The grief of losing a baby is like an angry ocean — swirling around you, completely engulfing you in pain that is so insurmountable you can barely keep your head above water. It’s the pain actor Gabrielle Union recently acknowledged. It’s the pain Esmeralda Hernandez of Minnesota felt — intensified by the discovery that her stillborn son was tossed out with the dirty laundry.
Union’s celebrity status and the horror of Hernandez’s experience give voice to their loss. But for many women, grief has no voice — for five years, mine hasn’t. But I’m ready to stop pretending that my miscarriage didn’t happen, that it didn’t rock me to my core. I’m ready to start talking about it.
Up to a third of pregnancies end in miscarriage. While the specific cause is often unknown, there are known risk factors: being over the age of 35, having had a previous miscarriage and having some chronic health conditions. I didn’t fit into any of these categories. I was 32 and had anxiously anticipated becoming a mother. I told my husband we were expecting by writing a note in one of my childhood books, one that we dreamt of reading to our children. I signed up for emails that would tell me how large my baby was by comparing it to the size of various fruits. All of my daily thoughts related to the tiny life in my body. Although, at the time, I only knew of a few people who suffered miscarriages, I didn’t tell my friends or family because of that standard, protective question — “What if something happens?”
“Something” happened. My pregnancy ended eight weeks after it started. My baby had stopped living around six weeks, but my body played a cruel joke on me by keeping that a secret. It was as though my body was willing this pregnancy to continue, even though the life inside of me was gone.
Once I began to physically heal, I nervously shared my story. Even with my closest friends, I sent emails rather than meeting for coffee or making calls. I was afraid of how others would react to my grief. I was ashamed of being distraught about the loss of a baby I never met. Although my husband was right by my side, I felt alone. I knew he was hurting, but I believed that my pain was worse. I couldn’t imagine anyone else feeling as awful as I felt. My grief completely isolated me.
But one person I wrote to, a good friend, surprised me with her response: She had suffered a miscarriage, too. We met for a glass of wine and an open conversation. It was the first time I shared the depth of my grief. We listened to one another. We cried. We didn’t feel as alone anymore.
Eventually, as I worked up courage to talk about my loss with others, I heard about similar experiences. So many of the women in my life seemed like they’d just been waiting to share their stories, relieved to finally speak. I asked, again and again, why didn’t you tell me? But I knew the reason: We do not talk about miscarriage, because we look away from what we fear. And miscarriage is terrifying.
Some say that pregnancy loss should be kept private. But I guarantee that for every person who feels that way, there are more women suffering — women who have written and re-written their stories in their heads thousands of times, waiting for permission to speak them out loud. Studies show that the psychological impact of miscarriage is intensified when support systems are poor. Gaining acknowledgement of loss and sharing personal stories can be essential to healthy coping. Still, people avoid acknowledging pregnancy loss because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. The right thing to say is, “I am sorry for your loss.” Nice and simple. Don’t be afraid you’ll make her cry. She cries for her loss, not your acknowledgment of it.
What has been the most helpful for me is talking about my experience without judgment, connecting with women who carry similar grief, being allowed to love my 1-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son wholeheartedly while mourning a child I never met, and ultimately having the freedom to navigate this path in my own personal — though sometimes messy — way.
Heide R. Cygan is a board certified Advanced Public Health Nurse and Assistant Professor of Community Systems & Mental Health Nursing at Rush University College of Nursing.