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What To Expect When You're No Longer Expecting

Jennifer Handt: "I often struggle to find a comfortable balance between adherence to social mores and openness about this big, brutal thing that’s rocked my world." (John Bennett/flickr)
Jennifer Handt: "I often struggle to find a comfortable balance between adherence to social mores and openness about this big, brutal thing that’s rocked my world." (John Bennett/flickr)
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One fascinating revelation from the pages of George W. Bush’s 2011 memoir was that his mother, Barbara Bush, once showed him a jar containing the miscarried remains of his would-be sibling.

That Bush’s exposing her son to one of nature’s cruelest pathologies became one of the most talked-about aspects of the 43rd president’s autobiography says something about the contents of rest of the book. To my mind, however, it reveals America’s lingering discomfort with the topic of miscarriage.

Although it’s a sorority I never asked to pledge, I now count among the 15 percent of pregnant women who will experience a miscarriage this year. It was my sixth.

“I’ve been counseling women for 25-plus years, and it still stuns me how our society simply cannot handle miscarriage,” says Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of Mind/Body Services at Boston IVF and associate professor in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School. “I’ve heard some of the most heartless comments, from parents, siblings, friends, co-workers — even health care professionals. Why is it that the death of an unborn baby renders so many people so insensitive?”

I should know. Although it’s a sorority I never asked to pledge, I now count among the 15 percent of pregnant women who will experience a miscarriage this year. It was my sixth, so I was experienced in the pathos of it. But this one was different: I lost this pregnancy one day shy of 18 weeks’ gestation. I’d already sought comfort in maternity waistbands, and I was a good month past that mythical “safe zone” that lures even habitual aborters (medicine’s loaded term for recurrent miscarriage) like me to share the good news. Which meant that unlike with my prior losses, which all occurred before eight weeks, people ranging from close friends to new acquaintances knew about my pregnancy. And that meant they also had to know about my miscarriage.

If I allow myself some distance to view it anthropologically, the span of reactions I received in the wake of my loss is compelling. I had friends who cried with me. I received hugs and had homemade dinners delivered, gestures that helped me to keep breathing at a time when it felt like a day’s work just to manage that.

From acquaintances to close relations, I also received platitudes that awkwardly connected fate and God to my misery.

And then there was the worst response of all: radio silence.

During a conversation with a woman my age, I sensed the kind of shift one feels when a comfortable exchange has taken a bad turn. When I mentioned my miscarriage, her face paled, her eyes darted, and she uttered not a word about it. I relieved her of her misery by running along.

I have tried to understand the disappointing responses in an effort to give others the benefit of the doubt. I know that some wish only to offer words of comfort that might deliver women like me from pain. They can’t know that those words – such as suggestions that everything happens for a reason – are no match for the deep well of sorrow that rushes in the moment there is no heartbeat on the ultrasound. We are not looking for others to solve the problem, only to show they care.

Those who bite their tongue, I imagine, intend not to display indifference, but feel defeated in the struggle for the right words. Perhaps they don’t want to bring it up and risk reminding us of our pain. What they don’t realize is that we don’t soon forget that loss. Especially in the immediate aftermath, it is a four-ton elephant following us relentlessly from room to room.

...suggestions that everything happens for a reason are no match for the deep well of sorrow that rushes in the moment there is no heartbeat on the ultrasound. We are not looking for others to solve the problem, only to show they care.

In the aftermath of my own miscarriage, I often struggle to find a comfortable balance between adherence to social mores and openness about this big, brutal thing that’s rocked my world. If my great aunt Sally dies and my eyes are puffy from crying when I bump into someone at the supermarket, I will share that I am grieving, that my aunt has just died. But if I’ve been crying about losing my baby boy, it’s almost easier to say that pollen season is really getting to me.

Whatever the remaining reasons for our society’s miscarriage taboo, if good manners are about making people feel comfortable, and grieving parents are continually put in this awkward spot of shouldering the discomfort about their baby’s death, something isn’t working. I’m not suggesting that miscarriage become a topic at dinner parties, but I do think that if people were more open about it — and about how others can be supportive in its wake — we’d all be a bit better off.

One place to start might be with two simple words that never, ever fail when someone’s just told you she had a miscarriage. They’re the same words that work for the loss of any loved one. They are: “I’m sorry.”


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Jennifer Handt Cognoscenti contributor
Jennifer Handt is a writer and communications advisor who helps people and organizations share big ideas. A Bostonian at heart, she lives with her family in Connecticut.

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