Don’t start with ‘At least’: how to comfort someone after a miscarriage

To mark Baby Loss Awareness Week, journalist Claire Wilde shares her experience of miscarriage and suggests how best to support someone grieving a lost pregnancy.

I was minutes from the biggest speaking engagement of my career, talking to a media industry event at Facebook London about the power of data journalism.

I nipped to the ladies’, and saw the first signs that something was wrong with my pregnancy.

I didn’t know what to do, or even think, so I went back to the conference room and delivered my presentation, but I felt like I wasn’t really in the room.

My heart was thumping and all I could think about was what was happening to me. It’s fair to say, the talk wasn’t my best work.

My wife and I had sunk about £10,000 into fertility treatment by that point. Free NHS treatment was effectively barred for same-sex couples in the area I live, a shocking unfairness which has since thankfully changed.

We had been so excited to finally get that positive pregnancy test result just a few weeks before and I had downloaded a cutesy app telling me all about the size of the mini-person growing inside me. One week, a poppy seed! The next, an apple pip!

I was told to call 999 if I had unbearable pain

I came back from London to a barrage of tests at the fertility clinic. I was told that my levels of pregnancy hormones should be growing exponentially by this point, so daily blood tests should show whether something was amiss.

Ever the data journalist, I plotted each day’s reading on a hand-drawn graph. The levels weren’t rocketing like they should have been, but they were slowly rising, so I was more confused than ever.

After a few days in limbo, I was called in for a scan. The technician’s face dropped as she looked at the screen.

“I think you need to go to hospital,” she said.

She said she thought I had an ectopic pregnancy - a dangerous condition where the embryo is caught in a fallopian tube. I was told I might need emergency surgery to remove a good chunk of my reproductive system.

Then she called for a second opinion from a doctor, who disagreed and said I was fine to go home. I was packed off with instructions to call 999 if I started having unbearable pain.

Sure enough, that evening the pain rolled round and I was carted off in an ambulance.

What I wasn’t ready for was the grief

After a sleepless night on the plastic chairs in the A&E waiting room, a doctor checked me over and said while I was almost certainly losing my pregnancy, it didn’t appear ectopic. I got home around breakfast time.

Later that day, a scan at the local early pregnancy unit confirmed a straightforward miscarriage - frankly, a relief at this point.

What I wasn’t ready for was the grief. The unbearable sadness of losing all that we had hoped for, combined with the turbulence of the pregnancy hormones subsiding, left me with a profound sense of loss that I struggled to shake off for weeks.

People tried to console me. One person said it was nature’s way of removing pregnancies when something was wrong with the baby.

Another said that the miscarriage happened so early that I may not have known I was pregnant at all if I hadn’t been taking tests, and could have just assumed I had missed a period.

Don’t try to cheer them up

They were meant to be words of comfort but all I heard was the minimisation of my experience.

My advice to anyone struggling to find the words to help a loved one in this circumstance is, don’t try to cheer them up. It won’t work. Just be with them through their sadness.

I am reminded of research professor Brené Brown’s words on empathy: “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘At least…’.”

A few months later, I got pregnant again. About nine weeks into the pregnancy, the bleeding started again.

I went for another hospital scan. When the technician told me and my partner that she could see a heartbeat, I burst into tears.

We are now lucky enough to have a beautiful one-year-old girl, but in this week, Baby Loss Awareness Week, my thoughts are with those who suffer multiple miscarriages or those who have gone through the unimaginable pain of stillbirth.

If this is you, I hope this week’s public acknowledgement of all you have been through makes you feel a little less alone.

Claire Wilde is data and investigations editor for JPIMedia, the media group behind National World