The fine line of empathy in the world of miscarriage

So, I left Facebook with my ‘real’ personality (and that’s been wonderful, btw!), but I found I really needed my miscarriage support groups so I have a new profile that only sees them.  There was a heated discussion in one group recently that got me thinking about loss and pain and how we empathize with others as we own our own stories.  Someone made a comment that her loss was ‘just as bad’ and she was in ‘just as much pain’ as someone else and that person got very hurt.  All of a sudden, other people join in and you have lots of hurt and hormones flying around trying to evaluate each other’s pain and grief and the ‘equality’ of their loss(es).

I have very mixed feelings on the topic:  Like first off, why does it even matter?  Why do people feel the need to assert that their grief is just as much or more than someone else’s?  Why try to equate things when there is so much background that needs to be considered?  Can’t we just say that it’s different and support each other?

Given the way Society often seems to minimize our losses, I understand in a way.  We hear comments about how ‘it was early, there never was a baby (just a sac), it was in your tube so it wouldn’t have survived anyway, there was something wrong with the baby anyway, etc.’  All of these are comments by people who are really ignorant as to the impact of miscarriage.  This was our BABY we lost.  We had dreams for his/her future.  It’s important to us to not have our grief minimized by hurtful people.  It makes me so angry for my fellow loss moms when I hear that people want to ignore their grief or tell them they shouldn’t be grieving.

On the other hand, it gets tough sometimes.  Do you really think it’s reasonable to equate a chemical pregnancy to a baby born still at 38 weeks? (this was the situation in the miscarriage group, where the rules read “all losses are equal”)  I’ve not lost a baby at full term, but I can’t imagine saying her experience is the same as a chemical pregnancy.  Yes, they both ultimately lost a baby, but really?  I think most people would agree that those aren’t comparable (or am I wrong on this??) From what I saw in the comments, this was just salt in the wound of the woman with a stillborn child and she ultimately left the group and didn’t get the support she needed (which makes me sad and angry on her behalf, but I digress).  A chemical pregnancy and stillbirth are polar opposites along the pregnancy spectrum, so maybe it’s easier to make that call. In the middle weeks, it just starts getting fuzzy.  I don’t think that every week more of gestation means there’s more grief when that precious baby is lost, but it does seem to be a different physical and emotional investment as you move further along.  So I know it’s not a proportional thing, but is this yet another way we are unintentionally minimizing women by just lumping everyone into the same category of ‘miscarriage/loss’?

There are so many gray areas and things that impact our experience: Is it any worse when it happens later or earlier?  Does it hurt more or less that one mom has felt her baby kick and the other hasn’t?  Is it better or worse to have never seen a heartbeat than to have seen a healthy heartbeat?  Is it better or worse to physically have to deliver a baby than to have surgery to remove it?  Is it better to have a grave site or ashes around as tangible memories of our baby or is it better to have had the loss so early that you don’t have all those reminders?

Then there’s the background and other life circumstances-  Is it any easier for the mom who didn’t know she was pregnant yet or the mom who didn’t want to be pregnant at this time or is it harder because that’s an added new element of guilt?  Does a miscarriage hurt more after a couple has struggled to conceive for many months or years?  Does it get worse yet when the baby was a result of expensive reproductive treatments and now they have thousands of dollars in debt as well as a lost baby?  Is it better or worse if you have a child (or children) already?  Better that you have had the opportunity to raise a child already or is it worse because you understand even more the little things you will miss out on since this baby died?  Is it easier because you don’t have idiotic people telling you that ‘at least you have other child(ren)’ as if they are interchangeable?  Obviously these things are not the root cause of the grief, but does it compound it or does it make it more bearable?  I’ll bet it’s different for every woman anyway– but it’s important to remember when we’re relating that we often don’t know the whole story.

And then there’s my situation- recurrent miscarriage.  Does it get worse with each subsequent miscarriage?  I don’t think its a 1:1 situation, where someone who has lost 5 pregnancies has less grief or pain than the woman who has lost 6.  But yet, I do think that someone who has lost 6, 9, 11 babies has a very different experience or perspective than a woman who has lost one.  So for me, yes, the ‘recurrent’ element that gets ignored sometimes by people has added lots of extra mindf**k to my journey and grief.

