believes you're not fit to be a parent.
"Well, at least you can get pregnant."
Lots of people struggle to conceive, and that struggle comes with its own pain and grief. But getting pregnant is only the first step to parenthood, and someone who has miscarried is also robbed of that experiene. Plus, there's no reason to compare one person's struggles to another's.
"Miscarriage happens to a lot of people."
For many women seeking support, this phrase is heartbreaking. Miscarriage is certainly common, but that doesn't negate the need for support, compassion, and healthy grieving that comes with loss.
"Maybe you should have/shouldn't have..."
It's extremely hard on a parent's heart to find out their baby is gone, and they may instinctively blame themselves. Hearing these statements from someone who is supposed to be supportive is detrimental to emotional and mental health.
"You'll be fine in a few days."
For some women, the grieving period is short after a miscarriage, and that's totally fine. For others, however, the sadness can last awhile and it can be complicated by several other factors. Telling someone they're going to be fine in a few days is very misleading and dismissive.
"Be grateful for what you have."
When someone is in pain, telling them to "suck it up" isn't exactly helpful. This phrase, often said to those who already have children and are grieving a miscarriage, is the same sentiment—just dressed up a little differently. Even if a couple has multiple children already, it's perfectly normal to grieve after losing a pregnancy.