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One in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage, but a culture of silence may leave couples feeling isolated and unsupported.
“In Australia, 103,000 families are impacted by miscarriage each year, and most miscarriages, around 98 per cent, happen within the first 12 weeks,” says Samantha Payne, co-founder and CEO of The Pink Elephants Support Network.
Samantha and her friend Gabbi founded The Pink Elephants Support Network to reduce the isolation many women experience after a miscarriage by connecting them with other women with similar experiences.
“We often hear that miscarriage is common, which can come across as quite dismissive,” says Samantha.
“But, for a woman who is experiencing a miscarriage, she has just lost her baby.”
Jackie Mead, CEO of Sands, a bereavement support service for pregnancy and infant loss, agrees.
“There’s a common misconception that pregnancy loss is just an unfortunate ‘blip’ on the radar – a sad detour on the way to a successful pregnancy,” she says.
“Many parents, from very early on in the pregnancy plan their lives around the new baby.
“When a miscarriage occurs, parents can mourn the loss of their hopes and dreams, the loss of the future.”
"We need to have conversations about miscarriage and how to support couples who are going through it so that we can remove the stigma around miscarriage,” adds Samantha.
There’s a common misconception that pregnancy loss is just an unfortunate ‘blip’ on the radar – a sad detour on the way to a successful pregnancy.
The disadvantages of the 12-week rule
With a large proportion of miscarriages happening within the first trimester of pregnancy, many couples opt to not share their pregnancy news until they participate in their first scan at 12 weeks.
While this may allow parents to avoid sharing the devastating news of a miscarriage, it also creates a sense of secrecy or even shame around miscarriages, and may leave the couple isolated and unsupported.
"If the couple ends up having a miscarriage, they want to be able to turn to someone and talk about it,” says Jackie.
“While a miscarriage can happen at any time, the risk is higher during the first trimester, and if you do come out and tell people earlier, when the risk is higher, you will need to discuss it with more people.
“The other side to this is that a couple that experiences a miscarriage will have greater support around them if those close to them know and understand what they are going through.
“Ultimately, it is your personal choice of who you choose to invite into your close circle of support.
“It is important to have people in your circle who you trust and will have your back in the event that you miscarry.”
How a miscarriage impacts parents
“People often assume miscarriage is a minor event, easily replaced with another pregnancy and sometimes others do not understand or acknowledge the close bond that can form between parents and their baby even at a very early gestation,” says Jackie.
“The grief they may feel can be just as severe in the case of early miscarriage as it is with late miscarriages, stillbirths or newborn deaths and can take a long time to recover.
“Following a miscarriage, parents can feel sad, confused, frightened, socially isolated, overwhelmed by grief or in some cases even a sense of relief.”
While women are often the focus during and after a miscarriage, new research outlines how fathers experience the loss.
“Most men described feeling significant grief following miscarriage and felt that there was little acknowledgment of their loss, both from healthcare providers and within their social networks,” the research says.
“Feelings of sadness, devastation, powerlessness, fear, shock and a loss of identity were common.”
The research notes that most men felt their primary role was to support their partner and to avoid burdening her with their feelings, but this left them feeling isolated and unsupported.
How to support your family member or friend
“Family and friends do not need to have experienced pregnancy loss to provide good support for their loved one,” says Jackie who adds that SANDS has a useful resource on supporting parents experiencing a miscarriage.
Samantha explains that couples often lose friends after a miscarriage as those friends don’t know what to say, so end up saying nothing.
“That silence is actually deafening and says that you don’t acknowledge the couple’s loss,” she says.
“But it is really important to acknowledge their loss, even if no words can fix what they are feeling or make them feel better, it is far better to say something than say nothing.”
Both Jackie and Samantha emphasise that it is important to be there for the grieving person, both with emotional support, such as phone calls and check ins, and with physical support, such as sitting with them, offering them help with their other children and even a simple hug.
How to tell your children
“Be guided by your child in telling them about the miscarriage, you know your child the best and what information they need to have,” says Samantha.
The Pink Elephants Support Network recommends telling toddlers and younger children who knew of the pregnancy that, “the baby in mummy’s tummy has died and isn’t in mummy’s tummy any more”.
If the child wasn’t aware of the pregnancy, and you don’t want to share the miscarriage with them, they recommend telling them that mummy and daddy are sad, but reassure them that it isn’t something they have done.
Jackie adds that changes in behaviour, from eating and sleeping patterns to being irritable and clingier, are common while children try to process their emotions.
Children may also be interested in the process of death, asking many direct questions, or they may be unaffected by the loss.
Jackie also says that some parents may find it difficult to engage with their other children while they are grieving.
“Depending on how you are handling things, there may be a role for other trusted adults to play in your child’s life whilst you recover,” says Jackie.
“Don’t be afraid to ask others for help if you need it.”
Knowing what to say
The Pink Elephants Support Network advice on what to say and not say while supporting someone grieving a miscarriage.
Things not to say:
"It wasn't meant to be."
"You can always have another one."
"You wouldn't have wanted a baby with something wrong with it."
"At least you know you can get pregnant."
"Be thankful that you have your other children."
"At least it happened early and wasn't a real baby yet."
"Miscarriage is really common...it happens to lots of people."
"It's obviously God's will."
Instead try these:
"I'm sorry for your loss."
"I'm so sorry this happened."
"You must really be hurting right now."
"Take as long as you need to grieve."
"How is your partner coping?”
Listen and say nothing.
Let them know if you've been through it too.