If you’re supporting someone who’s had a recent pregnancy loss, there are a few things you should know. First, know that American culture consistently fails to support people who experience miscarriage or stillbirth, putting many people in a position where they have no idea what to expect and are not prepared for the depth of experience or the recovery timeline. This makes your role as a supporter even more important than you might think.
Next, it’s important to know that a person will experience a range of physical and emotional side effects (see our articles on miscarriage and stillbirth — What to Expect from Physical Recovery and What to Expect from Emotional Recovery), and these last far beyond the pregnancy loss event or procedure itself.
The reality of miscarriage and stillbirth:
There's a misconception that pregnancy loss is no more than a heavy period, but the truth is it can be extraordinarily intense both physically and emotionally. Here are some surprising realities to help you understand what the experience is actually like:
- In Bodily's survey with 5,962 respondents about 66% of pregnancy losses happen at home without the help of a surgical procedure. About 37% required a procedure, and for many, this may have been their first surgical procedure ever.
- Most people find out they have lost their pregnancy then have a period of weeks to months before that pregnancy loss has passed. This means they endure the experience of having a baby that is no longer alive in their uterus during that period.
- After the pregnancy loss passes, they will likely experience a variety of postpartum symptoms like overwhelming emotions, cramping, heavy bleeding, and possibly even the onset of lactation. This fact is often unacknowledged by the people surrounding them.
- After their loss, their body may still have an expanded uterus and look pregnant. Their breasts may be enlarged due to hormones or milk production, requiring maternity bras even though they are no longer pregnant. They may also have put on baby weight. These are all daily reminders of the pregnancy they lost. It can feel unfair that they should continue to look this way when they no longer have the baby to look forward to.
- All of the above is typically being experienced in isolation because it's common to wait until 12 weeks to tell anyone you’re pregnant. There are inadequate resources for them to cope, communicate, or receive appropriate healthcare and emotional support.
- Pregnancy loss is a multifaceted loss and can cause a wide range of emotions, including shock, denial, relief, anger, guilt, jealousy, acceptance, and very real grief.
- It varies from person to person, but depending on the specifics of the experience, pregnancy loss can be traumatic. In fact, a 2019 study found that nearly a third of people who experienced early pregnancy loss met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder one month later.
Educate yourself on what they're going through
By understanding in depth the different things that someone who’s lost a pregnancy might be experiencing, you take the burden off of them to articulate it and explain it to you, which can be painful. Read up on what they’re going through and come to them with support and solutions if and when they are ready to receive it.
- Read our article Treatment Options and What to Expect.
- Read our article Physical Recovery and What to Expect.
- Read our article Emotional Recovery and What to Expect.
Negative body image and a sense of failure
Many people who experience pregnancy loss have had a symbiotic relationship with their body and have always felt very capable and in control. After a pregnancy loss occurs, this relationship can shift. They may start to take on a “sick patient identity” and feel that they are losing control over their body and how it functions. This is a normal and totally valid reaction to the experience of pregnancy loss, even though it’s not their fault or a sign that anything is wrong with their body.
The waiting period can be traumatic
When a pregnancy loss is first suspected, a person may face two different periods of waiting. They may have to wait while their healthcare team determines the viability of the pregnancy, and they may also have to wait for the procedure itself or the passage of the uterine contents after a pregnancy loss has been confirmed. This means they are essentially walking around in emotional limbo, sometimes for weeks, before they have clear answers and can do something about it.
What you can do to support someone who's had a miscarriage
You may feel at a loss for how to help a loved one who's experiencing pregnancy loss. But there's plenty you can do to make them feel supported—from managing your own reaction to bringing them dinner from their favorite restaurant to providing a safe space for them to release any and all emotions they may be feeling. Below, we expand upon these and many more.
Manage your reaction and your emotions
You’ll likely have your own complex feelings about the experience, but it’s important to manage your reactions and emotions so you don’t further burden the person who experienced the physical pregnancy. Be mindful about offering unsolicited advice or asking questions about the procedure or their health. Make sure you give them some space if they need it and lean on other support people in your life until they are ready to talk. If your partner experienced the loss, have an open and honest conversation about what you both need, how you can support each other, and to what extent you want to talk about the loss.
Reaffirm that the loss is not their fault
Guilt is an extremely common emotion after a pregnancy loss. But the truth is, most pregnancy losses (at least 60%, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) occur randomly due to chromosomal abnormalities during fertilization. This type of genetic problem happens by chance and there is no evidence that anything the pregnant person has done — such as working, exercising, having sex, using medications, being stressed, or having a history of abortion or sexually transmitted disease — increased their risk for pregnancy loss.
Be careful not to minimize their experience or dismiss their feelings
When we see someone we love experiencing guilt or other painful feelings for something we know they are not responsible for, we want to do everything we can to reassure them and take that guilt away. For example, take the friend who has experienced a pregnancy loss and says, “This is all my fault. If only I had been taking my prenatal vitamins earlier, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” While it can be tempting to immediately convince them that this isn’t true, the reality is, facts cannot be used to manage guilt. Instead, lead with compassion and empathy. With that in mind:
- What not to say: “That’s not true. Nothing you did made this happen, certainly not your prenatal vitamins.”
