Miscarriage is a loss that can feel both utterly devastating and enormously complex. No language captures the combination of shock, anguish, and overwhelming sadness a woman may experience in the aftermath, especially if it was a desperately longed-for pregnancy. Or, if she was ambivalent about the pregnancy or didn’t want it at all, she may feel a confusing mixture of relief and sorrow, two feelings that are hard to reconcile.
Every miscarriage is unique, but most include an element of horror. A woman may have to make several terrified trips to her doctor’s office for blood tests measuring her levels of pregnancy hormone (a pattern of decrease indicates a miscarriage). She could be at a routine prenatal appointment and during the ultrasound hear silence where there should be a heartbeat. She may wake up in the middle of the night hemorrhaging. Many first-trimester miscarriages take place at home, whether in a few hours or over several days. Either way, the miscarrying woman has to witness the fetus come out of her body and decide whether or not to flush it down the toilet. Women in later stages of pregnancy will need to undergo intrusive but necessary medical procedures to remove the fetus and pregnancy tissue.
Adding to the heartache is the fact that miscarriage is somehow still a taboo subject. Even the most benevolent loved ones may not know how to respond to a woman who has lost a pregnancy. Well-intentioned, they may nonetheless react insensitively, immediately asking medically related questions about why it happened (frequently there is no answer); matter-of-factly suggesting that “at least it wasn’t later in your pregnancy”; or saying nothing at all out of fear of upsetting the grieving woman or concern that she may feel intruded upon. Women are rarely encouraged by family members or friends to tell the story of their miscarriage. They may therefore feel reluctant to talk about it either to avoid reliving the trauma or because they think the graphic details would be an imposition on the listener. All this is vastly isolating.
The length of one’s pregnancy doesn’t determine the intensity of grief; the depth of attachment does.
Miscarriage may bring a deep need for spiritual consolation—to reduce isolation, make meaning out of the loss, and figure out how to move forward. While the dharma can be profoundly helpful, it can also cause harm if not put to use skillfully. If you have miscarried, please keep in mind that not all teachings will be appropriate for where you are right now. It’s important to use discernment: one person’s medicine is another’s poison. Don’t try to apply anything that doesn’t resonate or makes you feel worse. Moreover, the content of this article may not match how you experienced pregnancy loss at all. That certainly does not make your experience any less valid.
One of the hallmarks of Buddhism is its recognition of the truth of interdependence—that everything arises due to multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists on its own. In terms of relationships, interdependence can be thought of as a profound web of interconnectivity that is ever present. We can falsely perceive ourselves as fundamentally separate from others, but there are moments in life that create an unexpected opening, so that we catch a glimpse of this ultimate reality. It can be powerfully transformative: as we realize how truly connected we are to others, our loneliness recedes, we feel lighter and more resilient, and we move forward in our lives with a greater appreciation for our shared humanity. Compassion toward ourselves and others flows more freely.
The loss of a pregnancy, while shockingly painful, can be one such time. One of the best-known Buddhist stories, the parable of the mustard seed, illustrates this point precisely. A woman whose only child dies is overwhelmed with grief, and in her great suffering she goes to the Buddha for help. To her relief, he says that he can indeed help her, but before he does so she must bring him a single mustard seed from a house that has not known death. As the woman searches from one house to the next, she realizes that such a place does not exist, because the death of a loved one is an inescapable reality for everyone. In that flash of illumination, the woman recognizes that the pain she is feeling is or will become familiar to everyone. Her experience is fundamentally knowable by others. The misperception of separateness from others dissolves. Her despair begins to heal.
Grief over the loss of a pregnancy is every bit as real as the mother’s pain that is depicted in the parable of the mustard seed. One could retell the story, replacing the death of a child with the loss of a pregnancy, and the conclusions would be the same. Unfortunately, because of the silence around miscarriage, women who have lost pregnancies are often left alone in grief, desperate for relief and unaware that many others deeply understand their pain. Moreover, they may even be confused about how “real” their suffering is. Because miscarriage is not publicly identified as a trauma, women who have miscarried are left without a context for understanding their experience; thus, many mischaracterize their intense feelings of loss and distress as an overreaction. The well-intentioned but insensitive exhortations from loved ones to “move forward” or “remember, now you know you can get pregnant” can inadvertently reinforce this belief.
It may be that like the mother in the story, each woman has to go on her own journey toward mutual recognition and healing. Connection is certainly out there to be found: pregnancy loss is such a common event. Among any woman’s friends, family, or acquaintances are others who have miscarried. It is essential that women be given opportunities to tell the story of their miscarriages, including all the graphic details of blood and physical pain, the shock of medical emergencies, whether they saw the fetus or not, and their feelings of desperation and powerlessness. This is the raw material of experience, which the path of Buddhism is meant to help us open to fully. Yet it is very hard to open fully to things that we keep hidden. Women who have miscarried also often need to hear the stories of other women, because these stories validate the extent of their suffering as real and meaningful.
Moreover, the intimate bond that is created through mutual storytelling can replace the sense of being isolated in grief with that glimpse of ultimate reality: we see the profound connection to others that we so often miss in daily life. One effect of that glimpse is a spontaneous sense of buoyancy and resilience accompanied by the natural flourishing of compassion, the desire for both ourselves and others not to suffer. The compassion women feel toward themselves begins to grow as they become more familiar with their own and others’ experiences. They can acknowledge that they have, in fact, been struggling with something meaningful. The tendency to cope by minimizing one’s suffering is abandoned; for example, by accepting the truth that it doesn’t matter how brief one’s pregnancy was. The length of one’s pregnancy doesn’t determine the intensity of grief; the depth of attachment does.
What’s truly amazing about such a glimpse of the ultimate is that when it happens, the sense of intimacy that is available to us can extend far beyond our individual friends and family members; in fact, it can transcend space and time. Once a woman loses a pregnancy, she is linked to every woman throughout history who has also experienced such loss. It is certainly not a sisterhood anyone would elect to join, but it can be a powerful context for feeling into the vastness of our possibility for connection. In this way, what started as a terrible and painful loss can become an unexpected opportunity for evolution.
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