Let’s start with some basics:
Miscarriage is the spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week. About 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. But the actual number is probably much higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a woman doesn't even know she's pregnant.
Miscarriage is a somewhat loaded term — possibly suggesting that something was amiss in the carrying of the pregnancy. This is rarely true. Most miscarriages occur because the fetus isn't developing normally. However, because these abnormalities are rarely understood, it's often difficult to determine what causes them.
Even armed with knowledge of the statistics and ample anecdotes from friends, it’s hard not to wonder what it might have to do with you. And too many women feel alone:
Statistically, I probably know a hundred women who have had miscarriages, but before I started telling people about mine, I could only have named three of them. Miscarriage isn’t available in Facebook’s list of Life Events. Nobody talks about it. Which is fair, because “So this one time, when I had a miscarriage…” kind of kills the buzz at a cocktail party. And everybody has a right to keep their private stuff private if they want to.
Or face a barrage of insensitive reactions:
I remember my neighbor was like, “Oh, you were so early, it’s not like you lost a baby.” Most people, if they said something, it was like, “Well, get back on the horse and try again.” I think there’s some level of like, “It’s not a big deal,” especially for women who go on to have healthy babies. It makes your grief feel really illegitimate.
Or—closely tied to so many women feeling alone when it happens—too many get the message to keep their mouths shut:
There were a lot of people who felt like it was a really taboo topic and didn’t want to talk about it. Even some of my family — I remember my cousin saying, “I’ll make sure to tell my father so he knows not to bring it up.”
For some women, a miscarriage feels like losing a baby. She may give it a name or formally mourn its loss. For others, a miscarriage is a loss of possibilities, of potential. She thinks about having a baby in a specific month and how her life will look going forward from that point … and then that all changes. There’s no one experience of miscarriage emotionally any more than there is physically. I had a missed miscarriage, which means the embryo has died but your body hasn’t expelled it. This, in turn, was constant source of stress when I was pregnant again, because I knew I couldn’t trust my body to tell me unequivocally that something had gone wrong. That fear throughout what turned out to be a healthy pregnancy may have been the biggest emotional fallout I faced from miscarriage, but I know that so many women experience it as the loss of a baby.
Because this is the United States of America and we have the healthcare system we have, women can also face high financial costs—it can be thousands of dollars, even with insurance—and are often not given choices for managing their care. Miscarriages happen (a lot), but our system shouldn’t make the experience worse.
If you find this essay because you’ve just had a miscarriage and you need to feel less alone, I hope adding this to the accumulation of other pieces you’re finding is some help. I suspect that for most of us there’s no one story or statistic that’s most helpful, but that the accumulation of hearing them again and again can be. More, I hope that your friends and family are telling you you’re not alone among people you know in real life. It’s staggeringly common, which in this case actually can make it suck a little less. It’s not you.
And if you’ve just found out someone you know has had a miscarriage and you want to know how to respond, follow her lead. Don’t have a theory about why it happened (unless your theory is “because of a chromosomal abnormality,” you’re probably wrong). Don’t tell her how to feel or what not to say. Know that she’s probably not the only person you know who this has happened to. She’s just the one who’s telling you about it.