Very gently, and without your defenses up. The reaction your loved one is having has nothing to do with how they feel about you or your baby, and everything to do with their emotions about their pregnancy loss. They are probably navigating immense grief, and being around someone that has the one thing they want most can feel heartbreaking. I learned this the hard way.
One of my closest friends — we’ll call her Zoe — had a miscarriage when my son Hudson was two. Zoe and Hudson had an amazing bond that evaporated as soon as she lost her baby. She would tense when Hudson ran to her for a hug, and she avoided his requests to play. He was heartbroken, and I was irritated. “Can’t she see that she’s hurting his feelings?” I would think. I never said anything, but I’m sure I was giving off a vibe.
I didn’t get it until I went out to lunch with her one day. Every time we neared a pregnant woman or small child, Zoe would stiffen and look away. When a woman with a stroller sat near us at the restaurant, I noticed her bite her cheek, resisting tears. She was suffering. I had been so wrapped up in how Hudson was responding to her standoffishness that I hadn’t really seen her pain. From that point forward, I planned meetups that didn’t involve Hudson or the high potential of running into any of her other triggers. I would go over to her house, take her out for a drink, go to a belly dancing class, or do anything that distracted her from motherhood, even if it was only for a few hours. And you can be sure I didn’t bring up mom life when we were together.
After Zoe eventually gave birth to a healthy baby girl, she brought up her postmiscarriage reaction to children. “It killed me to not hang out with Hudson, and my sister’s kids,” she said. “But it all made me angry, and so sad I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t angry at any of you, I was just mad at life, and my body, and how unfair everything felt. You and my sister were my safe places, but when your kids were around, being with either of you sucked.” She told me how the situation with her sister was especially complicated because all family gatherings involved her kids. “Of course I didn’t expect her to not bring her kids to, like, Easter dinner, but I kind of wish my family would’ve given me an out for some of those things. I just wanted permission to be sad, and disgruntled, and not show up for a while.”
And there it is. She wanted permission from the people who loved her to navigate the miscarriage in whatever way she needed. She didn’t want people trying to cheer her up or saying, “That will be you soon enough” when watching kids running around. She wanted people to tell her that everything she was feeling was okay, and they’d be there for her no matter how much or little she needed them. She wanted people to check in, without forcing a hangout.
While every woman handles the loss of a pregnancy in a different way, almost every woman I’ve known who has navigated miscarriage relates to this story, myself included. They want you to be there for them without unknowingly subjecting them to more pain. Sound tricky? It doesn’t have to be.
What to do
Here’s how to show up for your loved one during her journey through pain and loss, without sacrificing joy for your journey into motherhood:
Let her lead the way. The person best able to provide insight into how you can support your friend is your friend. Request one-on-one time with her, and ask how you can best support her. You can throw her a major bone by letting her know up front that you’re cool hanging without your baby and will do your best to not talk about motherhood, unless she brings it up. This will likely make her feel relieved, as she might have been nervous about making these requests. Letting her know that she can’t offend you with her requests will make her feel safe to share and spend time with you.
Give her an out. While you don’t want to withhold invitations to gatherings, it’s compassionate to let her know you totally get it if she doesn’t feel comfortable attending. This helps her feel included, without the pressure. And while it’s tempting to say something along the lines of, “You totally don’t have to come, but I really hope you do,” I would cut out the second half of that sentence. We mean well when letting someone know how much we’d love them to show up, but all it does is put social pressure on them. Instead, convey a message along the lines of, “If you want to come, please do. But I also completely understand if you don’t feel up for it. Whatever you want is the best decision.”
Regularly send a “thinking of you” text. I have a client who experienced a miscarriage, divorce, and cancer diagnosis in the same year. “I felt a big need to go within,” she said, reflecting about that year. “I told my people I needed space, and everyone listened. They listened so much that I completely stopped hearing from them. I didn’t blame them, because I had pretty much told them to do that — but it made me feel isolated. Then my cousin started sending short texts. She’d write, ‘Hey! You don’t need to respond but I just wanted to let you know I love you and am thinking of you.’ She would send some variation of that a few times a week. I usually didn’t respond, but I appreciated those notes so much. It made me feel like even though I was in a space where I needed solitude, I hadn’t been forgotten.”
You can be like this cousin, sending loving, no-strings-attached messages to let your friend know she’s not alone, even if she wants to physically be alone. If you don’t receive a response, it doesn’t mean she didn’t appreciate the thought. Don’t give up on her; just keep letting her know you care.
Tip: Add to your thoughtful texts by occasionally having your friend’s favorite treats or flowers sent to her house. You could also send a comfort box from an infant loss support program like Three Little Birds (threelittlebirdsperinatal.org) or a card from the #IHadAMiscarriage line (shop.drjessicazucker.com).
Don’t bring up your baby unless she does. Baby-brain tries to wipe the memory of everything but baby topics, which might be the last thing your friend wants to talk about. I used to prepare for meet-ups with friends I assumed didn’t want to talk baby by making a list of interests we shared. My overpreparing tendencies would then lead me to Google those topics to come up with interesting stuff to talk about. You obviously don’t have to do that, but you might prep yourself to keep anything pregnancy or parenting related from slipping out of your mouth. And of course, your friend may straight up ask you about, or bring up, baby or parenting topics — if so, share openly, while being careful not to go overboard. Pay attention to her nonverbal cues, slyly shifting the conversation if you notice she is becoming uncomfortable. While the first few conversations with her might feel forced and awkward, you’ll eventually become comfortable with the new unspoken guidelines of your relationship.
Let her know you’re comfortable hearing about what she’s going through. Sadly, some women feel like a pariah after a miscarriage. They feel like people are tiptoeing around them, trying to ignore the death-colored elephant in the room. You can minimize this discomfort and make your friend feel safe to share by asking if she wants to talk about how she’s feeling. She might not, but just knowing you’re not afraid of the topic might help her feel like she’s not an island no boat wants to stop at.
Call her baby by name. If your friend shared the name of her baby, use it when talking with her. This helps convey that you don’t think of the miscarriage as trivial, that you understand a child she was deeply connected to passed.
Don’t feel guilty for your joy. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You have every right to have a beautiful, healthy baby — and to be happy about that. While you don’t have to talk about that beautiful baby with your friend, you do get to feel shame-free gratitude for motherhood.