This week a very sensitive topic was drawn into the spotlight when Meghan, Duchess of Sussex revealed details of her miscarriage in July. Estimates are that around one in four women have had a miscarriage but in my experience few mention it until someone else tells them about their recent loss. There are many sociological theories around why miscarriage is a taboo. Some feminists believe that a reproductive ‘failure’ carries social baggage as historical norms require a woman to be in a ‘productive’ monogamous relationship. I wonder whether there is also a superstitious aspect to our response. When people find out they are expecting it is unusual to tell anyone until around 10 or 12 weeks. Everything is put on hold until the result of a scan. Talking about pregnancy before this point doesn’t increase the likelihood of problems, but we act like it does. We can act as if mentioning it could curse the pregnancy. Similarly, I wonder how many women blame themselves for behaviours which they worry may have caused the loss. Have they been punished for their transgressions? Certainly, responses to miscarriage often include a sense of guilt and shame mixed in with grief.
Some organisations who know more about these things than me are suggesting that the fact that we keep pregnancy under wraps for the early weeks has a negative effect on those who miscarry. They suggest that the only reasons for this code of silence are the fear of miscarriage and the response of others to it. Many miscarriages go unnoticed by friends and colleagues as a result and women suffer in isolation. Some privately memorialise their loss and others push on as if nothing had happened. There is often a sense that to talk about it makes others uncomfortable. I have heard many stories of women who were amazed when friends and family shared their experiences of miscarriage when they learned of their loss. This is a surely a good thing, but it is noticeable that they very rarely knew how common the experience was until after they had experienced their own loss. Before this they had believed that miscarriage was a relatively unusual event. This only added to their sense of inadequacy and shame when they were unable to carry to full term.
Whatever the external response, what seems common is the internal experiences of loss, grief and in many cases, embarrassment and shame. It is very difficult (some would say impossible) to process these feelings alone, but for many, that’s what happens. Many women spend a lot of time trying to deal with all of these emotions without help, feeling ‘less than’ and unusual.
And then, there are the partners. They experience loss and grief. They are faced with many of the same social responses and they may be embarrassed to own the pain which, let’s face it, feels like it belongs to someone else. They are also the one closest to the grieving mother, witnessing their agonies, yet struggling to provide the support they want or need.
For everyone involved, the air of mystery and taboo surrounding miscarriage and its effects only adds to the misery of a pain un-shared. Any attempt to demystify the experience, whether it is by a Duchess or a politician, a celebrity or (most importantly) a friend must be a positive step. Meghan has received criticism in some quarters for speaking out. I’m sure that those who feel uncomfortable with this have their own reasons, but I personally can’t think of a social taboo that gets less damaging when we deny its existence. I hope that some women, and men have gained a little comfort from knowing that they are not alone, or unusual, in their suffering.
The effect of a miscarriage doesn’t last a few weeks or months. Like all emotional pain, it usually diminishes with time, but I suspect it is rarely extinguished. I remember the sadness in my own mother’s eyes when she told me about her miscarriage, 50 years previously. To me, that says so much: Pain and keeping it in for 50 years.
There are as many ways to deal with grief as there are people grieving. As with everything psychological, there are no simple answers or quick fixes. In my experience, however, silence is rarely if ever the most effective approach to sadness.
The miscarriage association:
A list of other organisations offering support: