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“Miscarriage” and “Stillbirth” — Why I Hate those Words

May 14, AD2013 15 Comments

We need language to communicate ideas and concepts and sometimes I have to use those words just long enough to establish a rapport with a person – a newly bereaved parent, family member or to teach a student or staff member. No sooner do the words exit my mouth do I explain why they won’t hear them from me again.

Both words speak only of processes (and badly at that) nothing of loss or pain or grief.

If I could purge one single phrase from our culture it would be “just a miscarriage”. How many times have you heard that phrase? Yet there are so may instances where it is anything but “just” as if that word is somehow going to temper the pain. What if the mom has been infertile for 15 years and this is her first conception? What if the dad has died or lost his fertility? What if she is older and knows her chances to conceive again are slim? What if she had invested herself in this pregnancy 100%? Or yet, what if she simply — for no reason that she needed to explain to the world — loved her baby?

When I had a loss at 9 weeks, I had already made some life decisions based on the expected arrival of that baby and undoing those decisions and my attachment was hard.

During all four of my pregnancies, I thought about the baby/pregnancy at least once a minute every waking minute and sometimes in my dreams. If I was awake 16 hours a day, then I thought of that baby 960 times a day, 7 days a week for 9 weeks, a total of 60,480 thoughts of the baby who died at 9 weeks gestation. Why is it that an entire culture who watched Titanic and saw Rose and Jack have a 1 week romance (and fully bought the premise that she loved him forever) then reject the idea that a woman who carries within her a baby who lives for 8 or so weeks would have enough of a bond to spark real, deep grief?

Remember also that medically, loss up to 20 weeks is considered “miscarriage”. If you have ever seen a 19 weeker, you would see a person with completely human form, often lovely in appearance, toenails, ear lobes, nose, the whole deal. I have dressed many “miscarriages” in clothes and hats for their mothers who love them very much. For parents, there is not generally a magical moment at the beginning of the 20th week that sparks love that didn’t exist before. They loved their 19 week baby as much as a 21 week baby and it is a cruelty of our society that we think any of this should make a difference.

Stillbirth. What a ghastly, inadequate word.

We use it to describe deaths prior to birth between 20 and 40 weeks gestation. People assume that this death shouldn’t be as bad as a neonatal death because the baby didn’t take a breath outside the womb. There is a common misconception that the mom and family hadn’t really bonded with the baby yet. When you carry a living being around in your guts for that long and allow them to kick you from the inside you are regularly reminded that they are real and alive and have a place in your life.

Add to it the foolish idea that the death should somehow hurt less because they aren’t born? Even in terrible circumstances when people learn that a loved one has died, their grief is not compounded by the realization that they must follow through with an unavoidably painful process because their deceased beloved relative is inside them.

I have a good friend who coached her sister-in-law through the birth of her deceased baby and the mother said, “I don’t want pain medication, I want my body to hurt as much as my spirit does.” And too often my dear ladies return to a world that does not respect the magnitude of their pain and loss and has no idea how to support them. This often becomes (for the parents and family) severely disenfranchised grief which is very hard to heal from.

So what do I say if I don’t say “miscarriage” or “stillbirth”? I say “pregnancy loss” and “infant death” and when it crosses over from one to the other is for the mom to define. Whether a baby dies just before of just after birth (although very important in which paperwork we fill out) makes no difference to me in terms of how I refer to the baby or treat the parents and family.

When I speak to families, I give them “permission” (not that they need if from me) to never say those words either. I walk with them in a process to figure out what words describe for them what happened so that when they run into a friend at Target who asks about the baby, they will feel some assurance that their answer is true to themselves. This often sounds something like “the baby died just before she was born” or something similar that honors the baby no matter the details.

I encourage you, in your interactions with those who suffer perinatal death, to open a dialog with them on this and help them find the right words to honor their child(ren) and their feelings.

© 2013. Tammy Ruiz. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Marriage & Family • Tags:

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz Ziegler has been a Nurse for 30 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 10 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator – caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called “Perinatal Hospice”).

In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest.

She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese.

Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage but recently married a man she met when they were both children.

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  • Mary

    Well done. Thank you for writing this! I felt the same way when we lost our baby. I intentionally try to use the word baby and death when speaking of miscarriage and stillbirth to validate the dignity of that little person and the validity of the grief over the loss.

  • louis hemmings

    a good article. I am emailing you about my five minute illustrated stillbirth video, telling the sibling’s point-of-view. Might it be a useful tool for your organisation? You may freely use my video, poem and link, if useful. The only cost being a few minutes to email me and let me know, if you use them.

    My video will be an extras feature on the dvd of RETURN TO ZERO, by the way. it will also be broadcast on German TV this autumn.

    all the best

  • Tammy, I wish you had been around when my husband and I experienced our losses after years of trying to conceive. We finally were blessed with a wonderful son (now 29), but the journey to his birth was long and hard. When all your friends are having babies and you are not, you are unique in a way you never wished. Even after all these years, my husband and I tend to be a “loner” couple, because of the years we were outsiders in the “Parent ‘Hood”. No one who has not experienced what we went through really understands.

