sharing your stories and remembering your children
By: Heather Heritage
As I grieved my miscarriage, I was surprised to find that what stayed with me most was how people responded when I shared my sad news. Understandably, many were shocked. Some people knew I was pregnant, so a matter of fact, “We lost the baby” reply was my response to questions about how I was feeling. Others didn’t even know I was pregnant, which made the conversation a bit awkward because I also had to provide a backstory.
Once I opened up and shared my story, it felt like I joined a club that no one wants to be a member of. The commonality of miscarriage binds us together. Most women know someone who has gone through early pregnancy loss. I shared, so they shared. It was cathartic and healing; we bonded in an unfortunate sisterhood. Other women who had gone through it knew the grief, the awful experience, the dashed hopes, and the fear.
I remember many of the caring responses I received, and those who gave them still stand out in my mind. They are kindred spirits - men and women who had gone through it themselves or understood the grief. The amount of helpful, kind responses I received completely outweighed the hurtful ones.
However, blurred together are the hurtful responses I did receive. They did not help me grieve, and sometimes layered on more confusion and pain.
When someone shares news that is surprising, shocking, or sad, it is sometimes difficult to respond with empathy. But, responding to what a person has been through with empathy acknowledges their humanity.
An un-empathetic response can devalue a person as a human being. It is one of the cruelest ways we communicate, and most of the time it happens accidentally. We just don’t know how to respond or what to say. So we go with what makes us feel better.
Empathy takes work, practice, and concentration. It’s much easier to respond with clichés or murmurs than to deal with listening for the raw emotions hidden in tone and what’s not being said. When we are not being empathetic, we tend to respond in ways that make us feel most in control of the situation.
Here are five examples of what NOT to say to someone who has experienced an early pregnancy loss, because these responses can minimize the grief a person is going through.
1. Solving the Problem
Examples include: “I know what you could do,” or “Let me fix this.” “My doctor could help you.”
2. Unsolicited Advice
Examples include: “My friend had the same problem. This is how she handled it.” “Check your medicine. Are your sure you are on the right one?” Or, suggesting a particular “fix.”
3. Dismissing Feelings
Examples include: “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “you’ll be OK.” “At least it was early.” “You’ll be able to have another baby.” “These things happen.” “It’s providence.”
Examples include: “That same thing happened to me,” or “Be happy it wasn’t worse” (followed by a comparison of some sort). “Well, I was 18 weeks and had to have a D&E – that was awful.”
Examples include: ignoring the message or speaker completely, or responding with a quick “that’s too bad,” or “Oh yeah, so-and-so told me about that,” before changing the subject.
Do any of these sound familiar? If we’re being honest, we’ve probably all used one of these negative responses at some point with someone sharing difficult news.
So how do we respond with empathy? Here are some things others did that helped me when I was going through my loss.
1. Listen carefully and quietly.
If someone is sharing a raw moment with you, listen to them. This also means you can’t listen to your internal dialogue. Stop thinking about what you are going to say next and be in the moment.
2. Be aware of your nonverbal communication.
Where is your gaze? Straying glances indicate discomfort or that you have something better to do. What do your facial expressions look like? Authentic concern is obvious to the speaker. It’s easy to see. Show it.
3. Listen for emotions.
If they say something particular about how their feeling or give name to their emotion, you have permission to respond to it. If they don’t name an emotion explicitly, take your best guess using some descriptive emotional words. Not sure what these are? Start here with Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.
A simple, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. It really sucks. I am here for you, and I love you,” will suffice. Paying attention to others’ needs, listening, and communicating empathetically will change your relationships for the better.
Going through a pregnancy loss forced me to acknowledge my own areas of weakness in responding with empathy and truly listening to others. Sometimes, you really do have to walk a mile in another’s shoes to understand a situation. Through that, you can see the hurt you may have caused without realizing it. But, thankfully, these experiences can encourage growth and understanding. After all, the one thing that could change the world, person by person, is a bit more empathy.
Heather Heritage is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Cedarville University and has worked in both health communications and public relations