- What to say instead: “I know how you are just racking your brain trying to think of anything you could have done to prevent this from happening because I know how much you wanted this. It’s really hard and I’m with you.”
Create a safe space for them to feel all of their feelings
The length of emotional recovery after a pregnancy loss can vary based on how a person handles and processes their emotions. For example, many people have the tendency to suppress or deny their emotions. This is a normal and sometimes even adaptive way to ensure they are not overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions. At the same time, emotional recovery can be slowed down if a person does not give themselves permission to acknowledge and name what they are feeling. This can be especially true if we make the judgement that we are experiencing "bad" emotions such as anger, bitterness, sadness, or grief. As a supporter, you can help create a safe and non-judgmental space for the person to feel all of their emotions and work through them.
Help them feel supported when sharing the news
Pregnancy loss can be a challenging and emotional experience to share with anyone. There is no correct timeline for when or how this needs to happen. As a supporter, you can help the person navigate this in the way that feels right to them. Sometimes hearing an explicit invitation from a supporter such as, "We can do this whenever and however you need. Please know you are 100% entitled to change your mind," can be very permission giving and take off any external pressure they may be feeling. You can also offer to take on the task of sharing the news for them if they are not ready to talk about it. If you’re not sure what to say, see our article on How to Talk About Your Pregnancy Loss.
Don't put all the focus on the future
It’s tempting to want to offer hope with the prospect of future pregnancies. After all, research shows that 98% of those who experience pregnancy loss go on to have a healthy baby the next time they become pregnant. However, this does not acknowledge their current grief. It varies person to person, but evidence suggests that going on to have a healthy baby after pregnancy loss may not erase their pain and may even be a reminder of their previous loss. So always take your cues from them on how much to focus on future pregnancies.
Understand that pregnancy and parenthood will be a sensitive subject for a while
Someone who’s recently had a pregnancy loss may feel intense pain or sadness when they think about anything related to pregnancy, birth, or parenthood. Creating both healthy boundaries and open spaces for grief can help with recovery. If invitations or news related to pregnancy come up, try to act as a filter and make it easy for them to decline invitations if that’s what would be helpful for them right now.
If you’re a supporter and you’re pregnant, acknowledge the loss and be frank
If you’re pregnant and supporting someone who’s had a pregnancy loss, which is not uncommon, it’s important to acknowledge the loss and be transparent. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but communicating clearly and using explicit language can go a long way. For example, you can say, “I want to be there for you in any way I can, but I also recognize that my pregnancy may be painful to witness. I would understand if you need some space or if you’re not ready to attend the baby shower.”
Let them know you’re there when they’re ready
Our society is talking about pregnancy loss more than ever before, but according to a national survey on public perceptions, 41% of respondents felt alone after a pregnancy loss. Make sure they know you are available and thinking about them while not overwhelming them with attention. You can say something like, “I’m here and available when and if you want to talk,” and then continue to check in regularly without making them feel like they have to respond right away. You can also encourage them to join a support group or connect with people who have had similar experiences in person or online. All of this will help them feel less isolated while also giving them space if they need it.
Give them specific options (with no pressure) for how you can help
The person you’re supporting may want your help, but they may also be feeling overwhelmed and not know how to communicate their needs. Letting them know you are there to support them then offering simple but concrete options for how you plan to do so, can be helpful. For example, say, “I want to help you but I also want to offer you other options.” Then list those options, such as: “1) Meet you to go on a walk in the park tomorrow, 2) Drop off dinner from your favorite restaurant, 3) Help you run errands or accomplish things around the house.” It’s best to make it as concrete and clear as possible instead of asking open-ended questions like “what can I do?,” which puts the burden on them.
If they have kids, take on extra childcare duties
One practical way to help someone recover is to help care for any other children they may have. Offer to babysit for the day, or even offer to take them on a weekend trip to give the person some time and space to recover.
For partners: Have an open conversation about intimacy
It’s important to know what might happen to physical intimacy after a pregnancy loss. Your partner may struggle to talk about what they’re feeling out of fear of hurting you. It’s helpful if you can be the one to raise the conversation and let them know they have space to figure it out. You may also feel like things have changed, and the way you view physical intimacy or your partner’s body may be different now. In the beginning, you may not be ready for intimacy at all — you may enter more of a caretaker or protective role since your partner may have been through procedures or surgery. If you want to have a conversation with your partner, leading with vulnerability is a great way to start out. For example, you can say, “I've noticed that the intimacy between us has changed since our loss — which is more than okay — but I'm here to explore that with you when you're ready. I don't know what it's going to look like, but I'd love to figure it out together and at least start having those conversations. I can go first, here's how I'm feeling...”
Explore our hub on pregnancy loss here.