  • Mrs. Amen

    Beautiful. Having lost three babies before getting to hold them in my arms, I know just what the mother who refused the pain medicine meant. I felt exactly the same way. I wanted my body to hurt as much as my heart, soul and spirit did. If my body was in pain, those around me had to acknowledge what was/had happened. They had to witness it and I didn’t have to act as if nothing was wrong.

  • bob

    I guess she didn’t write the “about the author” item after the article. Both words are used in her work description.

  • I have 2 saints in heaven and don’t mind the word ‘miscarriage’. But I did flinch when a doctor called my baby a “specimen” and another one called it a “spontaneous abortion.” I think Tammy’s point in getting medical personnel more sensitive to grieving mothers is valid but I won’t be angry if they are not. One priest said, when you suffer a loss, a lot of people will seem to say all the wrong things, but you have to think they didn’t mean it that way or meant well.

    • Ronk

      actually abortion originally meant simply what we now call miscarriage, and the term is still used as such in medical dictionaries and by some older doctors. The problem is that 50 years ago our society started misusing the word “abortion” as a euphemism for “wilful murder of an unborn child” in the hope that that would make it acceptable to society. It worked.

  • John Darrouzet

    An excellent post! Not just a semantic difference. A substantive difference that truly calls the experience for what it is. This will help guys understand better what is happening. Thanks.

  • “Lost the baby” is one of the more terrifying nightmares of mothering I’ve, thus far, been spared.

    My heart aches for those who were not.

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  • Gresu

    Parents who have lost children because of miscarriages and stillborns
    deserve our compassion but I do not understand the need to camouflage these
    losses with a change of words. Equally tragic losses of babies must be mentioned and the pain it causes the parents. Medical science cannot prevent miscarriages and stillborn births. Finite minds cannot understand the ways of our Infinite and Triune God? Instead of creating a distraction with what cannot be changed and or prevented, would you please use your talents to combat what we do have control over? Don’t we have a duty to combat the losses of at least 3000 babies a day in the U S alone? Tiny, defenseless and innocent babies are brutalized in abortion clinics never to breathe life outside the womb. Don’t we
    have a duty to expose the squashing of little babies’ heads with forceps in the
    late term aborted babies? What about the torturing of these innocent little people who survived in spite of the killer abortionist’s commitment to give the mother a dead baby. That’s what she expected. So in order to complete the mission he or she murderer finishes the job by slicing the babies’ necks. Have you ever done a column on the mothers who die because of the negligence of these killing clinics? Don’t we have a duty to speak out on behalf of these mothers so that these murders will stop? Wasn’t legalized abortion promised to be “safe”? What about the babies who died due to the abortifacient effect from the use of birth
    control pills by their mothers? That’s my personal testimony. Alone, I discarded a child. Why didn’t my doctor explain this possibility? Doesn’t the FDA have some responsibility to inform mothers of this possible consequence? Wouldn’t you think sane people would say stop these murders? Still, “Catholic” Americans encourage the torturing of holy innocent babies by whom they vote into office and these same Americans pay for the clinics to exist with their tax dollars because they will not be discomforted to begin a crusade to stop it. Nazi Germany has got nothing over the atrocities going on in this United States.
    Please, Tammy, don’t you hate these things enough to speak out on what is controllable! Or has the power of the Catholic American spirit gone the way of the dinosaur?

    • Mary

      ? Recognizing the dignity of one death does not undermine the importance of another. In fact, recognizing the dignity of the babies lost unintentionally and the tragedy of their loss only serves to make the idea of intentionally taking that life even more deplorable. And yes, many miscarriages ARE preventable with simple hormonal supplementation.

  • J D

    The language of loss is a conundrum, particularly for Catholics.

    We try to intellectually manage God’s will, the power and pain of The Cross, and the dignity due to life. We can’t help but fail at such a task as Christ seems to have, for a time, in holding steady the cross during His Passion.

    Attendance and adoration of God’s will is a necessity for salvation, but not grieving correctly can turn our prayer to anger, where Scripture reminds us that such angry prayer is an abomination before God.

    The awful and awesome reality of The Cross allows us to make our suffering redemptive by attaching it to His, yet sadness, melancholia, can be something fatal to the soul sapping all joy from life. This spiritual sloth can blind us to the attitude-of-gratitude so vital in the healthy practicing of The Faith.

    Life is the first great act and promise of God, but when it’s powerful potential is punctured by any aggressor, much less one that can only be the finger of The Most High, then we can find ourselves like Rachael, sobbing for our children, refusing to be comforted..

    No one who is experiencing this Calvary can sermonize until it is complete. We know not whether we should ask for the cruel cup to pass as Our Lord did in the Garden, or to drain the dreaded cup of it’s last drop as The Mediatrix of All Graces, Our Lady of Sorrows, did on that most frightful, glorious Friday..

    The answer may be a rather simple Christian adage..

    Today is Friday, but Sunday’s coming.