What do I say to my co-worker who has suffered a miscarriage?

Dear Dwonna:

My co-worker was four months pregnant when she suffered a miscarriage. What should I say?




*Nisey James, my former student at the University of Texas, has answered this question for me since she understands this profound loss.*
Dear Marilyn,

First, I’d like to commend you on seeking guidance. This is a very delicate time for your coworker, and you’ve unwittingly given her the best gift possible: thoughtful consideration.

As the mother of a sleeping son, I want to thank you for doing what so few have the courage to do. As someone who knows how painful it is to be a childless mother, I’m honored to offer whatever assistance I can to you (and, consequently, to your coworker).

Here is my advice.

Say something—and then be prepared to just listen. Most people don’t know what to say to someone who suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth, so they say nothing. That can be misread as lack of care. Instead of saying nothing, say a lot with a little. Be available: “I’m here for you if you want to talk.” Be honest: “I don’t know what to say.” Be direct: “How are you?”

What I valued most was being offered a judgment-free space to speak about my son and my feelings. Children who die in the womb are often the elephant in the room—a large, looming reality no one wants to address because, to do so, is taboo. The window of opportunity to talk freely about a deceased baby starts out only half-opened and quickly closes as time passes.  Within a few months, you’re expected to be over it and back to your old self.  Offering your coworker an open invitation to speak with you so soon after her loss is priceless.

Don’t assume or pretend to understand. There’s something uniquely alienating about losing a baby. You’ll spend a great deal of time suffering in silence simply because few others understand what you’re feeling. Even other women who have lost a child only can relate to certain aspects of your grief. The truth is, every story is different, and every journey follows its own path. One of the most offensive remarks I heard was from someone who compared my son’s death to a friend’s deceased grandmother. Even if you have lost someone very close to you, don’t bring this up as a way to bond with your coworker. Accept that there’s an inherent disconnect and that you’ll never be able to fully relate to what she’s going through.

Avoid using clichés and “quick rationales.” I know we love our one-line adages; however, we’re too quick to throw a proverb at someone’s problem, like it’s the best answer around. Clichés and quick rationales are lazy, insensitive, and demeaning. The worst thing you can do is offer a simplified solution to what will undoubtedly be the most heart-wrenching situation your coworker will ever experience. Sometimes, I felt like people didn’t even realize how harmful their rubber-stamped attempt at giving me solace was. Here are the most common examples:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.” While this may likely be true and/or part of your belief system, nothing seems more senseless than the loss of an innocent life.
  • “You can always try to have another.” or “Be thankful for the kids you have.”  Most of us know one child can never replace another. It’s almost like thinking your parents will be fine if you die because they’ll still have your siblings. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Each life is sacred. Therefore, when you say this, you’re indirectly saying this baby never really existed since s/he can be so easily replaced.
  • “I know plenty of people who have had miscarriages and went on to have perfectly healthy babies” (or something similar). Everyone loved telling me the “success story” of a coworker, relative, or friend of a friend. This one may be hard to resist, but resist it anyway! We already know people lose babies and then have other living children. However, that still has nothing to do with our loss . . . except to remind us that you don’t understand what we’re going through.  Initially, we’re overwhelmed by our own story, and quite frankly, it’s the only one that matters. There came a point where I did venture out on the Internet and in the bookstores to find stories similar to mine. However, let your coworker take this huge step when she’s ready.

Validate her loss as real. Babies who die in utero have a disconcertingly invisible place in our society. A local newspaper in Austin, Texas, told my friend she couldn’t even memorialize her son the way others do. She wanted to include a picture to accompany his obituary, but the newspaper only accepted pictures of babies who were born alive, and since her baby had been born asleep, my friend did not have any. She said it made her feel her son was too ugly or too disturbing to be viewed, like he was less than a baby. Sometimes, the very existence of a baby is called into question because—once your morning sickness goes away and your stomach flattens—you have little that says “he was here.”

As with most things, timing is everything. Our society has yet to reach a consensus on when life begins and, unfortunately, this debate threatens to minimize the loss of a baby who never took his or her first breath outside of the womb. The distinction doctors make between miscarriage vs. stillbirth and no official documentation vs. death certificate also makes the grieving process more difficult. In fact, it all comes down to a number. Doctors consider a fetus who dies before 21 weeks a miscarriage and not a stillbirth, and they do not even consider a dead fetus who weighs less than 350 grams a person. Thus, medical personnel aren’t required to record his or her life with a death certificate. These are the harsh realities your coworker is encountering—a numbers game that might make her doubt the legitimacy of her child’s life. Let your coworker know that her baby is real.

