What not to say to a co-worker who experienced a miscarriage

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When cookbook author Chrissy Teigen and singer John Legend shared their pregnancy loss with the world on social media last week, it sparked a national conversation among professionals who handled their own pregnancy losses in silence.

People came forward with their own experiences, and it became a reminder that although pregnancy loss is common, there is still not a shared understanding of how to talk about it.

Not everyone feels comfortable sharing information about a pregnancy with colleagues. And while some commenters on Twitter thanked Teigen and Legend for going public with their story and including remembrance photos, others questioned the decision, perhaps not understanding how such images can play a powerful role in the healing process for bereaved parents.

It’s likely that you work with someone who has gone through this experience or may someday. Up to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriages, and there are 2.6 million stillbirths around the world each year.

When a loss is acknowledged in the office, it’s important to be supportive, and the primary thing to understand is that pregnancy loss can take a real emotional toll. According to a study by Imperial College London, 4 in 10 women reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder three months after their miscarriage, and 30% said this stress affected their work life.

If you are wondering how to support a colleague going through such a loss, consider first what not to say:

1. Even if you’re religious, don’t say it was God’s plan.

When speaking with a co-worker grieving a pregnancy loss, it is really important to keep anything remotely religious out of the conversation, said Julie Bindeman, a reproductive psychologist based in Rockville, Maryland.

“This can be hard for well-intentioned people that have a deep faith and truly believe ideas like, ‘This happened for a reason,'” Bindeman said. “For the majority of people that have experienced a pregnancy loss, hearing such a platitude makes them angry and [feel] misunderstood.”

When you’re wondering what to say, let the person going through the pregnancy loss lead. “Take your cues from the bereaved parent,” said Rayna Markin, a psychologist and associate professor in counseling at Villanova University. “Some bereaved parents will not want to talk about their loss in the workplace, whereas for others, a condolence card, flowers, a simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ helps them to feel supported and less alone.”

2. Avoid “at least…” comments.

Jessica Zucker, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in maternal mental health, said comments like “At least you know you can get pregnant, at least you have a healthy child, at least you have a thriving career, at least you were ambivalent about having another one” are minimizing.

“‘At least’ is not a compassionate way to start a sentence,” Zucker said. What people are often trying to convey with “at least you know you can get pregnant” is encouragement that it will happen again, she said, but no one can say this with certainty.

Additionally, “at least” comments minimize the experience of people who wanted the pregnancy. “They wanted this pregnancy, so letting someone know they got pregnant and therefore they will again is just painful,” Zucker said.

In general, avoid platitudes that “unintentionally minimize or invalidate the bereaved parent’s loss, such as, ‘It happens all the time, it’s for the best, time heals all wounds,'” Markin said.

3. But don’t magnify the loss, either.

“I had someone tell me, ‘I would die if what happened to you happened to me’…The truth is, we have to survive what we go through, so hearing that doesn’t help.”

Zucker said colleagues should not assume that the loss is devastating, either.

“I had someone tell me, ‘I would die if what happened to you happened to me,'” said Zucker, who personally experienced a miscarriage at 16 weeks. “The truth is, we have to survive what we go through, so hearing that doesn’t help.”

Instead of comparing and contrasting your own experience of loss to your co-worker’s, Zucker said you should stay open about what you don’t know with language like, “I haven’t been through this, I don’t know how you’re feeling. Do you want to share with me?”

4. Do not say nothing.

Bindeman said she has heard from clients who had co-workers they felt close to but who never acknowledged their loss. “Oftentimes, this is because the person just doesn’t know what to say, so rather than not be helpful, they stay silent,” Bindeman said.

But this can be one of the biggest mistakes colleagues can make. Bindeman said acknowledgment can simply sound like, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Not everyone wants to talk about a pregnancy they lost, Bindeman said, but many do.

Showing support is not a one-time action, either. If you have a close relationship to your grieving colleague, remember to check in after the initial conversation.

“What becomes hard is that once a few weeks pass and things look ‘back to normal,’ others tend to forget the loss has ever happened, whereas the parent that experienced the loss continues to remember, and feels isolated by others forgetting,” Bindeman said, noting that this experience is individual and some people are uncomfortable and private about their losses.

If you’re a manager, you need to get specific.

If you are a boss or manager, being compassionate means listening to your employee’s needs and offering the same accommodations that follow any other loss.

“Treating pregnancy loss like any other kind of loss helps to validate the parent’s loss as real and grief as legitimate,” Markin said. For example, giving a colleague time off from work to mourn and asking him or her how you can best support them are two options bosses can offer, she said.

In fact, if you’re a boss, treating your employee differently by refusing to accommodate them after a pregnancy loss can be illegal under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which covers mistreatment of pregnancy-related medical conditions like miscarriage or stillbirth. Under the bill, at companies with 15 or more employees in America, a boss cannot demote, cut hours or fire an employee for experiencing a pregnancy loss.

It’s key for managers to recognize the power differential in conversations after a loss. An employee may be concerned that disclosing a pregnancy loss could signal a loss in productivity, for example. A compassionate boss would put those concerns to rest by making it clear to an employee that taking time off work and doing less is more than acceptable.

But bosses should also not assume what their employees need and take them off a work project. Some people see working as a reprieve from their grief, Zucker said.

“Support is not a one-time action. If you have a close relationship to your grieving colleague, remember to check in after the initial conversation.”

Bosses should also be sensitive to other pregnancies within teams. Bindeman noted that if office baby showers are a company ritual and one is being planned, they can give the grieving co-worker a heads up, making it clear that attendance is optional and asking the person if they want to be on emails about the shower.

What bosses can do to help is to overall make it clear that this experience is common. A person who has just experienced pregnancy loss doesn’t want to feel that their boss and colleagues are “walking on eggshells,” Zucker said, because they did nothing wrong.

“This is just something that happens a lot. Ideally [the boss will] put that out there, so it’s not something you’re also worried about – ‘Is my boss going to be mad that I have another doctor’s appointment for a follow-up?'”

Instead, managers should already have assured their colleague that they can take as much time as needed to grieve.

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