Holly Richardson: There are ways to get through the grief of a miscarriage

In this Thursday, April 26, 2018, photo, artist Ashley MacLure holds her painting "The Dream" created from acrylic paint and color marker on a glass plate, at her home in Milford, Mass. The blank space at the center is meant to represent the absence of a child due to a miscarriage. MacLure hopes her paintings, inspired by miscarriage, will help end the stigma of pregnancy loss. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

It’s been a while now, but I still remember what it was like to confirm that I was expecting our fourth child. To announce it to my husband, I ordered a cake that said “Hip, hip, hooray, a baby’s on the way!”

Two days later, I began to miscarry that baby and I was so distraught that I took a butter knife and slashed what was left of the cake into a bunch of mangled bits.

What I did not know then was that was the beginning of what would become dozens of miscarriages, most of them first trimester, but also a little girl during my second trimester. We thought we were “safe,” and I had begun to let myself believe we might actually hold her in our arms. It was devastating for us.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. The stats can be staggering. Almost one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage and one in 160 pregnancies end in stillbirth — 23,385 babies annually. Another 4,084 are lost to prematurity and 1,568 are lost to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Those deaths represent a lot of grieving families.

Miscarriage might be the least understood of all of the losses — after all, some might say, you never really “knew” that baby. But miscarriage grief isn’t proportionate to how long you were pregnant.

Miscarriages, and sometimes other infant losses, are not readily acknowledged by our culture at large. There may be no body to bury. There are no established rituals to provide comfort and closure. Unless or until you or someone close to you goes through a miscarriage, common responses from others can be minimizing and hurtful. “Oh, you can always try again,” or "It was for the best.” I had a doozy of one once when an acquaintance told me that miscarrying was God’s way of telling me my family was big enough. Ouch.

When someone you love has lost a baby, at any age or stage, there are many ways you can help support them through their grief.

First, just acknowledge it. You don’t have to find the “perfect” thing to say. There is no perfect thing. Just saying you are sorry can be enough. Don’t minimize or try to one-up.

If it is possible, help them create memories with and about that baby. If the pregnancy is lost early, this might mean a poem, a locket, a small figurine or even a tiny blanket to wrap the baby in after he or she is delivered. If the baby is lost later, this can include taking footprints, making foot or hand molds, getting tiny burial gowns like those from the Angel Gown program and taking photographs. It may be months — years even — before families may be able to look at those photos, but they become so precious. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is an organization where professional photographers volunteer their time to come to the hospital to take heirloom pictures of babies who have died.

Understand that grief can be physical, from aching arms, to breasts filling with milk but no baby to nurse, to difficulty breathing to trouble sleeping. It is also, clearly, emotional, with crying jags sometimes interspersed with numbness, from disorientation and inability to make decisions to feelings of guilt, helplessness, hopelessness and increased fear that something bad will happen to another loved one.

Recognize that due dates and holidays can be particularly painful times. Subsequent pregnancies can also be fraught with fear. After all, if it happened once, it could happen again. I love the idea that has taken hold about “rainbow babies,” or babies born after a loss, celebrating the new baby while acknowledging that the loss of their sibling.

It is important to remember that everyone grieves differently. Partners grieve differently, friends likely grieve differently than you and even the same person with multiple losses will grieve differently from loss to loss.

Finally, for parents who have lost a baby: Please believe me when I tell you that you can find joy again. Your grief will never go away, but it changes and it softens. You can get through this. And I will join you on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. in lighting a candle for our lost babies.

| Courtesy Holly Richardson, op-ed mug.

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, still gets teary remembering her lost babies, even though it’s been decades.