Ask her about the gender and the name she chose.  Let her know her grief is warranted. Use her baby’s name often to show respect for the short life s/he lived. Let her know her child matters.  Express heartfelt condolences not just for the loss of life but also for unfulfilled promise and possibilities. Your coworker will never see her child’s smile, hear her child’s laughter, or even know how it feels to have her child look at her. These are very real experiences that have been stolen from her, and they deserve to be mourned, regardless of how long her child lived inside of her.

A life that was created has come to an end. Period.

Understand the lasting effects of this lossWe want our children to be acknowledged, but this desire can come at a great price because we risk making other people feel uncomfortable. Babies who never take a breath are too often pushed into the margins. They’re treated like footnotes, and we sometimes require an asterisk just to mention them.

When someone would ask me, “Do you have any children?” it always carried a heavy burden. Something so casually offered into the air as light conversation felt like a 90 mph curveball thrown right at my heart. “No,” I would usually answer. (My son was stillborn at 21 weeks.) When I was feeling especially brave, I would answer the question with the unabashed truth: “Yes, but he’s passed away.” However, being this courageous comes with the added responsibility of answering more questions and potentially alienating yourself further by being perceived as one of “those” women who “flaunt” their grief.

We want our children to be remembered, but this can brand you as someone who can’t move on. My mental calendar has permanent etchings, dates, and days that will forever belong to my son. Father’s Day: I found out I was pregnant.  Valentine’s Day: his expected due date. October 8: his angelversary, the date he was born and died. Gloomy Saturdays: what October 8, 2011, looked like. The 8th of every month: his monthly birthdate. These occasions are for him.

However, I’m often the only one who observes them. In fact, my niece was born on December 8, and my mother now celebrates the 8th of every month as a monthly milestone for her.

And that’s okay.

People do move on, and dates do get forgotten.

Perhaps you can make a notation of the day your coworker lost her baby and honor that date with her next year; I’m sure she will see that as a very thoughtful gesture. Your coworker will always remember. On any given day, her child is on her mind, and she is hurting.

Be okay with your helplessness. I can’t stress this one enough. There is no “right” thing to say, do, or feel. Just be as genuine as you can and everything else will fall into place. When I told my best friend that I was going to write this response for Dwonna, she told me that rereading the poems I wrote following my son’s death was “a good place to start”—as if I needed a refresher on what it feels like to lose a baby. I know she meant no harm, and I didn’t even acknowledge the sting aloud. I swallowed it, like something nasty you just want down your throat as quickly as possible.

My best friend is the kindest person I know and, yet, her well-intentioned suggestion felt like a dagger to my heart. Sometimes even those closest to us don’t fully understand and can say the wrong thing. The reality is that few people will ever fully get it, and this huge void in my life cannot be filled by the passing of time or by having other children.

And that’s okay.

As truly helpful as it would be to have someone who felt exactly how we feel, this isn’t really what we want. No one should outlive their child, so that’s not a horror we want you to endure. We understand that experiencing a miscarriage or a stillbirth is an impossible place to envision yourself . . . our imaginations don’t go that dark. (No doubt, this is a built-in defense mechanism much like the belief that we never actually see ourselves die in our dreams.)

Therefore, without the full understanding, there’s no way to always say the right thing because most of the time there is no right thing to say. Moreover, there are a million ways to hurt her with the most innocent of comments because your coworker is so fragile.

And that’s also okay.

I’ll go out on a limb and speak for all angel mothers when I say we don’t expect perfection. We simply hope for thoughtful consideration.

Thank you again for yours.–Nisey



2 thoughts on “What do I say to my co-worker who has suffered a miscarriage?

  1. Well, do NOT try to compare it to your own tradgedy. Example: “so, you were at 12 weeks? Well MY wife lost twins at 22 weeks, and we’d already picked out names”…. Yes, someone at work actually said that to me. I felt like saying “so you picked a name? Well we got married and bought a house for the baby, so THERE” but I wisely did not respond. Also do not say anything like “at least you already have one” or “you can try again”. Yes, most people will try again. I’m trying again. But a new baby will still never replace the one I lost. I will always think of that baby on his birthday. I loved and wanted THAT baby. Oh… I had a WONDERFUL lot of coworkers when that all happened let me tell you. Another guy told me “you can’t have a donut on donut day bc you called out, it’s like the vacation policy. You have to work the day before and the day after”. I just looked him square in the face and asked “do you know why I was out?” He didn’t answer but I’d told roughly half my department what was going on. I didn’t like telling them my personal business but it was the kind of place where new people don’t get sick time and are expected to not miss a day for the first six months or so. Also do NOT keep asking other people about their babies in front of the suffering person. Its rude. i realize it slips out sometimes. But you guessed it, at my last job someone kept doing it in front of me. I realized it was one of those power games women pull with each other at work. Ugh. Thankfully when I lost the second baby I was long gone from that place and those people!

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