“It is with great sadness and heartache that we have said goodbye to our little baby.” Raw with grief, Melanie Black posted these painful words to her Facebook page last December.
The 33 year old had just returned home from an emergency ultrasound and the devastating moment when the technician confirmed Black’s baby no longer had a heartbeat. She had miscarried at 10 weeks.
“I bawled. It’s just so tough,” says Black, who had struggled to get pregnant for five years. “When you want something so badly… and then to have that taken away.”
Just a week before, Black and her husband Steve were inundated with well wishes after posting Facebook photos of their seven-year-old daughter Sadie holding a “big sister” sign. This was their Pinterest-inspired way of telling a broad circle of family, friends and coworkers they were expecting the second child they had long hoped for.
But the couple wasn’t sure what to expect after sharing the news of Black’s miscarriage. Social media streams are flooded with carefully filtered highlight reels of people’s lives—not a devastating revelation still shrouded by stigma. Steve was hesitant to post about their loss, but Black felt they had to since they’d already made their pregnancy announcement.
“There’s nothing to hide,” she reassured him. “It’s common to have miscarriages, unfortunately.”
And she’s right. According to The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, 15 to 20 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage—most often in the first eight weeks. (The risk of stillbirth, which is pregnancy loss after 20 weeks, is much lower.)
Despite the odds of carrying a baby to term, expectant parents find it hard to resist sharing their happy news on Facebook and Instagram. Everyone has gotten used to scrolling through creative pregnancy announcements, over-the-top gender reveals and monthly baby bump photos. In fact, moms and dads may worry about offending acquaintances if they don’t say anything.
“I think we’re getting to that level where society kind of expects you’re going to share everything on Facebook and this generation of families grew up on social media,” says Michelle La Fontaine, program manager of the Pregnancy and Infant Loss (PAIL) Network at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “That’s the way they get information and give information. But I think it’s good to think about what you hope you to accomplish by sharing your news—especially if something goes wrong—before you put pregnancy announcements on social media.”
Black and her husband had a specific conversation about whether or not to make their pregnancy public on Facebook. They had experienced a miscarriage once before and, as Black puts it, “luck isn’t on our side” when it comes to pregnancies. But they decided they wanted to enjoy every moment, rather than live in fear for the first three months.
“Why wait? Yeah, 12 weeks might mean you’re over that first hump. To me, that doesn’t matter,” says Black of the tradition to share pregnancy news only after the first trimester. “When you’re carrying a child, you’re carrying a child.”
Christine Cho had other considerations when she announced on Facebook last year that she was pregnant with her fifth son, Zachary. Results of an early pre-natal blood test revealed he had Trisomy 18 (T18), a disorder of the chromosomes that causes organs to develop abnormally. In Zachary’s case, it primarily affected his heart. “Our obstetrician told us that meant our baby wouldn’t survive,” says Cho, “and that if he did, it would be a question of how long he would live, not whether he could or not.”
The doctor also discussed options with Cho and her husband, one being termination. They opted to have more tests and to meet with genetic counsellors instead. While the diagnosis didn’t change, they decided not to end the pregnancy. “We firmly made the choice that for who we were that we would continue with the pregnancy and let Zachary decide when his body no longer could go on,” says Cho.
With that decision, Cho knew she would eventually have to tell people she was pregnant—she could only hide her growing belly for so long. After breaking the news to family and friends, she decided to make a more public pregnancy announcement on Facebook on Mother’s Day. But she debated whether or not to share Zachary’s diagnosis. “There was the weird tension that hovered over me. If I posted about the full situation, it didn’t feel right. Like somehow it wasn’t truly celebrating his life,” she says. “And yet when I posted without full disclosure, it felt a little fake. But I decided it wasn’t necessary to add the extra details.”
She also didn’t want to face people’s judgment around choosing not to terminate. “Things like questioning whether we really understood his condition,” she says, “or whether we were ‘crazy’ Christians who lived with our heads buried in the ground.”
