In my last post I wrote about how real life doesn’t come with trigger warnings; how different things can sneak up on me and leave me feeling sad or anxious at times I’d prefer not to be. At work, during a meeting, or out with friends. What I didn’t write about is how others can help a bereaved parent, or really anyone who has a life story you don’t fully know, avoid sticky questions or embrace sticky answers. It is simple: consider that what you understand to be an innocuous question may be a loaded question to someone else.
In church a few weeks ago, the sermon was about Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), and how we
are our brother or sister or neighbor’s keeper. The point of the sermon was we don’t need to be jealous of other people’s blessings but can share in their joy (a lesson I’m working on internalizing). I also see being my neighbor’s keeper as having empathy and an awareness of the way we interact with others. Doing my best to not do harm to another. If I am going to ask loaded questions, it is going to be in a safe space, but more often than not I’m going to try to let someone else tell their story instead of leading them to the story I want to hear.
Below are a sampling of the questions or comments I have actually faced and my typical responses:
When are you two going to start having kids?
My thoughts: Ugh. None of your business!
My answer: We have had two pregnancy losses, but we do hope to try again when the time is right.
Awareness: This question is tough both for parents struggling with infertility and those who have lost pregnancies or had adoptions fall through. We don’t know any couple’s story or timeline, and we don’t know if a couple isn’t even planning to have children.
How many kids do you have?
My thoughts: Two. I have two kids. They both died.
My answer: We had a daughter who was stillborn and recently lost another in miscarriage.
Awareness: Asking for a number of children can even be tricky for loss families who have living children—they are left to wonder whether they only address those who survived or if they include the ones who died.
How’s the baby?
My thoughts: Shoot. They didn’t know. I didn’t even realize this person noticed I was pregnant. I almost never see them. Why are they asking me this?
My answer: Unfortunately, our daughter was stillborn.
Follow up questions/comments:
Well, you can try again./You’re young, you’ll have more chances.
My thoughts: We did try again and we had a miscarriage. That is raw and it hurts. Don’t assume making and growing living babies is easy for everyone!
My answer: Yes, we can try again. Hopefully we will one day have living children.
At least it was just a baby, not an older child.
My thoughts: Go read a book about how to talk to people who have lost pregnancies or babies in the NICU. Seriously, Google “what not to say to someone who had a miscarriage” and learn from it.
My answer: Silence.
Awareness: Moms return from maternity leave all the time, and most of the moms I’ve known returning from maternity leave are quick to talk about their babies and show photos. Unless you know for sure there’s an alive baby, maybe wait for the mom to bring him/her up. Or, say, “Welcome back,” and ask how the mom is doing.
How are you? Or How are you doing?
My thoughts: Oh gosh, does this person know about Rayna? About LO? Are they asking this as a general greeting or do they really want to know? Is this the right place for me to say I’m feeling sad/anxious/stressed/hopeless/distracted today?
My answer: I’m okay.
Awareness: Seriously, if this question is just a greeting, try “hello” instead.
[It hopefully goes without saying that you should never ask a woman when the baby is due. There are numerous reasons for this, but the most applicable here is that the postpartum body still looks a bit pregnant, and if you ask a loss mom when she’s due days or weeks after she lost her baby, well, be prepared.]
I tend to respond to the questions pretty honestly, but some loss families have more difficulty with these questions. When I answer honestly, I almost always find other stories of pregnancy and infant loss. The universe that felt very small and scary when the question was asked suddenly opens back up and reminds me I am not alone. However, this only happens in safe spaces and with trusted people. I don’t always choose to be vulnerable at the grocery store or during my first time meeting someone.
The statistics are out there; infertility and pregnancy loss are very common but only sometimes talked about. If you’re reading this and know me, know that several other people in my circle of family and friends have had their own challenges. You might not be aware of the stress you are adding to someone’s life by asking personal questions about their hopes or plans for having babies. (And seriously, in a way you’re asking about their sex life, and that is just awkward!)
Perhaps this week we can start trying other conversation starters:
- Have you tried any new restaurants lately?
- What are you passionate about?
- Are you watching anything good on Netflix?
- What gives your life meaning and hope?
- Has your pet been up to any more antics this week?
- In the right setting: How are you doing? I heard about ______ and wanted to check in.
What alternative conversations starters might you suggest?