I’ve had 5 first trimester losses and one second trimester loss.  Every single one hurt, so that’s why I would never say that a miscarriage shouldn’t hurt.  From this perspective I can say that any loss is a loss, regardless of week of gestation, cause, etc.  But I can also say from my experience** that for me the earlier losses were no where near as hard as my 16 week loss.

That’s why I think it’s extra hard when people try to make all losses ‘equal’.  There is such a massive spectrum and so many additional factors that it’s not possible to call them ‘equal’ but it’s also impossible to rank or place on a scale.  But I do think we owe it to each other to acknowledge that there probably is some variation. In the effort to not minimize one woman’s loss, we should take care to not go the opposite direction and minimize those who may have lost a great deal more.  It’s hard to see while in the situation, though, but it’s always important to work on our perspective.

I would never tell anyone who has had a stillbirth that I know exactly how she feels.  I know my latest loss was still 8 full weeks away from even the point of viability and that’s got to be a very different starting level than a woman who loses a baby that could technically survived outside his mother.  Likewise, I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt when I had a friend who has had one loss at 6 weeks pregnant that she conceived easily/naturally tell me over and over again that she knew ‘exactly how I feel’ (after my 6th miscarriage).   She already had three living children at the point when we were having this discussion-  I appreciated her attempt at empathy, but it also left me hurt and feeling more empty in her attempt to compare our situations.  There’s a level of complexity that divided our experiences.  I’m not minimizing her loss.  She lost a precious baby.  But I’ve lost 6.  How can it be exactly the same and why was she trying to make it the same?  Maybe it is and I’m just too raw right now to feel it.  It’s not a numbers thing, nor do I expect everything to  be equal to mean that people can relate to each other or empathize with each other.  It’s a fine line.

Most of the time I don’t think about this.  It’s when I see the discussion come up that I sometimes like to think it through and try to see all the sides of this.  I hope I didn’t offend or hurt anyone in exploring this topic, that would never be my intention- I am sending lots of love to ALL moms who have lost ANY pregnancy/baby.  And I’m giving myself a gentle reminder that we never know what anyone else has experienced, so maybe the best way to relate is not to directly compare lest we minimize someone unintentionally.

(**I know many other women have different experiences than this, I’m in no way declaring myself more ‘right’ or trying to hurt anyone, I’m just relaying my personal experience)


13 thoughts on “The fine line of empathy in the world of miscarriage

  1. I agree so much with what you are saying. When I’ve written about this I have been accused of playing the “Pain Olympics,” and have also had people who have only been trying a year or two or suffered a single miscarriage claim to be in the same emotional space that I am in. And it’s infuriating, and it DOES minimize all that I have been through to get here. My husband and I have been TTC for eleven years. ELEVEN. We have never conceived on our own. We require IVF (and tens of thousands of dollars) to even have a chance at pregnancy. Is this the same as someone else who also has a first-trimester loss after six months of TTC? I don’t think it is. But to suggest otherwise opens me up to criticism. On the same token, I feel like my first-trimester losses don’t “count” as much as a second-trimester loss or a stillbirth. They sucked, they were awful, but I cannot even IMAGINE the pain of seeing my baby grow for months, feeling him or her move, and then going home with empty arms.

    Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a gradient of experience. And too often we try to say we know “exactly” how someone else feels when the reality is, we don’t. We may have some understanding of their pain, but we will never understand exactly until we’ve been there ourselves. And that’s nearly impossible to do – we all have unique paths and unique stories to tell.

    As always, I’m sending you love and hugs. And I’m thankful you wrote this and gave voice to something that I think as well.

    • Thanks, Jo. I know I’m offering my thoughts on what seems to get pretty controversial sometimes (at least, from what I’ve seen in a few groups). Ha, the “Pain Olympics” is a good way to look at it! I know none of us have signed up to play unfortunately. Hugs back at you! /MMB

  2. As long as we understand that pain is pain, allow each other to express and feel our pain, and support each other as we cope with our pain, the fine lines shouldn’t matter.

    • Kitten, I wish I could agree wholeheartedly, but I do still think that we need to be aware of how we share empathy or try to relate to others. I know personally my one friend really hurt me in how she compared her loss to mine… but on the flipside, I would NEVER want to make someone feel like I wouldn’t be compassionate about her loss(es) because I’ve had more. Like I said, it’s not nor will it ever be a numbers game nor is it an exact comparison. I just think it can be ‘different’ and I know personally I want to make sure that I don’t make anyone feel minimized when they are most vulnerable and I don’t intend to do that.

