A very lonely pain
Last week, I hopped on a bus in Manhattan with one empty seat. I found myself sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a weeping woman. I tentatively asked her, “Are you okay?”
She quickly replied, “I’m fine.”
I said as gently as possible, “You’re not.”
After a long pause, she sighed and said, “You’re right,” and through heartbreaking tears, she proceeded to share her story. She was pregnant but feared she had suffered a miscarriage while at work. The bus was the fastest route to her doctor’s office, and she was on her way there.
It was a conversation of only 20 minutes, but I learned more about this young woman’s life in that time than I know about some whom I call friends. I was a stranger, and our relationship lasted for the duration of a short bus ride. And yet, these circumstances seemed to contribute to her openness. She was free to share her story with no expectation of my reaction, without the fear of my disappointment and free of any concern that she was burdening or hurting me.
I didn’t tell her this, but I instantly identified with her trepidation and heartbreak. In my lifetime, I have endured three miscarriages. This is something few people know about me.
Emotional challenges of miscarriage
Life is filled with emotional challenges, but a miscarriage is one of the more complex. Studies indicate that 15 to 20 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. This difficult emotional challenge is one that many women suffer.
Life is filled with emotional challenges, but a miscarriage is one of the more complex.
Each of my three miscarriages brought lingering physical ramifications, which progressively worsened. But it was not just the physical setbacks. After each loss, my emotional baggage deepened. For me, the ending of a life before it began meant the death of budding hopes and dreams that a new family member would bring. I no longer had the excitement and anticipation of coming home with a new baby. Instead I left the hospital with only a brochure that outlined how to cope with a miscarriage. It was completely devastating.
Through this, I realized one of the things a pregnant woman ponders in her heart is the baby’s due date. After a miscarriage, living through this day was extremely difficult. By that time, anyone who had known about my pregnancy had forgotten. It’s hard to expect others to remember and understand the importance of a due date after a pregnancy prematurely ends.
Learning to reach out
I have no shortage of friends and family who would have listened. But after each of my miscarriages, instead of reaching out, I shared my experience with fewer and fewer people. In my emotionally fragile state, it became too great a risk to open the door to conversation.
In the beginning, some people offered unhelpful comments in an attempt to be positive. “Be glad. Obviously, God knew you shouldn’t have this baby.” “If you’d been taking care of our son last night, you’d never want another child!” “Why are you still trying to get pregnant?” And, “Now that your daughter is older, it’s probably just as well. Enjoy your freedom!”
Processing these and other like-minded responses took precious emotional energy, and mine was depleted.
Even my husband, who grieved with me after each miscarriage, admitted his long-term reaction was different from mine. In large part, this was because he didn’t experience the nagging physical symptoms as I did, which continued for months. He was able to go on with his life in a different way.
By my third (and final) miscarriage, with the exception of my husband and a few family members, I told no one for months. It was only when a doctor informed me surgery might be needed to rectify my ongoing health issues that I spoke with my supervisor and a handful of co-workers last summer. This was because I anticipated missing work, not due to a desire to reach out for help.
In retrospect, these walls of silence were not healthy or helpful. I should have told more people what I was going through. Even though I would have risked an emotional rollercoaster, cracking open the door to allow others in would have been better than saying nothing.
To help someone cope with miscarriage, just listen
What do I wish others had said? Honestly, I didn’t need advice or a pep talk. The best support I received was from those who just listened — listened without judgment and responded without offering unsolicited advice on how to overcome a miscarriage. This is what helped me the most.
The best conversations I had — those that really taught me how to really listen to others in pain — began with: “Mary, how are you?” I answered, “I’m fine.” “No you’re not. But that’s okay.”
And it was. And it is. And that’s okay.
Mary M. Brown is an ELCA pastor who currently serves as a Web Content and Development Consultant for the interfaith media organization Odyssey Networks in Manhattan, New York. The mother of one daughter, Hope Marie, she and her husband, Luther, reside in Eden Prairie.