Nearly four months later, Cho was 39 weeks along when she gave birth to her baby boy. “He was so angelically cute,” remembers Cho of the moment she met her son, who weighed 5.5 pounds. “I couldn’t stop kissing him and telling him how much I loved him and thanking God for his life.”
The family only had 27 minutes to snuggle Zachary before he passed away. A couple of weeks later, Cho and her husband decided they were ready to post a heartbreaking birth announcement on Facebook and that it was time to fully acknowledge their baby’s diagnosis. She shared a collage of black-and-white photos taken during the brief time she and her family had with Zachary. “We miss and ache for him tremendously,” she wrote, “but assured we will one day see and hold him again. This is our hope, our faith, and our love.”
This post was the first time many of her Facebook friends heard about Zachary’s condition—and Cho’s loss. “Posting about losing Zachary was intimate and spoke to parts of me that I would usually reserve for a closer group of friends—what I believe as a Christian, what I felt as a mom, what I experienced as a woman,” says Cho. “So the hesitation was that I wanted to share because it was important to me, but it was also new territory and I wanted to be very thoughtful.”
By its very name, social media is about connecting through digital interactions. We often judge how well our posts resonate with our network by the number of “likes” or comments they attract. But when sharing deeply personal information, like a stillbirth or miscarriage, not all of the interactions are helpful.
In her role at PAIL, La Fontaine—who herself lost twins at 24 weeks—works with families who receive some incredibly painful messages in response to revealing a pregnancy loss. With the best of intentions, someone might comment: “everything happens for a reason,” or “something must have been wrong with the baby” or “be grateful for the child you have.”
Words like these feed into the shame parents can feel after a miscarriage or stillbirth: that they were unable to protect their child. They also dismiss the grief moms and dads could be experiencing.
While women have long endured unhelpful comments after pregnancy loss, Facebook and Instagram only increase their likelihood. Parents are now sharing their grief with much larger groups of people, including those they would likely never tell in person. In return, people tend to say things through a computer screen they might not utter face to face.
“Imagine filling the room with 300 people and you giving a speech at the front,” says La Fontaine. “And now it’s question period and everyone can weigh in on what you’ve put out there.”
On the positive side, Black was comforted by her social network, especially the responses she received from people she least expected to hear from, such as her husband’s coworkers and her soccer teammates. Many revealed their own pregnancy losses, which helped Black stop blaming herself.
“It’s surprising to see ‘that happened to us’ and ‘we’re sorry, we’ve been there,’” remembers Black. “It’s just something people don’t talk about.”
Black decided the day she miscarried to remove the birth announcement photos from her timeline, though. It wasn’t that she wanted to forget about that moment, she just didn’t want to receive unexpected congratulations from people who hadn’t read that she miscarried. Thanks to Facebook’s algorithms, someone can easily see one post in their feed, but not the other. Depending how often they check the site, people might not even see a post until days or even weeks later.
“With Facebook, you could be at work and get a notification that someone commented on your post… and it completely takes your breath away,” explains La Fontaine. “It's out of context, you're not in that frame of mind, you're not ready to be having a conversation or hearing about it.”
La Fontaine tells families they can ignore messages they aren’t ready to respond to. They can also delete comments causing them unnecessary hurt. And if they need to take a break from social media in their time of grieving, that’s OK, too.
“You can ask someone else to share the bad news, so it’s not on your Facebook page,” says La Fontaine. “They can provide information on how the family can be best supported. This way the family can have it a little removed until they’re ready to post about it themselves.”
Black and her husband are still grieving for the dreams they had for their baby and trying to find a place for their loss. She’s anticipating all the milestones, including the Facebook memory she’ll receive a year after her miscarriage if she doesn’t filter her notifications. But she says she doesn’t regret any of it.
“If we’re blessed to conceive again… I would do it exactly the same way,” says Black of sharing their news on social media. “Knowing we have that support just makes it a little more okay and I know I'd get through it again, as tough as it would be, I wouldn't have changed anything about it, other than not losing the baby. That I would have changed.”