By Michaelene Fredenburg
With Mother’s Day behind us, and Father’s Day on Sunday, this can be a particularly painful time for men and women who have experienced a reproductive loss. Whether that loss — through miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility, or abortion — occurred recently or years ago, many silently mourn missing members of their families.
The lack of cultural acknowledgement of their loss can unnecessarily prolong the grieving process and even lead to mental health problems. Certainly each person’s experience is unique, and with over two million losses occurring through miscarriage and abortion alone in the United States each year, the variability is enormous. However, in most cases, people long for their loss to be acknowledged, their children to be remembered, and to have the ability to process the experience.
A college student recently related that it took 42 years before his father was able to publically acknowledge the loss of his oldest son through miscarriage. Much to the surprise of his adult children, he asked them to sketch a likeness of what they thought their brother would look like to memorialize him during the Day of the Dead celebrations.
His children were relieved that their father was finally able to talk about their brother and moved by the sense of peace that it brought their mother. In relating this story, I had two other men share that they too were struggling to find a way to memorialize their missing children. I am particularly struck when men share their stories of reproductive loss — usually in hushed tones and with moist eyes — because they are often forgotten or even ignored.
Women feel this sense of isolation as well. In addition to Mother’s Day, they sometimes find it difficult to attend baby showers, see young children, or answer the questions of their own children who innocently ask for another brother or sister. One woman related how every once in a while she is filled with pain and confusion when only two children tumble out of the car rather than the four there would have been if she had continued those pregnancies.
While loss through miscarriage and abortion occur very differently, studies — and anecdotal stories — indicate that there is considerable similarity in the grief experience as well as the cultural silence that leaves them feeling isolated and alone.
Studies also indicate that this silence frequently begins when medical attention is sought. While medical professionals understandably feel more comfortable and competent caring for the physical needs of their patients, their failure to acknowledge the loss — often through a lack of training — unwittingly communicates that this event is insignificant and that there is no reason to grieve.
Some couples indicate that this seeming indifference on the part of doctors and nurses “stuck with them forever.” Family members and friends are also unprepared and tend to either ignore the event or offer well-meaning, but hurtful advice such as “it was probably for the best,” or “you can always try again.”
So in a community filled with unspoken grief, what can we do? The answer is surprisingly simple, although it will most likely feel awkward to start. Whether a medical professional, family member, or colleague, acknowledging reproductive loss with simple statements such as “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “I’m so sorry you are going through this,” is very significant for the grieving couple.
Taking the time to listen, or to simply be with them if words aren’t forthcoming, is a great gift and one that will not be forgotten. Assuring them that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, that everyone grieves differently, and that there isn’t a set timeline, gives them permission to travel through the grieving process in their own unique way and at their own pace. You may also want to consider sending a card — even if it’s years later — as this gesture can bring enormous comfort.
A few years ago, a friend who miscarried her first child unexpectedly called to thank me for sending her a sympathy card. She told me that it was the only card that she received and that she kept it in a special place these past 20 years. Although loving and caring friends surrounded her, they were simply unaware of the importance to formally recognize her great loss.
As I hung up the phone, I felt badly that I had not asked her how she was doing in the many years that had gone by. She certainly hadn’t forgotten her child, and it would have been comforting for her to know that neither did I.
It is often the small things that are remembered — small things that can make a world of difference for men and women experiencing reproductive loss — small things that only you and I can do.
Michaelene Fredenburg is the CEO of Life Perspectives with more than 25 years of experience as a non-profit executive. Life Perspectives is a worldwide outreach organization based in San Diego that provides training and healing resources to men, women, family members, and friends who have been touched by reproductive loss.