In 2014, I lost 3 babies to consecutive miscarriages. It was a devastating year and if possible, the only thing worse than having the miscarriages was having to return to life after you have miscarried. In my case, I returned to work, after losing my twins in April, only to face another miscarriage in June. Fortunately, only a few of my coworkers knew about my 2nd loss. But let’s talk about my return to work after my twin loss.
I returned to work, feeling like a shell of my former self. By that time, people knew that I was pregnant and that I had lost a baby. Added to the emotional pain of the loss, I was now dealing with feelings I didn’t expect. Feelings of shame and guilt (maybe I should have taken it easier) as well as an overwhelming sense of isolation. Most of my coworkers were nice enough, but it was painfully obvious that they had no idea what to do or say. And why would they? There is so much silence surrounding miscarriage that it can leave the impression that we just want to forget it happened.
The problem though is that this is hardly ever the case. So, I am suggesting a few things that coworkers can do, to engage with a coworker who has returned to work after a miscarriage.
Please note that this refers to both female and male coworkers whose partners have suffered a miscarriage.
Address Acknowledge the elephant in the room
Having a miscarriage is one of the most isolating events that could happen to a would-be parent. I understand that dead babies do not make for great coffee break conversations but no matter how awkward you believe that conversation to be, completely ignoring us or our experience would be even worse. So let’s take it slowly. Maybe you aren’t close enough to actually have a conversation with your coworker that addresses the loss, maybe you both clashed at the last staff meeting. I get it. So here is a foolproof, no-way-you-can-mess-it-up-plan for acknowledging a coworker returning to work after a miscarriage.
Find a quiet moment, look your coworker in the eye and say “I am sorry for your loss”. Not the ground-breaking advice you were expecting? But yes, it is that simple. According to Dr. Jessica Zucker, Clinical Psychologist, keeping it simple can express empathy and provide connection. We may not have all experienced a miscarriage but we all understand loss. This breaks the awkward ice and opens the channels for communication.
2. Offer a listening ear
This one obviously calls for more than a casual, passing relationship and there are a few important things to consider. Firstly, you need to be honest about the level of interaction you can handle.
Can you listen to emotional details about loss or are you currently grieving the loss of someone or something at the moment and this would prove too much for you?
Secondly, do you believe that you can respectfully handle the information that would be shared with you should your coworker choose to do so?
I remember a coworker telling me once that she heard a rumor around the office that I was dying of cancer. Cancer?? Somehow, the story of my miscarriages had been told and retold until I ended up having cancer I guess. The point is, if you are going to offer a listening ear, which really is a noble thing to do, I beg you to be careful with the information received. Understand that you are being trusted with someone’s story and it is taking a lot from them to trust you with it.
Finally, if you are offering a listening ear, it would be a good idea to do just that – listen. Filling the silence with fluffy platitudes and often hurtful minimizations can often be damaging to the person and your relationship with them.
3. Include us
I know you probably figured that we are not in the mood to lime or celebrate and that our miscarriages have made us significantly less fun to be around. Maybe you are concerned that inviting us out would seem insensitive or that it will make us cry uncontrollably and maybe this is all true. Invite us anyway!
After my miscarriages, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and stay there. What got me through it was the gradual exposure to life that human interaction can provide. We spend more time at work than we do anywhere else and many of our work relationships become social ones. Imagine for a moment, if you lost your child and then lost your social circle. Sad right, but very often, this is exactly what happens.
It will be awkward, you may face rejection but yea, invite us anyway. Maybe your invitation could be just what we need to feel less invisible and remind us that we are more than just a person who had a miscarriage and that our coworkers see all of who we are, even during our grief. Or maybe we just won’t show up.
4. Stop hiding your babies
Following a miscarriage, it can be hard to see pregnant women, babies or even young children and hearing about someone else becoming pregnant can create a multitude of feelings. Of all the feelings that I may have experienced – grief, sadness, even anger – wishing someone else’s child or unborn baby harm was never one of them. So stop hiding your babies.
Actually, I don’t think wishing someone else’s child harm is so much a feeling as it is an act of evil but I digress.
Soon after my miscarriages, I knew several women who gave birth to healthy babies, including a few coworkers. One of the few blessings at that time of my life was seeing that not every pregnancy ends in death. It was encouraging to see that some babies can be born healthy and it made me look forward to the time when I would have my own healthy baby.
What wasn’t so great was seeing absolute fear on someone’s face that I was going to infect them with my miscarriage having, dead baby juju. According to the World Health Organization, miscarriages are non-communicable events and my miscarriage has very little to do with your baby*
*The above is a completely fabricated statement based solely on my observation and a little common sense.
And yet I understand it. Culturally we tend to ascribe supernatural causes to misfortunes like miscarriages. Something has to separate you from me and my miscarriage. I get it, I do. But as coworkers, we may continue to exist in the same space for years at a time. Hiding your pregnancy, or avoiding talking about your children, only reinforces the idea that there was something wrong with me and creates even more isolation and depression. And truthfully, we just want to feel normal again or at least not feel as if we are social pariahs.
I am reminded of another coworker who pulled me aside and in a tone filled with concern, asked what was I doing wrong that God was punishing me with my miscarriages. Ummm lots I guess?
5. Have patience with us
Everything came to a screeching halt for me and by the time I returned to work, I was processing things differently. My ability to understand the punchline of the joke, my ability to figure out the next assignment and even my ability to pay attention was filtered through my loss.
What I needed most at that time, was to know that even though I am not who I used to be, I am still worth having around.
Yes, we may be forever changed, but we are still worth telling the joke to or trusting with a new project. Having patience as we fight through one of the most difficult battles a person can face, shows us that our work environments are safe places. And when we come out on the other side, braver, stronger and more compassionate, everyone benefits.
I know none of this is easy. There are no perfect words and so much uncertainty surrounding miscarriage. Even among those of us who have had miscarriages, there is still a lot of secrecy and miscommunication. And there is no way for me to tell you what would be the right thing to do in each situation but I can tell you this: having a miscarriage can strip you of a lot, it shouldn’t rob you of the genuine relationships and work environment you previously enjoyed.