Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pregnancy Loss: How to respond with compassion

So, you have just learned of the pregnancy loss of a friend, a relative, a co-worker or an acquaintance. You want to offer an appropriate response, but you're not sure what that might be. In this blog we'll look at the considerations you'll want to keep in mind as you offer a comforting response.

A number of readers of my most recent blog have written to me, asking how to respond when learning of a pregnancy loss. You have acknowledged the awkwardness of not knowing what is the "right thing" to say, as well as the lack of familiarity with what the term pregnancy loss might encompass. And you are aware that, all too often, the world just turns its head when learning of a pregnancy loss. There may have been no bulging abdomen, no sonogram being passed around, maybe not even a public announcement of the pregnancy. Or there may have been all of these things plus more. What is missing in both circumstances is any ritual whereby comfort can be extended to the grieving couple. There are no Hallmark cards, no funerals, no gravestones, no memories to be shared among the mourners. Only a void. And it is into this void that you may decide to venture, with the hope that you are able to offer some support and comfort.

So let's consider a few things that will influence your thoughts about how to reach out to the couple. Keep in mind that a pregnancy loss may mean something different to each of them; also keep in mind that both are sad, so please do not fall into the trap of asking one partner how the no-longer-pregnant partner is doing. It is true that the woman has lost the pregnancy, but both of them have lost the dream of becoming birth parents to this baby, and both of them deserve a genuine expression of your sorrow.

Although pregnancy loss can mean a miscarriage or a stillbirth, it also can come about as a result of the agonizing decision of the parents to terminate the pregnancy, either because of learning the results of prenatal genetic testing or because a multi-fetal pregnancy reduction has been advised by the couple's physician who fears for the outcome of the pregnancy if the woman attempts to carry all fetuses to term. Some couples are comfortable sharing this decision with others, but many anticipate they will be harshly judged for their decision to terminate the pregnancy and they decide to present the pregnancy loss as a miscarriage. Regardless of how open the couple may be about the circumstances surrounding their loss, you will want to empathize with their sadness and to ask how you can help.

For some couples, the pregnancy loss is a dimension of their infertility. They may have had difficulty conceiving; they may have had earlier pregnancy losses; this may be a loss from an ectopic pregnancy (where the embryo begins to develop outside the uterus, often in a fallopian tube); or they may be told after an IVF procedure that, although they had a chemical pregnancy, the hormone levels did not rise sufficiently to sustain hope that the fetus would develop. For any couple grappling with infertility, a pregnancy loss is a terrifying reminder that they cannot take birth-parenthood for granted. Another, less discussed, form of loss occurs when a couple has made a plan to adopt, and the birth mother either loses the pregnancy or decides to keep the infant after its birth. The prospective adoptive couple has invested so many hopes in this adoption, that the loss will be a devastating end to what may have been years of infertility. So, with infertility as a backdrop, any form of pregnancy loss feels especially devastating.

Some people assume that the attachment to a pregnancy grows in proportion to the number of months the pregnancy was sustained. It is more accurate to let the couple tell you what this loss means to each of them, because that will enable you to understand more fully the emotions they had attached to this pregnancy, regardless of how far along it had progressed. And hearing from the couple will prevent you from saying hurtful remarks like "It's probably for the best," or "You can always try again." Instead it will feel more supportive to say "This is such a difficult time for you. Please tell me how I can be helpful/ let me know when you feel like a visit/ tell me if I can bring over some food (books, flowers) or run some errands for you." And then prepare to be a good listener.

Being a good listener is a gift, since it involves being emotionally present, accepting both anger and tears, and hearing various versions of events time and time again as the grieving person tries to make sense of this loss and what the future might hold. Although it may be tempting to offer what I call "false reassurances" ("I'm sure you'll be a parent some day," "You will begin to feel better soon,"), be aware that this response is more a reflection of your discomfort with the current sadness than it is an accurate prediction of hope for your friend. Try to be patient with the time your friend needs to absorb this sadness and to make sense of it.

Some couples decide that they want to have a quiet service to honor this baby who will never be born. Whether conducted by a spiritual leader or created by the couple and their loved ones, such a service can enable supportive friends to reassure the couple and their family of ongoing emotional support and compassion for their loss.

Some grieving couples appreciate the opportunity to talk about how they can memorialize this child whom they had hoped to parent. Keep in mind that many would-be parents have already discussed (and perhaps chosen) names, selected (or envisioned) nursery colors and decor, and begun to save items for the baby scrap book like congratulations cards and sonogram photos. For them this is not a pregnancy loss so much as the death of their dream child. In my book When You're Not Expecting, I mention couples who plant a memorial garden, donate to a children's library or a day care center, or identify a cause that they commit to in memory of their dream child.

Even months after a pregnancy loss, there can be a number of painful reminders that cause the pain to resurface. The previously-anticipated due date is one symbolic time. Celebrations of others' pregnancies and births can be emotionally difficult. Even the sight of a nursing mother or a father cuddling a newborn can evoke waves a sadness. These and other reminders of lost opportunities may be mentioned by someone who has lost a dream child, and your empathic response will be very much appreciated.

So, the take-away message to the question of how to respond with compassion is
  • There are many ways in which pregnancy loss can occur. Communicate your wish to be a good listener so that you can understand the particular meaning this loss has for each member of the couple.
  • Remember that the partner of the pregnant woman deserves to be recognized as someone who is entitled to grief, rather than being seen solely as the stoic comforter and protector.
  • If infertility is a backdrop to this pregnancy loss, you will want to appreciate the couple's feelings of failure and desperation as they fear they may never become birth parents.
  • Be patient, and let the couple know that you understand it takes time to grieve such a poignant loss and to make sense of how their lives have changed.
  • Be aware of the mixed emotions couples may feel when being invited to celebrate news of pregnancies, births, or other events associated with successful reproduction.

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