Warning: graphic imagery
When someone you know tells you they or their partner miscarried, don’t try to fix it. It’s unfixable.
I asked my boyfriend to spend the rest of his life with me the day we stopped talking about IF we were going to have children and started talking about WHEN. We were 21, juniors in college, and had been together for two years. Roughly six years later, I married him. His joke is that he married me so I’d do his taxes, but we were mostly thinking that maybe it was finally time to have children. As a friend pointed out, I was keeping him, I wasn’t going to marry any one else, and many things are a little easier (paperwork and so on) if you are married to the other parent of your child. Except, even as we were planning the wedding, I was applying to grad school, and then my new job started the same week as I got accepted into grad school, and it seemed like a good idea to wait a little longer. My poor dad was so confused. Should he be happy and proud that I was going to grad school? Or sad that the promised grandbabies weren’t happening yet?
About nine months ago, we just got sick of waiting. It had been eight years since that long car ride home from school when he agreed to spend the rest of his life with me. We wanted babies now. We both had good jobs, the end of grad school was in sight, and the only housemates we had were two cats. So we planned and went on vacation over the holidays, scheduled a tonsillectomy for me in February (if I needed any proof that he was good at taking care of helpless people, I got it over my two weeks of recovery; tonsillectomies hurt), and had my doctor take my IUD out in March. We waited through one menstrual cycle to reestablish my body’s cycle, and then started having unprotected sex. There were color-coded excel charts involved.
It turns out, I am as fertile as family lore said I should be. Four days after my next period failed to show up, the pregnancy test was positive. Two weeks later, three days after my thirtieth birthday, my doctor’s office had me pee in a cup and confirmed the pregnancy. Two weeks after that, I had eight doctor’s appointments in one week, all related to the pregnancy. Some of them very interesting, some not so much. The family planner and I started out with the fact that I already done the planning, very carefully, in fact, and so we skipped several sections of her planned speech. The social worker and I agreed that we earned too much money for food stamps, WIC, and section 8 housing. I lectured the nurse about toxoplasmosis and why it probably wasn’t an issue for me, but I still didn’t mind letting Himself change the litter box for the next several months.
We came up with names for girls and for boys, and talked to midwives.
We told everyone at about the two and a half month mark.
On Father’s Day (and I have no idea why the techs were working on a Sunday), we had the first ultrasound. The next day, Monday, my doctor called me from her vacation with the results of the ultrasound. I wasn’t pregnant after all.
Diagnoses have all kinds of names. Some have useful names, some not so much. Recently, the worse diagnostic name I can think of is the one for what I had. Blighted ovum. Also called anembryonic pregnancy. In other words, pregnancy without an embryo. My body had grown an amniotic sac and filled it with fluid, but the fertilized egg had failed to grow. My doctor said that there was no way she or anyone else could have known before the ultrasound that this was happening. She said that I had all the signs of pregnancy, and she wanted to be really clear that I hadn’t been making this up. She said this would have no impact on my ability to carry a future pregnancy to term. She told me that I would shortly start to pass the issue, or I could take medical steps to ensure that everything was expelled. But there was not going to be a baby at this time.
We spent the next day or so in a kind of a daze. In retrospect, I am extremely grateful that my doctor called when she did, because it meant that when I started to bleed on Tuesday, I knew what was happening. On Wednesday, when I started to expel tissue, I didn’t go to the ER in a panic. I just sat at home and cried with Him. We cried a lot those first few days.
The rabbit hole of the internet says that ten to twenty percent of confirmed pregnancies miscarry before the end of the first trimester. In other words, one to two of every ten pregnancies don’t make it to the second trimester. Most women who have had a miscarriage have no difficulty getting pregnant when they try again. This fact is only marginally comforting when you are part of that ten to twenty percent and the miscarriage just happened.
Nothing is official until you post it to Facebook, right? About a week after I started bleeding, I posted a note to Facebook explaining that I was no longer pregnant, and that we didn’t want hugs or sympathy unless we started the conversation. Almost everyone went along and talked about other things around us, meaning that I could control when and on whom I cried. I’m not sure who He cried on aside from me. He’s never cried as easily as I have, but I know this hurt him almost as much as me. I say almost because he didn’t have to deal with the cramps from expelling tissue.
Talking about it with other people was, and remains, one of the hardest parts. The cramping and bleeding trailed off, and three weeks out, I am no longer bursting into tears every time I stop thinking about something else. Every time a parent walks by with a new baby. Every time a pregnant woman walks by. Every time an ad featuring babies pops up on a website. And we’ve been talking to people. Our parents and sisters. My therapist. And friends. Almost all of our friends have let me cry if I need to. One of them took Him to the zoo. At least two have taken me out for supper. One of them took the time to think about His point of view and suggest things to me about what He might be dealing with that I hadn’t been able to see past my own pain.
I wish that people would stop telling us “you can always have another.” We want another baby. We will try to have another. But we wanted this one, too. We wanted this baby who we planned for so carefully. We’re still planning on using the same name if we have a girl next time so I’m not going to share that here, but we wanted little maybe-Alexander. We wanted the dreams and the hopes that we thought we were going to get to realized. The next one will be wonderful. But right now, this one hurts. Telling me that I can always have another dismisses this one, makes it irrelevant. This one mattered. If I carried the pregnancy to full-term, and then our baby died, would people tell us we could always try again? I don’t think they would. But somehow, because we only had three months dreaming about this possibility, it’s okay to skip right ahead to the next one?
I would be happy to never hear another variation on “but this one wasn’t really there” when I go into the details of what happened. No, this one wasn’t really there after all. There wasn’t an embryo that I lost. But we didn’t know that. We built three months of hopes and dreams on the completely reasonable assumption that it was there, and just because it turned out there wasn’t anything growing doesn’t change what we hoped for. It feels like people are trying to explain to me why I shouldn’t grieve. I might even call it a benevolent form of gaslighting, an attempt to rewrite my experience and my reality. I do believe the people who have said this to me mean well. But arguing someone out of grieving is a terrible thing to do to your friends. It’s a convenience to the person I am talking to, so they don’t have to deal with my pain. It doesn’t help us, the people who are hurting, at all.
I appreciate the people who tell me “I’m sorry. That sucks. Do you want a hug?” and then take no for an answer. I appreciate the people who offer distractions, but are fine with me not being up for it. I’m glad for the ones who offer supper plans, and then talk about books, or knitting, or plans for the summer. And I’m desperately grateful for the ones who let me interrupt those discussions with tears and trying to articulate how much it hurts, how angry I am about everything, and how scared I am for when we try again. I cannot adequately express how much it means to me when people don’t try to fix the situation, but let us be sad and unhappy. It’s a sad and unhappy situation, and it hurts, and the people who acknowledge that and hold our hands without trying to fix it make things a little better.
When someone you know tells you they or their partner miscarried:
- Assume that you know nothing about the situation.
- Assume that no matter how uncomfortable you are with this person’s pain, you cannot fix it. You cannot make it better. You cannot wish it away.
- Assume that you have no idea how to help.
- Sit in silence with them or let them talk or discuss the latest iflscience.com article you read if they need a distraction.
- Cry on someone else. They might cry on you, and if they do, you can cry, too; but take your pain from the situation elsewhere. They are not the right person to listen to your fears or the reasons why you think the pregnancy might not have progressed.
- Tell them you’re sorry for their loss. Ask if they need a hug. Don’t take it personally if they say no.
- Be there. A hand if they need it, a shoulder if they can cry, an ear if they need to talk. Someone to tuck them under the blanket on the couch and walk away if they need to be alone.
- Don’t try to fix it. It’s unfixable.