Coping with miscarriage: grief, recovery, and how to tell people

Recovering after a loss, finding support, and figuring out how much you're comfortable sharing, is different for everyone.

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The question of whether to tell people about a pregnancy loss at any stage is a tough one. Among the families we interviewed about coping with miscarriage, though, the answer was an unequivocal “yes.” For both Sandy Wynia Katz and Alexis Marie Chute, who announced their pregnancies at very early stages, the support that flowed from their families and friends after their respective losses became lifelines on dark days.

“My husband and I got a group of friends and family together, and we told everybody all together. So during that time we didn’t walk alone,” says Alexis Marie. “Friends and family brought food every single day. So we ate probably 40 lasagnes in that time, but we are thankful for every single one. I just don’t know if I would have gotten through that time without that support,” she says.

For Sandy and her husband, Steve, the outpouring from friends became a silver lining. “Almost all our friends said something supportive after we lost the babies. We wouldn’t have had that if we hadn’t shared the news.”

Read more: Whether to keep your pregnancy a secret in the first trimester> 

Sharing the “news” to reap that support, though, is difficult when the pregnancy is lost before it was even announced. “One of the most isolating times when women have miscarriages is when nobody knew they were pregnant,” says Christie Lockhart, the midwife. “It’s much harder to tell somebody you had a miscarriage when they didn’t know you were pregnant. And then you go to that family dinner, and you just had a miscarriage a week ago, but nobody even knew you were pregnant. Whenever I have clients who have miscarriages, I often tell them about my story. I want them to know they’re not alone, and I also want them to know how common it is, and that most of the time you go on and have a healthy pregnancy afterward. It’s just getting through that time.”

Figuring out how—or whether—to go public can be tricky. Deirdre Ryan, medical director of the Reproductive Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services programs at BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre, says she often counsels patients to plan out a simple explanation they can give to avoid feeling compelled to give details that they aren’t yet comfortable sharing. “We talk to patients about preparing a little narrative they can say to people—something simple, like, ‘We had a miscarriage and we’re doing OK right now.’ If it has been a complicated pregnancy and the couple had to terminate, or if the baby has been stillborn, they don’t have to explain to people why. They can just say, ‘Sadly, our baby died at birth.’”

Read more: Ready to try again>

Physically, most women are safe to start trying for another pregnancy within a one-month cycle after having a miscarriage or a termination. (This may not be the case if the miscarriage was linked to a health complication—it’s a good idea to discuss this with your doctor regardless.) But emotional preparedness can take much longer.

“The physical symptoms of a loss are far shorter than the emotional,” says Christie. “Physically you go back to normal, you lose the weight, you have your periods, you don’t feel pregnant. But emotionally, you don’t quite feel right.”

Read more: Miscarriage and pregnancy loss—Christie Lockhart’s story>

Loss-related grief, Ryan says, typically waxes and wanes for a year or more. It also impacts men and women differently. “In a very simple way, men are expected to be strong and to support women,” she said. “Whereas women get great relief from talking about the loss, men may not need or want to talk as much. It can put a great strain on a couple.”

Alexis Marie recalls feeling that her husband “detached” after Zachary’s death. “He went to work early and he stayed late. He didn’t get home until 9:00 at night for quite a long time. When he did come home he would talk about work—he couldn’t broach the subject of Zachary because it was too painful for him. And for me, I couldn’t express or feel anything but living in that pain,” she says. “Our marriage was very strained for quite a long time. Even until recently, we’ve gone to couple’s therapy and have been working harder at trying to stay together. A lot of couples break up after this kind of thing.”

Read more: Miscarriage and pregnancy loss—Alexis Marie Chute’s story>

For Christie, the loss of Calli was the beginning of the end of her marriage, despite the fact that she went on to have a second child with her husband. “We didn’t ever grieve together. I went to counselling, where I would just go and cry my eyes out and complain about how hard it was to be a midwife and look after healthy women with healthy pregnancies…. I could just go and cry. And I couldn’t do that with my husband,” she says.

Marriages, though, aren’t the only relationships impacted by pregnancy loss. “We’ve had different friendships that have come and gone because we’ve become totally different people,” says Alexis Marie. “They say that life after the loss of a child is called a ‘new normal,’ and I would agree 100 percent.”

Many people struggle with how to behave around friends or family who have suffered a loss. “The most hurtful thing was people who just wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It’s like denying that a life so important to you ever existed,” Christie explains. Her advice? “Acknowledge that they had that baby. Ask if they named the baby. Don’t say things like, ‘You’ll have another baby,’ or, ‘You’ll get pregnant again.’”

For Alexis Marie, friends’ attempts to rationalize her loss made her feel even worse. “Saying things like, ‘God has a plan,’ and ‘Things happen for a reason’ weren’t very helpful. I felt like, ‘What grand plan is there in the universe that called for the death of my child?’ When I got pregnant again after the loss, everybody was so happy because they thought they didn’t have to walk on eggshells anymore. They expected me to be instantly happy, as if one baby replaces another baby. But that’s not the case at all.”

What did help, Alexis Marie says, was the effort friends made to empathize with the tragic nature of her loss. Alexis, Christie and Sandy all found much support online, where they spent hours in forums reading stories of other women’s losses.

Read more: Pregnancy loss and miscarriage support groups and events>

Each also did something special to memorialize their lost babies, something Ryan recommends. “For a lot of women, their fear is, ‘I’m going to forget this baby.’ People don’t forget these pregnancies. But it’s always a good idea to have some keepsakes or some photos, if possible, or a symbolic ceremony to remember.”

While Alexis Marie and her husband held a funeral ceremony for Zachary, Christie and her husband opted to memorialize Calli privately on the date she had been due. They planted a tree with their son, Nicolas, and released butterfly balloons in the air. Christie keeps pictures of that day as well as the box of keepsakes that includes Calli’s footprints and handprints; every now and again she revisits them. “Part of the problem with miscarriage, loss and stillbirth is that once the baby is gone, they’re gone. The rest of the world doesn’t recognize that.”

To symbolize her losses, Sandy wears a silver bangle with seven small hearts inscribed on the inside to represent her lost babies; she also has a necklace bearing a small metal heart with seven birthstone beads attached to represent the months each baby was due. While she doesn’t often explain the significance of the jewellery, she says that designing and having it made helped her come to terms with her losses. “Because infertility and pregnancy loss are invisible, it became very important to me to have some sort of outward symbol or talisman. You haven’t just lost this baby you were expecting on a certain date, you’ve lost that whole life that you were projecting forward. It’s these layers of losses and they’re always kind of part of you,” she says.

Read more: Miscarriage and pregnancy loss—Sandy Wynia Katz’s story>

The Chutes decided to hire a photographer so they would have some memories from the hospital of their son to hold onto. He clicked away while the couple, with no road map to guide them through the pain of saying goodbye, spent their first and final moments with Zachary. “That is one thing I’m really, really thankful for,” Alexis Marie said. “We gave him a sponge bath, put him in little jammies and wrapped him up in a blanket we’d bought for him. I have one album of photographs of Zachary and that’s it,” she says. “Those are the only pictures we will ever have. My husband and I pull the album out every year on his birthday. We look at it and we cry and we get mad again.”

Read more: Books to help cope with miscarriage and loss>

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