Holidays are hard for many people for a wide range of reasons, but they're especially difficult for couples who have faced miscarriage or pregnancy loss. In a culture that doesn't readily discuss miscarriage, it can feel incredibly isolating to the woman mourning the loss of the child she never met. I know, because I'm one of them, and I personally know many others like me.
A "Real" Mom
Sadly, our culture doesn't really "get" miscarriage, even though statistics show that one in four women will likely experience it. For many, miscarriage is a singular, unfortunate event that happens due to random chromosome problems. For some, like me, it's a recurring nightmare that happens because of immunological or genetic reasons: my body is literally killing my babies, over and over and over. I can't control it, of course, or I would.
Regardless of the reason (or how many times) a woman experiences pregnancy loss, it's always devastating. It's never something that you just "get over," and long after people have forgotten and moved on to celebrate other babies being born, the mother of a miscarried child mourns and misses her never-to-be-held baby. This is true even after she has a healthy child. I'm not there yet, but I know others who are. Grief is grief, and one child can never replace another. A mother's heart always misses the little face she never got to kiss.
Because yes, we are mothers. One of the most shocking things I've heard since I joined the ranks of the infertile is that some don't consider women who've had miscarriages to be real moms. Just because we don't get to hold our child outside the womb doesn't mean we aren't still their mom. The second you know you're expecting, regardless of how it turns out, you become a parent to that little person. Just because their life is cut short from tragic circumstances doesn't mean they weren't a real person.
A Time To Be Sad
I lost my seventh pregnancy at the end of October 2014. For obvious reasons, that holiday season was devastating for me. But it wasn't just because I was fresh off a loss. It's because for the three years before that I faced pregnancy loss heading into December. For the last two years, I should've been wrapping presents for my child, not scheming ways to avoid seeing other people's pregnant bellies.
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's are times of the year when families come together, when people celebrate life, and when joy is supposed to be the predominant emotion. But when you're dealing with death and loss, joy can feel far from home. Family time can be difficult, no matter how much you love your relatives, when you're surrounded by children and yours isn't among them. Celebrations and parties can feel empty when you're simply struggling to put on a happy face. Gift giving can feel pointless when the only present you really want is to have your baby back. The same can be said for any holiday, really, for most of them seem to revolve around children: Halloween, Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and the fireworks on the 4th of July.
No one likes to talk about miscarriage. It's awkward. I know this more than many. People will readily celebrate with you, but when it comes time to mourn, people go into retreat mode, or worse, say incredibly insensitive things (even without meaning to). At a time of year when everyone wants to deck the halls and find the mistletoe, women dealing with pregnancy loss simply want to be understood.
How To Offer Support (& How Not To)
If you have a friend who has ever lost a baby, consider these ways that you can offer support, regardless of what time of year it is, but keeping in mind that any holiday will probably feel harder because of the loss.
Don't expect anything. The pressure to attend parties, as if everything was "normal," can feel overwhelming to a woman trying to juggle everyday life with grief. The sadness comes in waves, and even months after, can well up at unexpected times, both from triggering events and as seemingly random occurrences. Trying to guilt trip your friend into attending a party because it'll be fun, etc. only adds stress. It's perfectly fine to express that you'd like to spend time with them or see them, but leave it at that. Don't persist in invitation reminders or nagging, and don't recruit others to help. This goes for family events, too. As much as you'd think everyone wants to be with family at Christmas, it can feel very difficult for many women.* It isn't because they love you less. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and don't take things personally.
Don't advise. The sheer volume of advice that women receive after they have a miscarriage or tell others of infertility is maddening. This is why there are doctors, experts, books, blogs, and the whole of the internet. They don't need advice from you. Don't tell them to change doctors, have sex differently, try meds, get acupuncture, take supplements, look into adoption, trust God, or anything. Even telling someone to "trust God" implies that up to this point, they weren't. It is almost certainly not what you intended, but grief distorts things in our heads. The best two words you can say are I'm sorry. I'm here for you are also never bad words to hear, either.
Don't flaunt your pregnant belly or children. Now this is the tough one. If you're pregnant or have children, we certainly don't expect you to feel bad about that. We don't expect you to hide your baby bump, or keep your child stashed out of sight. But what some women who haven't experienced infertility or miscarriage never consider is that a woman dealing with child loss doesn't want to be the one to whom you talk to about your pregnancy, your birth plan, child growth milestones, future pregnancy plans, etc. It's easy to want to talk about this during the holidays, as many happy announcements are made during this time of year. That's wonderful, and you have every right to be joyful. Just be mindful while you're doing it, and choose your audience wisely.
Do remember. If a friend confided in you about a pregnancy loss, don't forget. You don't need to remember the anniversary of the date, but expressing sympathy or support well after the loss can mean more than you know. As I said before, infertility and pregnancy loss is isolating and painful. Even if all you do is remember the lost life of their child, you're doing something more than most ever will: dignifying the life of their precious baby.
Do find other things to talk about. Remember what you talked about before either of you had kids and before pregnancy loss was in the picture? Talk about those things. It's very easy to let parenthood take over your life, but when a couple is still waiting for their take-home baby, they need to be able to talk about other things. Sports teams, favorite books, TV shows, movies, recipes, hobbies, and even the weather are all perfectly acceptable things to talk about, and nicely blend over the awkward silence of not knowing what to say. Basically, while they're sad from their loss, they're still people who like things. Find those things, and help them have a few moments of normalcy.
Do be willing to listen. It's not always the case, but sometimes women who've been through miscarriage need to talk about it as part of their healing. Even if you've never been through it yourself, a listening ear can be incredibly kind, and is a genuine way to show love to your hurting, grieving friend. Don't offer answers, and don't change the subject. If your friend trusts you enough to let you into their grief, accept that and take good care not to tread on her pain by offering platitudes or simplistic replies. Basically, treat them as any other person who's lost a loved one, because death is death. Hugs are often more valuable than words (although certainly don't force hugs on someone who isn't touchy!), but when you do speak, let your words be few, and wear your compassion on your sleeve.
No two women are the same, and that's why I hesitated for so long to write this post. I can imagine many of my friends who've gone through miscarriage reading this and thinking, I don't want that... The point is, I hope this got you thinking. Don't take a one-size-fits-all approach to life or friendships, but use this to increase your sympathy quotient. And even if Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year for you, be mindful of those who don't feel the same way, and are suffering with silent burdens of heartache and grief.
*I would like to note that none of the examples in this article were based on any one person, and details have been changed to maintain anonymity. Also, I do have many highly sensitive family and friends who've supported me through my grief. This isn't an angry post, but rather one that's looking to help spread awareness of the suffering of so many others.
about the author
Aimee McNew, MNT is a certified nutritionist and a writer who specializes in women's health, fertility, autoimmunity, and the Paleo diet. She is passionate about helping others find success through simplified nutrition. Her first book, The Everything Guide to Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: A Healing Plan for Managing Symptoms Naturally released in October, and has been the #1 bestselling new release in gluten-free diets. Order it from Amazon!
All opinions expressed on this site are strictly that: opinions. Nothing replaces the medical advice of your doctor. You are responsible for your own health.