      I’ll go back to the example that I referred to above, I didn’t comment on this Facebook exchange, but what I saw really bothered me. A woman who had just suffered the stillbirth of her son at 35 weeks (delivered him last Friday) and was posting in a group, just lost and devastated (and likely still in shock). And someone who also had a very late loss (years ago, so hers wasn’t as fresh) said she used to wish it had happened earlier because of how hard it was to do the funeral and all the physical changes and was just trying to relate. And then another woman who had just suffered a chemical pregnancy came and in just rained down some nastiness. About how her pain is just as much as theirs and all losses are equal and how dare she say that it would have made it easier (for her) if it had happened earlier and so forth. It wasn’t the time or the place, and lots of others joined in and in the end I think a lot of people had added hurt when they were already struggling or at rock bottom. It just makes me sad for all parties involved when our online communities and places of support dissolve.

      So I won’t hash and rehash my points as I was quite wordy in my post. But I definitely appreciate different opinions because that’s how we grow and improve. /MMB

  3. I’ve thought about this issue a great deal as well, and I’m glad you wrote this thoughtful post on the topic. Something I’ve struggled a great deal with is feeling that I don’t have the right to mourn my one early loss, which yes we conceived on our own after *only* 12 months of trying. But here’s the thing about grief–it doesn’t need our permission or other people’s permission to exist. We aren’t doled out an allowance of grief based on some universal pain scale. Grief comes to us uninvited and often unwanted.

    If I could finish grieving my early loss as I suppose many think I ought to have done some time ago, well believe me, I would. But whether or not I’m finished with my grief, the fact remains that my grief isn’t finished with me. It continues to show up on my doorstep day after day and let itself in with some hidden key that I didn’t put out. It is here with me now and doesn’t show signs of packing up for good anytime soon, so my options are to either a.) ignore it (which, by the way, doesn’t work), or b.) acknowledge the grief’s presence, try to work through it, and reach out for support from other women who can in some way relate to this experience and who are willing to send me love and encouragement.

    I in no way pretend to understand “exactly” how another woman feels after a later loss or after a loss following IVF or after multiple losses. But really, when can we ever understand “exactly” how another person feels? And why should we need to replicate, precisely, another person’s experience? For me, my reason for reaching out to the world of infertility/loss bloggers was simple: to find a community of support and friendship.

    Like all communities, this one is diverse–there are new kids on the block, long time residents, people who are outgoing, people who are more reserved, people who have had it hard, people who have had it really, really hard, and people who get relatively lucky. We rejoice with the people on whom luck decides to smile, and hope to bask in a little bit of luck ourselves one day. For those whose hopes are dashed, who get shoved to the ground again and again, we hold out our hands and say, “I’m sorry. I care about you. I wish I could make it better.”

    This is a very sensitive topic because in the end, no one wants to have their pain belittled. For me, it comes down to choosing connection over comparison. I’ve been through a lot. Most in this community have been through far more than I have. But we can still find the places where our stories overlap, we can still reach out to each other and say, “I wish you all good things, friend.”

    • Annie- you speak very much more eloquently than I am able, thank you! I agree, there is no ‘exactly’, nor do we need there to be a comparison, and reaching out and showing care to others is the best response. /MMB

  4. Really really well said, on all accounts. I’ve thought about this too, in my head I find myself falling in to comparing myself with other people’s situations, which I feel guilty about and try to make sure I never say out loud. I know for myself some losses have been harder than others, for example (although they also sucked a lot), my chemical pregnancies were no where near as bad as the miscarriages for many reasons, so I’ve found myself thinking ‘how can she complain about just having had a few chemical pregnancies’? I also know for me a second or third trimester loss would be infinitely harder than anything I’ve gone through. But I try to remind myself that just because I have a particular ‘scale’ of grief doesn’t mean I get to judge how others feel about their situations. Its hard, and you’re right its a very fine line.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I wonder sometimes if I end up starting to compare my losses just because I’ve had multiple. Like you said, it’s inevitable that we do it with ourselves, so sometimes that does extend to doing it with others even when we don’t mean to. /MMB

  5. MMB – I totally agree with your mixed feelings. And I agree with Annie about exactly. Even two women who’ve had the same circumstances will experience the pain differently. They will grieve differently.
    Any of the ways we lose them, we have lost children. We need to support each other because we won’t get support from people who have never lost a child. The comparisons just make it hurt more, it always belittles someone’s pain, and that’s not OK. Even saying someone else’s pain is worse than your own pain belittles your own grief and can make it hurt more, make you feel guilty that you hurt as much as you do, so I say, let’s not do that either.
    Anyhow, your writing really gets to me and makes me think and I appreciate you. I am sorry about the circumstances that brought us to this place, but now that the circumstances are what they are, I’m glad I’ve found you.

