07 March, 2012

Over-sharing about over-sharing

For the last ten years I have been visiting a pregnancy loss website.  During that time I have seen hundreds – possibly thousands but that number is just too depressing to imagine – of women who have lost their babies, primarily through ectopic pregnancy, but also through miscarriage.  And in that time, they’ve talked about their loss, their feelings, and their grief.  They’ve talked about how their partners, husbands, boyfriends have coped with their grieving partners, and their own loss.  They’ve talked about how their parents, sisters, family, friends, and work colleagues have supported them, or reacted to the news of their pregnancy loss. 

And there is one thing in common.  People – at least those in western society but I suspect it is more universal than that – are terrible at dealing with someone else’s grief.  This inability of a partner/friend/family member to cope with their grief is yet another loss, and deeply painful, to the bereaved. 

Yet on-line, these women have, almost without exception, expressed what comfort they have found in talking to others who understand.  They breathe again, they know they are not going crazy, and they know that they will be okay in the end.  This need for a sense of community, of not being alone, is common amongst women who face pregnancy loss and infertility, and as a result a blogging community has developed as well as specific forums such as that offered by the wonderful Ectopic Pregnancy Trust. 

A scathing article about “over-sharing” – brought to my attention by Loribeth at Road Less Travelled - made two points about this proliferation of online communities and open discussion of pre-natal loss.  I’m going to deal with the first here, and the second in another post.

The first point was that talking about your pregnancy or perinatal losses makes others uncomfortable, and this is not acceptable.  In fact, the article was subtitled “parents reach out in sometimes disturbingly public ways.”  (Emphasis on the word “disturbingly.”) The article talked about the almost militant openness.  I was stunned.  I have seen little or no evidence of this in ordinary, public media, society, or discourse.  Describing this as “militant” would lead me to think that such openness was both extensive, and aggressive.  Given that perhaps 25-30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, we should therefore see this much more widely discussed than we do.  And any such openness is rarely, or never, aggressive.  Grief rarely has the confidence or energy (in my experience) to be militant. 

In my experience – and that of the hundreds of women I have observed – overwhelmingly women hold back, feel that they need to put on a brave face and only share their thoughts and emotions (and I suspect only a fraction of their thoughts and emotions) with their anonymous, on-line friends.  In the real world, we self-edit.  All.  The.  Time.  Which is why I'm so surprised at this article.  Pulling out one or two examples of women who can't cope with life afterwards is an insult to the vast majority who do.  Grieving women are constantly told to get over it – not always in so many words, but the message they receive is that their grieving is not appropriate, they shouldn’t do it, and if they do, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it but should seek medical help because there is obviously something wrong with them.  

Comments such as:

“at least you know you can get pregnant”
“you can always have another one”
“it wasn’t a baby yet”
“it’s only a bunch of cells” 
you haven’t lost anything because you never had anything” and
“at least you only knew you were pregnant for a few days

are very hurtful to the grieving woman.  Whether true or not (the truth is, with ectopic pregnancy, often there is no foetus, in that ectopic pregnancies develop differently), from the moment the woman knew she was pregnant, there was a baby.  And she lost that baby's future, the real life baby, child and adult that her pregnancy promised.  That's what she grieves.  To be told that her loss is not important is immensely painful.

Yet these comments are meant to help.  The people making the comments often care deeply for the women involved, and hate seeing them in pain.  Likewise they hate feeling uncomfortable and awkward, and I think these feelings all merge into one.  So they try to make things better, but when nothing can make things better (other than time), they seem to think that by dismissing your grief, banishing your grief, pretending your grief isn't real, it will actually go away.  They do this without thinking through what the grieving person actually needs.   I like to think that they would be appalled if they knew how dreadful it makes the grieving person feel.

The author, on the other hand, articulates this discomfort with others’ grief very clearly.  She knows what she is saying.  In fact, her comment that there is acultural acceptance that grief trumps others’ discomfort ...” clearly says her discomfort is more important than my grief.  This is an unbelievably selfish attitude, and shows a person who seems utterly incapable of empathy.  Like a spoiled child, she is effectively saying:

I don't like hearing about your grief, or even your reason for grief.  I don’t know how to respond, and so I feel awkward.  I want it to stop.  I don’t want to deal with your grief.  It’s your fault you’re feeling bad and making me feel bad.  Stop it!”  

Or in other words:

"Stop screaming in pain.  You're hurting my ears." 

If only we were all open to grief, to loss, and knew how to comfort each other, or were prepared to learn.  Wouldn’t the world be nicer?  Healthier?  And ironically, wouldn’t it be easier to grieve, and to recover?  And then, wouldn’t everyone feel better, less disturbed, more quickly?


  1. I haven't read the article, but disenfranchised grief has many aspects and people who've never gone through it will probably be confused about how devastating it can be.

    I mean, before IF, I could probably say all the wrong things to someone experiencing IF or RPL. IF has changed my perspective and my world in ways that none others could.

    One close friend of mine asked, "Tell me how you want us (her and my other close friends 'coz it's written in a group email) to support you" when I was telling them about my worst IF moments and they didn't know what to do/say.

    Yeah, if we're all open to grief and we're prepared to learn to know how to comfort one another, it'd be easier to grieve and recover. You're so right about that...

  2. Wow. I am not going to read that article as it will make me angry. "Your pain causes me pain, so shut up." a very selfish attitude to have.
    Pregnancy loss is still a taboo subject, I for one, did not want to opely discuss mine. I did want to talk about it, just not to real friends. Mainly because I didn't want to make them uncomfortable nor did I want their pity.

    I didn't feel I had lost a baby as it was early and I bled before I got the positive result (I therefore feared the worst from the start). I did greive for- the loss of a chance at getting pregnant, the fear that it would never happen and if it did that it could be another ectopic. That was how I felt. Everyone feels differently and should be allowed to feel however the hell they want and discuss it with whomever they want.

    Maybe if we were all more open about it, people would learn what to say (or rather, what not to say).

  3. I've seen this attitude a few times on other websites like Mumsnet - the worst example of which was a poster bitching about a 'friend' being attention seeking by putting photos of her stillborn baby's funeral on Facebook.

    I think it's a good thing that people want to talk more about pregnancy loss. It's such a social convention not too that inevitably there's going to be a few articles like this along the way - but I think things are changing and will continue to.

  4. I read the article, which made me sad and angry at the same time. Thank you for your post, beautifully written as ever.

  5. You are so right, Mali. Why shouldn't my grief trump your discomfort? I think with any other kind of loss, there is at least some polite lip service given to the idea of comforting the bereaved and at least tolerating their grief to a certain point, if not fully accepting the need for it.

    We don't overshare. Most of us hold back -- way back -- & even though pregnancy loss is beginning to be talked about more openly, we still have a LONG way to go. This article is certainly evidence of that. :p

    I can't wait to read part 2 of your reaction to this article. : )

  6. Here from Promptly...

    How is it that this article is directed only at women who have experienced miscarriages? I distinctly remember making people uncomfortable with my slightly off behavior after my dad died. My focus was on that, so my responses didn't often make sense. But no one tried to make me feel bad about it. Is it because this sort of grief can't be shared as easily?

    Fortunately for me, I find others' discomfort with emotion amusing, because they are so often attention seekers themselves.