She looks at me through faded eyes shadowed by aging skin and white hair. She didn’t have to say anything, but she’s heard about my miscarriage and has approached me at church. “I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over it. I just want you to know you aren’t alone.”
I feel alone. It’s been a few weeks now since my doctor, a young, compassionate fertility specialist who, like my husband and me was thrilled a few months back at the positive pregnancy test, pronounced, “I’m sorry to tell you there’s no heartbeat. There’s disintegration around the fetus sac. It’s already breaking down.”
I was numb. I’d been wanting this pregnancy for over two years. I knew the possibility of miscarriage for I’d had two already, one that came with the ache in my belly that felt like I’d swallowed a brick and the second that gushed blood that would not stop and, with it, emptied the fetus out of my body. The dilation and curettage cleaned any part that remained.
I was told by my doctors, both male and female, that I’d need six weeks to a couple of months to “get over it.” In truth, I’m not sure I’ve ever “gotten over it.”
First, the body needs to return to its pre-pregnancy state, which means hormones resettling and the uterus shrinking back to size. Second, the heart needs to mend. Loss is loss, no matter how unnamed it is.
Long-time midwife Kathy McClellan has seen everything in her years bringing babies into the world and helping women through the tragedies of miscarriage, stillbirth, and other infant loss. “Yes, as soon as the woman pees on the stick and sees two pink lines she starts to imagine herself in a mothering role or now mothering another little one, so a miscarriage brings those expectations to a sudden stop,” she says. “This is true if the pregnancy is a surprise, is wanted or not. Guilt is often involved, blaming thoughts or actions on the loss, only magnifying the emotional pain.”
Kathy herself suffered miscarriage after a successful full-term pregnancy and knows first-hand how fragile women can be after loss. “Once the process [of adoption] was complete and our 2nd son was home with us and healthy and fully ours, I could finally relax and enjoy our new family, after years of effort,” she says.
In a study by the National Institute of Public Health, writers Johnna Nynas, MD, et al, report that “approximately 10%–25% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage.” Miscarriage is the loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week. Nynas, et al, continues, “Nearly 20% of women who experience a miscarriage become symptomatic for depression and/or anxiety; in a majority of those affected, symptoms persist for 1 to 3 years, impacting quality of life and subsequent pregnancies.”
While these numbers are high, ethnic group comparison shows greater loss among as women of color, who lose children at a 2% higher rate for miscarriage and twice the rate for stillbirth, which is the loss of a pregnancy after 20 weeks.
Michelle Obama, in her book, Becoming, describes miscarriage as a “lonely, painful, and demoralizing” experience and says, “When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”
Black woman experience child loss differently than white women, according to psychotherapist Angela Ford Johnson in Essence, who says, “I can’t tell you how many clients that I’ve had that have experienced a miscarriage and it comes up almost like an afterthought. We’re just so used to not acknowledging some of the traumas that we go through.”
Regardless of skin color or identity, loss of a pregnancy can be devastating. The loss can feel forever, and yet it’s not something many women are comfortable talking about, even with other women. As a result, many women feel lonely, misunderstood, and somehow responsible for their lost child.
“It’ll get better,” my mentor wrote to me in a letter. “It’s a terrible time, and you’ll never forget it, but it will get better in time.” She was 26 when she miscarried three times and in her 70s when she wrote to me.
Cindy Brookshire, now a mother of two, was both surprised and delighted when the doctor said, “You’re pregnant,” because her husband Martin was a cancer survivor and after several years of trying, they did not think children would be possible. Her first child, carried to term and delivered in excellent health, was followed by two more surprise pregnancies that ended in early miscarriage. Cindy was devastated.
Life went swiftly downhill: she and Martin stopped talking; she missed deadlines at work; she quit breastfeeding her infant daughter; she lost the desire for sex; she wanted to talk to her mother, but her mother cooked and cleaned to avoid difficult conversations.
“That’s when I sought help,” she says. She joined a group at her church for women who’d suffered miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. Here she was able to tell her story, to cry, to be understood. She was allowed to grieve. She met with them regularly for a full year until she reached a point that her grief began to subside.
“I recognize depression now as that feeling of being weighted down and dark, even on the sunniest of days. I knew that living in depression impacted not just me, but my husband and my daughter. I needed help and I got it,” she says.
Too many women who have suffered miscarriage or stillbirth have been silenced by doctors and a society expect them to “get over it.” They will get over it, and, yes, as my mentor says, it will get better.
But they need a chance to grieve. They need a chance to cry.