Having a miscarriage is like giving birth and experiencing the death of a loved one all at once. That imagery is jarring, right? It should be. Losing a baby is awful.
After my first miscarriage I was deeply unprepared for the peaked hormones, the physical aftermath and the emotional tsunami that came out of nowhere as I began to grapple with everything miscarriage unearthed: sorrow, anger, fear, anxiety, guilt, confusion, despair, jealousy, unspoken expectations in my friendships, blind spots in my marriage, holes in my theology, and (what felt like) every existential question known to humankind.
This was not a blip in my reproductive history or a fleeting brush with heartache; this was a cosmic shift that would impact every area of my life. From the moment the words “no heartbeat” were uttered in my direction, grief hit me like a wrecking ball. Laboring under the weight of unfamiliar sadness, I felt like a fraud of a mother who had been robbed of not only my dignity, but my hopes for the future.
I immediately reached out for support and began consuming the stories of others like medication. Hearing from other women with similar experiences helped me know I wasn’t alone, validated my pain, and reassured me my loss mattered. For me, the solidarity in suffering I found with other bereaved mothers helped me begin to grieve with hope.
My husband, however, experienced things differently.
At 39, he could not recall a single conversation about miscarriage with another man in his life. He describes having no idea how to deal with it:
“We discuss other important issues at the pub with our mates, at church, on social media, on the news, and at work, but miscarriage still feels taboo among men, like somehow it’s a secret women’s problem that we simply need to help them ‘deal’ with as quietly as possible so that no one gets embarrassed or uncomfortable. It’s easy to get the impression that a loss like this is inconsequential and small. After our first miscarriage, I wanted to talk openly about it but felt lost for words. There was a disconnect between the way I thought I should feel and the way I actually felt… I think I tried to help myself by tying to help my wife—if she felt better, then I would feel better too. With each miscarriage I clicked into survival mode.”
While every couple approaches grief differently in the aftermath of miscarriage, statistics should compel us to embrace pregnancy loss as not simply a women’s issue, but as a family issue.
The health of our marriages is at stake
According to a study that followed 7,700 pregnant couples for 15 years, couples who experienced miscarriage were 22% more likely to break up than couples who hadn’t. (The statistics were even higher for couples who experienced stillbirth.) In another study, researchers found that 32% of women felt more distant from their husband interpersonally one year post-miscarriage, while 39% felt more distant sexually.
But as hard as miscarriage can be on a marriage, there’s no need to resign to defeat. Our marriages are not bound to fail. In fact, research also supports a direct link between the way partners connect after miscarriage and the resulting closeness they share. The following research is female-centric, but what it reveals is telling for both partners: “When women felt that their male partners failed do to things to show they cared, women perceived greater distance,” wrote Kristin M. Swanson, RN, PhD. “However, when women perceived that their partners engaged in mutual sharing of feelings and experiences, they claimed to be closer…Perhaps when partners failed to do things that showed they cared, women felt abandoned, whereas when men shared feelings, women perceived this sharing as the two of them pulling together through a difficult time.”
In other words, the way we respond to each other after miscarriage has a direct impact on our marriages, intimacy and sex included. For many couples, grieving openly together culminates in greater intimacy than they shared before.
How to support your spouse through miscarriage
So how do we find ourselves on the right side of the statistics? Here are a few things that can help:
- Share openly with one another—your fears, your disappointments, your confusion, doubts, emotions, and hopes for the future. Give room for the unexpected things that may surface. (Relief? Jealousy? Shame?) Your vulnerability can lead you into greater levels of understanding and being understood—both equally important.
- Understand that you may have different levels of attachment to your baby. Accepting this as normal will help you to not judge your spouse unfairly or have unrealistic expectations of them.
- Don’t secretly super-impose your expectations on how your spouse should or shouldn’t expresses their grief. Be willing to let them grieve at their own pace and in their own way.
- Let your spouse see your grief. “Men don’t cry” is a fallacy. “Women are too emotional” is also a fallacy. As much as you’re able, try to disregard cultural constructs so you can be genuine with your grief in front of your spouse rather than trying to force it into a form it doesn’t naturally exist. Your spouse needs to see what grief expressed through your unique personhood looks like.
- Nurture good communication principles—practice active listening, avoid accusation, and stay away from “always” and “never” statements. Reflect back on what you heard the other say and ask for clarity when needed. Employ kindness, honesty, and respect in your word choice and tone. Grief often feels isolating so it’s important you are deliberate to include your spouse in your grief journey, rather than assume they understand—or can relate to—your process.
- Own your weaknesses and be willing to receiving loving correction when needed. It’s easy to hurt one another when you’re already hurting so commit to keeping short accounts, asking forgiveness, and giving opportunity for kind, truthful, vulnerable communication.
- Ask the other how you can help: What would you most appreciate while you grieve? What do you need? How can I serve you? What do you wish I already knew to do without asking?
Faith and Spirituality
- Draw near to Jesus together. Pray together and for one another. Take your shared burdens to the Lord. Ask God to protect your marriage. Seek his presence together as you heal. If you are grappling with theological issues, be honest about these and commit to finding your way through them together.
- Avoid religious clichés. In our attempt to help people in pain we can sometimes circumvent the process of healing by using scripture out of context or trying to “fix” things with a pat answer masked in “helpful” theology. Theological issues surrounding suffering, God’s sovereignty, and theodicy (the problem of evil) are complex. Don’t treat these issues as if they’re simple or without regard to their deeper implications.
Sex and Intimacy
- Try to empathize with your spouse’s attitudes toward sex and intimacy, and commit to working together toward health and restoration (and eventually growth). Pursue intimacy both in ways that are meaningful to you and in ways that are meaningful to your spouse. This may look entirely different for each spouse so it’s important not to make assumptions.
- Make time to connect through things that bring you joy: laugh, have sex, enjoy a hobby together, cook something special together, or work on a shared project.
Finding Your Way Forward
- Find a way to give identity to your baby. Many couples find it helpful to name their baby. Since miscarriage can feel like such an abstract loss for some, the act of naming your baby can help your loss become more tangible.
- Consider how to commemorate your baby’s life and create a memory together such as: write a letter to your baby, release balloons, attend a memorial walk, or make a charitable donation in your baby’s name.
- Be open to getting professional help. Miscarriage can be traumatic on many levels and it’s normal to need help processing the issues that surface as a result. Research has shown that 40% of women may experience PTSD after miscarriage, so take these issues seriously and access the professional help you need—individually or as a couple.
- Be intentional to remember. Mark your calendar the week before baby’s due date, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and other important days such as the anniversary of your miscarriage. Help your spouse to see that his or her ongoing grief journey matters and that you won’t forget the life you created together.
Your marriage might be strained after a miscarriage, but as pressure on a net can bind the knots stronger, allow this pressure to fuse you together and build resiliency in your relationship rather than tear you apart. In all of these suggestions, turn toward one another, not away. Choose trust. Offer empathy. Pursue humility. Cultivate intimacy. Your marriage will emerge stronger for it.
Adriel Booker is a writer and speaker in Sydney, Australia where she co-leads a non-profit with her husband. She’s the author of Grace Like Scarlett: Grieving with Hope after Miscarriage and Loss. Find Adriel on Twitter @adrielbooker and download her free guide to journaling through grief after pregnancy loss.