Despite how common miscarriage is, those who go through it often find it to be a painfully isolating experience. It frequently happens before the expectant mum or couple have told friends or family—or even their other children.
“What compounds a grief and an anguish is the silencing and shadowy nature of it,” says Julia Bueno, a London-based therapist and mother whose new book, The Brink of Being: Talking About Miscarriage, released in May.
That “silencing and shadowy nature” can make it difficult for parents who experience a miscarriage to talk about it with their own kids, who may or may not have even known about the pregnancy. And because each miscarriage experience is so unique to the individual, there is no true formula for how to talk to your kids about it.
In general, though, Bueno encourages an open, ongoing and age-appropriate dialogue between parents and their kids.
Finding the right words
How you talk to your children about a miscarriage will vary depending on both their age and emotional maturity. For younger children, you’ll probably want to be low on physical details and medical terminology and keep your explanations simple. You might use an analogy, such as how when you plant a seed, it doesn’t always grow into a full plant.
“It might not be appropriate to sit a two-year-old down and go into great detail,” Bueno says. “But even when kids don’t have the language, they can understand and get the gist of something.”
For older kids, you can give a more thorough explanation and be ready to answer any questions they have. Make sure they understand that they don’t need to worry about your health, that these things simply happen sometimes and no one really knows why. If you’re a family of faith, that may factor in to the way you talk to your kids about the miscarriage.
Because kids have a way of blaming themselves when they’re not sure who is at fault, make sure they understand this did not happen because of anything they did. Explain that you may seem sad—because you are—but that it’s just because you’re missing the baby.
If they didn’t know about the pregnancy
Couples often keep the news of a pregnancy to themselves or a small circle of close family and friends in the early weeks. They may not want to tell many people, including their children, until later in the pregnancy when it seems safer.
But even if you hadn’t told your kids about the pregnancy before the miscarriage, chances are good that they’re picking up on the fact that something is going on. Whether you choose to tell them now or not is a personal decision; but either way, you should acknowledge your own sadness in some way.
“Don’t underestimate our child’s ability to suss out that something’s wrong even when we think they might not,” Bueno says. “When we’re little creatures, we kind of pick up on the vibe of what’s going on with mum and dad.”
Bueno says she considers miscarriages to be part of the family’s story and that parents shouldn’t be afraid to be open and talk with their kids about what happened, even after the fact. “For me, I absolutely couldn’t hide it because it’s such a part of my narrative and what makes me, ‘me,’” she says.
They may grieve, too
Your child might want to comfort you, and they might also be grieving their own loss of a potential sibling. Be sure to check in with your child periodically to see how they’re feeling and if they need to talk about it.
Bueno’s oldest son was nearly 7 before her second son was born; in between, she’d experienced three miscarriages, all of which he knew about.
“We couldn’t fix it for him,” she says. “But we gave him the space to air that, and I would check in with him ... and I would have those conversations with him.”
Kids who are born after a miscarriage may also have mixed feelings about how they came to be born that are important to acknowledge. Both of Bueno’s sons were conceived after miscarriages, and she says, “there’s a paradox there because they have both kind of mused out loud, ‘Would we be here if they had lived?’ It’s a puzzle that there’s no answer to.”
Consider a family ritual
Grief is an ongoing and individual process that might never end with true “closure.” But engaging in some sort of activity as a family as a way to say goodbye may be helpful for both the parents and the kids. You might plant a tree together, for example, or a memorial garden.
“For lots of grieving couples, creating a ritual or, if there is a body to bury, having a funeral caps the relationship you had with your unborn,” Bueno says. “It is a symbolic gesture, a transition between what was and what now is.”
Keep the conversation going
Bueno says this should not be a one-and-done conversation, but rather an element of the family’s story that remains an open topic that can be discussed from time to time, as needed or as it comes up.
“You know your kid better than anybody else,” Bueno says. “It’s about attunement and giving them opportunities to speak, checking with them on how they feel, taking their cue and keeping that conversation open.”
As a result, we may be able raise a generation that is more open and compassionate about the topic of pregnancy loss as they enter their own adulthood.