“The pregnancy you lost, mommy, it’s so sad. How old would she be now? If Noa is five and a half, would she be like seven or something? How old was I when this happened?”
My son was 10 years old when I told him about the miscarriage I endured while home alone 16 weeks into my second pregnancy. Forever inquisitive and perceptive, my son already had a good idea of the work that I do as a psychologist specializing in maternal mental health. As I detail in my forthcoming book I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, a Movement, he knew—in a vague, age-appropriate sort of way—that not all pregnancies result in a live birth, and that pregnancy loss can and often does result in adverse mental health outcomes, like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders. He often told people his mom was a “doctor of the heart,” causing some to misinterpret his understanding of the mental and emotional needs of those who’ve experienced pregnancy and infant loss, leaving them to assume his mother was a cardiologist.
Still, in the immediate aftermath of my own miscarriage exprience, I was hesitant to discuss my miscarriage with him fully. As I write in I Had a Miscarriage: “I didn’t want to burden him, and wanted to be sure he was mature enough to handle something this complex.” But when he asked me about my day and I shared a few stories my patients were vulnerable enough to share with me, it happened. “Well, mommy, at least you never went through what these women went through,” my big-hearted boy said. “Actually, though… I guess if you had you’d be able to understand them better.” At that moment, I knew it was time.
“Well, sweetie, I did, actually,” I responded.
There’s only so much planning we, as parents, can do for conversations such as these. And given the pervasive stigma surrounding pregnancy and infant loss that can add to the overall fear and anxiety these discussions can preemptively bring, it’s common for parents to shy away from them or avoid them entirely. But studies have shown comprehensive sex education, including the myriad pregnancy outcomes people can and do experience, is vital to the overall sexual health and wellbeing of young people.
So if you’re looking for ways to discuss a miscarriage, recent or otherwise, with a child, here are the things to consider, the important points you should make, and how to handle the conversation in an age-appropriate way that will benefit the entire family.
Make Sure You’re Ready
As the common saying goes, you must put your own oxygen mask on before administering someone else’s. And while society would try to convince us otherwise, there is no linear timeline for grief, mourning, and healing from any kind of traumatic loss, miscarriage included. If you are not ready to discuss your miscarriage with anyone, including your children, that’s OK and not a representation of your mental and emotional strength nor your abilities as a parent. Children pick up on and often rely on their parent’s emotions to help them form their responses to situations, so it’s most helpful to make sure you’re in a headspace that will best allow you to guide your child through their own process as they digest the discussion.
Oftentimes, before having these conversations with someone who has never experienced pregnancy or infant loss before, it’s helpful to talk about your experience with people who have. I encourage people to seek out loss communities, therapy, and/or other support groups if they need to sort through their feelings out loud, and in an environment with others who can better understand and support you. It’s best to be mindful of the communities you join — not all are created equal — and to keep in mind that pregnancy loss communities are not necessarily helpful or beneficial for everyone. No two pregnancy losses are the same, therefore there is no “one size fits all” way to process, respond to, and heal from your own unique circumstances.
Make It Clear It’s No One’s Fault
Much like conversations centering around divorce or a parent separation, it’s common for children to immediately blame themselves for a pregnancy or infant loss. This is primarily due to their cognitive development, which leave them centering themselves and/or only seeing things through their perspectives. So it’s vital that throughout the conversation, and perhaps even at the start, you remind your child that they are in no way responsible for any pregnancy outcome, especially one that ends in a loss. And, that it’s not the fault of the mom either.
Studies have shown that most miscarriages are the result of fetal or chromosomal abnormalities, and not the result of anything the pregnant person — or anyone else — did. When your child inevitably asks why the pregnancy or infant loss happened, it can be helpful to lean heavily on the scientific aspects of reproduction. By centering the science of miscarriage, you remove the possibility for stigma and shame to seep into the conversation.
Be Sure The Conversation is Age-Appropriate
It’s common for parents to assume that children are simply too young to understand complex concepts, but kids are far more equipped to understand the complications of life than they’re often given credit for. For example, one 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that young children can understand complex scientific concepts like natural selection.
For young children, it’s best to avoid using words like “miscarriage,” as they can be difficult to understand. Instead, rely on simpler terminology, definitions, and explanations that they can better comprehend. If you use words and concepts that they already know and understand, the knowledge that you were at one time pregnant and now you’re not will be less likely to overwhelm them. There are a number of children’s books that discuss miscarriage that you can also use to help your child understand what occurred in a way that’s more digestible and understandable.
For older children who have an understanding of science, the human body, sex and reproductive health, again it’s encouraged that you rely heavily on the scientific details of reproduction. You can explain why these things happen, how human bodies reproduce, and the myriad complications that can arise that are, simply put, no one’s fault. Make space for them to grieve in a way that works best for them, while also acknowledging that you are also grieving.
“But what do the mommies do the next day? Without the baby?” my son asked near the end of that initial conversation.
“They rest. They cry. They remember. They receive support,” I replied.
And at that, he asked to feel my heartbeat, and offered to let me feel his.
What a milestone moment this was, sharing about my loss with my older child. My tender-hearted son.
This article includes excerpts from the upcoming memoir I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, a Movement.
Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in reproductive and maternal mental health and the creator of the #IHadaMiscarriage campaign. Her first book is now availableI HAD A MISCARRIAGE: A Memoir, a Movement .