  6. What a thoughtful post on such a difficult topic. How can we ever know the depth of someone else’s grief? Maybe the level of trauma does have something to do with how many weeks gestation, but sometimes not. I’ve had 10 losses (and countless IVFs, FETs, etc), the three most devastating for me were the first (natural conception), after IVF, and my latest. With the first, I was so naive that when they said there was no heartbeat I couldn’t even fathom what they meant. The pain was devastating in part because it was so unexpected. It hadn’t been in my realm of possibilities (I know better now, unfortunately). The decision to miscarry naturally (which I have NOT repeated) made it much harder for me. I think that what made the chemical pregnancy (FET after two BFN with our first 2 IVFs) even more difficult than our loss at 6weeks with IUI was again the idea of expectation (I thought IVF was a cure-all, I think) and how much time, effort, and pain it had taken to get to that FET. Our latest loss was again a devastating blow because I had heard the heartbeat, because it was the last little one from the same sperm donor that we used for our son (IVF#6), and because the freaking, UNTHOUGHTFUL ultra-sound tech left the screen up with the image of my dead little girl (stopped growing at 8wks) while she went to go get the doctor. I cannot get that image out of my head. Anyway, those are just some random thoughts.

    Bottom line, though, is we all need to respect one another’s grief, not judge it. Supporting one another is critical; comparing is not.

    ICLW #50

  7. Honestly, I think we all do it. We are grieving and we are in despair and it’s hard not to wonder why we have it worse than others.

    Do I think that my son (my first and only pregnancy) dying at 3 days old after a full-term and traumatic labour that ended in an emergency csection and a post-partum hemorrhage that nearly killed me is ‘worse’ than a first trimester loss? Absolutely.

    Would I ever tell a woman who was grieving for her lost baby, regardless of the gestation that her loss wasn’t as great as mine? Never in a million years.

    I know how much planning happens. Even right after the BFP. I’ve seen friends go through heartbreaking years of infertility and losses and know how soul destroying they can be. I won’t sit and tell them I know how they feel – because I don’t. And equally, I hate it when somebody who miscarried tells me that they know how I feel – because they don’t.

    Would I be as sad over an early loss as over the death of my newborn? No. But that doesn’t mean that I minimize how others feel.

    No loss will ever be the same. It’s not just the death of a baby, but what that baby meant for each family and each individual. Even my husband doesn’t grieve for our son in the same way that I do.

    I guess I’ve gone round and round in circles. It’s impossible to compare, but I think we would all be lying if we said we didn’t do it to some extent.

    Thanks for this lovely and thought provoking post.

    Lisa |

  8. I found your blog through LFCA and can relate to much of what you discuss in this post. There have been many times when I wanted to write about this, but just haven’t been able to find the right words. I know what you mean about comparing miscarriages and how many/what gestational age. The lines get so blurry. I have a friend who has had 6 losses and since I have only had 3, I feel like she has had it worse, when in fact we both have been dealt pretty $#!tty hands when it comes to having babies. I try to just be there for her and listen without trying to pretend that I know exactly what she is feeling. I think it is so important to just be there for someone who is going for any loss and not try to impart any “wisdom” or advice on them. Thanks for putting all of these thoughts out there!

  9. Totally agree with what you wrote here. Every loss is different, because every circumstance is different, and even more importantly, every bereaved mother is different. Even if two women went through the exact same set of circumstances, they would both grieve differently.
    And I definitely agree that someone who has lost a baby early in gestation just can’t know what it’s like to suffer a stillbirth, and that it must be completely different to lose a baby when you’ve never had to try hard to get pregnant vs. someone who’s lost one who has tried for years.
    So it can definitely be iffy to tell someone “I know just how you feel”. Maybe it would be better to say “I can relate to how you feel” or “I can imagine how you must be feeling.” But no one can know exactly how the other feels, because no one’s brains are wired the same as anyone else’s. Our brains are wired by our experiences, and how we’re wired shapes how we grieve and feel pain.

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