Joan Didion said it best: "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it." We can study it, fear it, evade it, rationalize it, but we can never fully know grief from afar. Jessica Zucker, a Los Angeles–based psychologist and writer specializing in women's reproductive and maternal mental health, experienced this shift in her relationship with grief firsthand when she miscarried.
"I've specialized in this field for over a decade—sitting with women and families sharing about the devastations of miscarriage, stillbirth, infant loss, perinatal and postpartum mood, and anxiety disorders. A handful of years ago, 16 weeks into my second pregnancy, I had a miscarriage at home, alone. Until this time, I was theoretically well versed in grief and the ache of loss, but now I understood it corporally," she tells MyDomaine.
Below, she shares her professional insight while graciously opening up about her personal story of loss and its aftermath. Read on to hear her how she built a community for women who otherwise felt alone, advice on how to cope with a miscarriage, and the ways in which we can all build a better culture of support for women who miscarry.
SEEK AND BUILD COMMUNITY
Zucker tells us her miscarriage left her devastated beyond words, but in the aftermath, she continued working and parenting. "As the months pressed on, I dove deep into the research that exists around how women internalize/personalize pregnancy loss," she says. "Though I didn't necessarily experience these feelings firsthand, I became dead set on investigating these isolating experiences further and seeing if I could possibly make a dent in the cultural conversation (and lack thereof) surrounding loss."
"Though I would forfeit the experience of my loss in a heartbeat, the hard-won wisdom gained is golden."
In an effort to build a community that made this experience less stigmatized and alienating, she launched a campaign, #IHadaMiscarriage, and has since penned essays and illustrated pieces, and been interviewed on the topic. Finding this sense of community was so important, she tells us: "Riding these unpredictable swells of emotion can be made much easier when surrounded by loving support—people who get it."
BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF
Since miscarrying can be a destabilizing, isolating experience, we asked Zucker what she wants people who are going through it to hear. "Grief knows no timeline: Take all the time you need," she says. "If you feel alone or alienated somehow, know that approximately one in four pregnancies result in miscarriage. Though you may feel alone, you are not. There is a robust community of women who understand," says Zucker. "I think it's vital that people know that grief can be circuitous. It can pop up when you least expect it and although this can be incredibly uncomfortable, it's normal."
SUSPEND JUDGMENT AND LEAN INTO GRIEF
"I wish someone had told me all the things I tell my patients," Zucker tells us. "Be gentle with yourself; take your time; carve out space for your grief; suspend judgment; despite how counterintuitive it is, try to lean into the grief rather than attempting to stave it off. This is an excruciating moment in your life; write like the wind. I want people to know that there's absolutely no shame in loss." She also wants to tell them they did nothing to deserve this: "There's no need to hide your experience or the resulting pain."
"Ideally, we would embrace an attitude of being okay with not being okay."
"I've grieved the loss of the woman I once was and now, five years later, have discovered just how much I've learned along the way," she says of her experience. "Though I would forfeit the experience of my loss in a heartbeat, the hard-won wisdom gained is golden."
HOW TO SUPPORT LOVED ONES
If your friend or family member is going through this, Zucker encourages you to consistently follow up: "Instead of worrying about what to say and how to say it, friends and family [should] simply lean into the grief and shower her with ongoing loving support. Listening empathically might just be the healing salve she needs."
It's also best to shy away from platitudes, she tells us. "Instead, actively listen to what she feels and needs. This invites her to open up all the more about her experience. Normalizing what is in fact already normal will engender a sense of community during a time when women might otherwise feel alone."
WHY THE ATTITUDE SHOULD SHIFT
Though pregnancy loss feels different to everyone, and to some, it will be painful no matter what, there are many ways we can shift the cultural conversation and perception for the better. "I've learned that unless culture radically shifts to make room for this type of grief, women and families will continue to live on the outskirts as they mourn," Zucker explains.
"Until we challenge the current state of things, and incorporate rites and rituals that normalize the grieving process following miscarriage, we'll remain in the swirling trifecta of silence, stigma, and shame," she continues. "Given the fact that miscarriage isn't going anywhere—it's not a disease with a cure on the way—it would behoove us to muster the courage to change the way we address (and don't) this experience."
WHAT WE CAN ALL DO
"A successful and supportive cultural approach to pregnancy loss would include fluid, frank conversations about grief," Zucker advises. She believes that making messy feelings acceptable is the answer to this transformation.
"This shift, in itself, could prove revolutionary," she says, even if it sounds like a simple change. "Ideally, we would embrace an attitude of being okay with not being okay. In doing so, the silence, stigma, and shame could promptly melt from the zeitgeist—making more room for grief, anxiety, even anger, in the aftermath of miscarriage."
Aside from conversations and different mindsets, she also proposes that "like other cultures around the world, we would have rites and rituals in place that acknowledge death in a meaningful way—allowing women and families opportunities to integrate loss into the everyday."