Samantha Payne tells me about her child who would be starting kindy next year, but who was lost in a miscarriage. “I always remember their milestones. For me, I have two living children but I carry three forever in my heart and I will always acknowledge those babies,” she tells Refinery29 Australia over the phone.
As the CEO of Pink Elephants, Australia's first charity dedicated to early pregnancy loss, Payne says that the lack of support around her miscarriages is what drove her to start the not-for-profit.
“If you imagine any other death, a week later, you're not expected to be ok. The problem with miscarriage is that, for me, my baby died. And a week later I was expected to be completely normal and ready to try and conceive again and just moved on,” Payne says.
"We had several losses in between our two children, and each time I was dumbfounded by this misperception that it's something that happens early so you get over it quickly because I was feeling something so different. It was profound and it changed me forever — I will always remember those babies that didn't make it.”
In Australia, one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, but the shame that clouds pregnancy loss isn’t subdued by how common it is. Payne says Pink Elephants sometimes provides support for those who experienced loss 20 years ago, because they were never offered help then.
With a statistic so high, it’s inevitable that someone you love will experience a miscarriage. Grief is messy, uncomfortable and painful. Navigating how to comfort a friend or family member through this 'taboo' experience is difficult, but don’t let the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing hold you back from trying to help at all.
“I know [providing support] is awkward if you haven't been through it,” says Payne. “But it's a million times more painful for the person going through this who's having to not only process the loss themselves but also trying to find a way to articulate it to people who don't understand.”
What To Say (And Not Say) To Someone Who Has Experienced A Miscarriage
The worst thing you can do is sweep someone’s miscarriage under the rug and not speak about it at all.
“It's about acknowledgement [and] validation rather than saying nothing because the silence is deafening,” says Payne. “Remember that you have an opportunity as a friend or a loved one to be a support person for someone going through this by validating their experience, even if you've not been through it yourself.”
Payne offers simple phrases like, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this’ and ‘I’m here for you’. Because miscarriages happen early in the pregnancy, minimising statements are often thrown around in hopes of reassuring the survivor — things like ‘at least you know you can get pregnant’ or ‘at least it happed early’ diminish the pain of the person’s experience. “
“We want to remove minimis[ation] and we want to move towards validating and meeting people with empathy and understanding and just providing them a safe space to listen to their experience.”
What Actions Can Help?
“Send flowers, send condolences, [drop] meals around for a week for them,” recommends Payne. “Any other death is often met with a flurry of action around that person… and miscarriage doesn't often have that, so it's really important if we want to start validating miscarriages through bereavement, that we treat it like any other grief.”
Checking in on your loved one also proves to be crucial. “Consistently check in without an expected response. [The survivor is] often in this fight or flight grief, an I-want-to-hide-under-the-duvet-for-the-rest-of-my-life phase, and that's perfectly normal. But we need to get better at making sure that we do things to help them get through.”
How Should Someone's Partner Support Them After A Miscarriage?
When I ask Payne how partners can best support their grieving partner, she’s quick to remind me that they themselves will be dealing with grief too.
“We need to also make sure that partners aren't just put into a support role. They also went on this journey where they saw those two blue lines, they envisioned a baby, they thought of baby names. They thought about where the nursery would be, they imagined themselves kicking a soccer ball with that child in the future. They too have suffered loss, albeit they don't have the physical loss, but they have that experience of an imagined future that's no longer there so they also need support,” Payne shares.
Grief manifests itself differently in people; some might jump into the role of a translational griever who tries to practically ‘fix’ the problem, and others may be intuitive grievers who process grief in more of an outwardly emotional way. “I think it's about empowering partners to understand that they may grieve differently through this process — but it doesn't mean that the other one’s not grieving.”
She encourages partners to understand that there is no deadline for grief, that after a month, a year or a decade, their partner may still be processing the pain.
What Happens If Miscarriage Survivors Don’t Receive Adequate Support?
Payne acknowledges the many factors that have contributed to miscarriage becoming a cultural taboo — “it's women's health, it's the death of a baby, it’s a visualisation of blood, and a gynaecological issue.”
“It's also really difficult for a woman to articulate that they've lost a pregnancy; there's an element of shame that comes into play even though it's absolutely nothing they've done. When you are the one in four who can't just fall pregnant or falls pregnant and loses their baby, you feel a deep sense of shame,” Payne says.
Normalising miscarriage as bereavement, rather than as a failure of womanhood, means that grief can be processed in a much healthier way. “Often what we find is if we don't start to grieve, we find that it presents much later in poor mental health outcomes; you’ll end up with anxiety, depression, stress disorders and even suicidal thoughts.”
“It can't be disenfranchised grief any longer,” says Payne, referring to the silence around miscarriage or minimisation of a person’s experience when we refuse to give them the space and tools to properly grieve. To combat this, the antithesis to disenfranchisement is validating the person’s experience.
What Does Longterm Support Look Like?
As a support person to the miscarriage survivor, it’s important to learn to check in for many months after. “This is not something we touched on it that's just one moment in time — this then goes on to the whole journey of that woman potentially trying to conceive again, potentially carrying another pregnancy and being terrified of loss,” says Payne.
Acknowledging the loss every year is something Payne recommends too. “We see within the stillbirth community families are getting better at acknowledging babies’ birthdays and celebrating with cake and an act of kindness, but we see that so much less in early pregnancy loss.”
“So includ[e] that baby in the number of grandchildren. If that baby had a name, us[e] that baby's name. Remember that that baby will forever be held within that woman's heart and will always be remembered, so acknowledging that and getting comfortable with that is important.”