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How to talk about grief
Notes from my journey through recurrent pregnancy loss
This week in the newsletter I want to share some thoughts on grief (and, yes, I’m still reeling from the last episode of Succession).
It’s always been quite interesting to me that grief, despite being one of the most common human experiences, is a topic that many in the Global North seem terrible at discussing. We all die, we all know someone who has died, and we all know people who are grieving — so why are we so bad at talking about it?
Our inability to do so feels unhelpful for many reasons, not least because feeling alone and isolated is one of the hardest aspects of bereavement. This discomfort with grief is exacerbated when it comes to pregnancy loss, a subject that sits right in the middle of a triad of issues that society finds embarrassing to talk about — sex, death and women’s gynaecological health.
My most recent pregnancy loss was just two weeks ago so, heads up, I’m still very much in the middle of that story. It’s my fifth consecutive loss in recent years and a part of me thinks I really should know to deal with it by now… But it turns out that the evergreen grief symptoms of exhaustion, anxiety, anger, shame, sadness and guilt are still rearing their heads as strongly as in previous losses. It’s made me realize there is no quick formula for getting through grief, no matter how many times you experience it (or how many times you google ‘how long does it take to get over a miscarriage?’). But we can grieve better and part of that involves being more open and comfortable about discussing it.
The family I grew up in had a very different approach to grief - we talked about it often. Iranian culture has a deeply ritualized collective grieving process too, which I think helps. Burials happen within 24 hours of someone passing away in Muslim culture, and close family members often wash the body of the person who has died, in their own homes. Later, gatherings take place on the 3rd, 7th and 40th days after a death — and the whole first year after a bereavement is seen as a completely acceptable period of mourning. As is offering your condolences to someone if they have lost a loved one, even if it was months ago, even if you had never met them.
Partly, I think, this is due to the nuances of Shia culture, which has a particular reverence for mourning. But I think it’s also because, in order to be comfortable with grief, you have to be comfortable around the emotions that come with it such as anger or sadness. In my experience, Iranians (of all genders) find anger a legitimate way of expressing a belief and tears an acceptable way of expressing sadness. I grew up seeing all the male members of my Iranian family — from my grandfather to my uncles and cousins — cry on a regular basis, without any of the shame or embarrassment that so many men in the West seem to feel. It was a world away from the bizarre ‘boys don’t cry’ narrative. In fact, I fondly remember the stories my grandfather used to tell us about the former Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh (overthrown by the CIA and MI6 in 1953 fyi), who would have tears running down his face as he delivered speeches on the international stage about colonialism and the injustices of poverty. Can you imagine such displays of emotion among leaders in the West?
Grief is a subject that dominated the early years of my family’s life and has been a near constant in my professional life too. I worked for many years supporting families who had lost loved ones at the hands of the state, after police shootings or restraint-related deaths. I also worked with those living in conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine and my three books put me in repeated contact with those grieving state violence, occupation and war. I’ve experienced a few tough losses myself too: seeing a dear friend dying of a sudden stroke in front me when he was just 36, and my journey through recurrent pregnancy loss.
But grief doesn’t just happen after someone dies. It can be brought on by significant relationships ending, changes in friendships, migration, job losses, illnesses, estrangements or identity shifts. During the pandemic, many spoke of how they experienced the grief of losing life as we knew it. There is also political grief, most notably experienced in 2016 after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump.
Whilst my life experiences have made me comfortable talking about grief, it hasn’t made it any easier for me to navigate my recent losses. Despite miscarriage receiving much more attention in recent years, there is still a long way to go in explaining the nuances of how challenging the experience can be — from medical treatments and care, to navigating the workplace, society and intimate relationships afterwards. There is a statistic that gets bandied about so often now; that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. It’s shared with good intentions — an attempt to normalize the experience — but it can also feel belittling sometimes, as if pregnancy loss is so common that those who experience it should just expect it. I like to compare this with how cancer gets talked about. No one would ever say to a cancer patient, “Well, one in two people will get cancer! It’s just so common.” Yet people who go through miscarriage hear that phrase all the time and, to me at least, sometimes it can feel like it diminishes the experience.
There is no hierarchy of grief but there is something particularly intimate about pregnancy loss. It’s literally the death of someone inside you. Someone you loved, someone you cared for, who now has to be removed, often through surgery or medical induction, that can leave you in huge amounts of physical and emotional pain. The fact that I’ve downplayed the physical aspect of all my miscarriages so far is something I’ve really been curious about recently. I think it’s because anything to do with wombs and bleeding makes most people feel uncomfortable. But I can’t help but feel that if everyone knew even half how painful it could be, then the conversation around miscarriage would be different and better healthcare and workplace policy changes might be implemented. The legacy of the loss and how the physicality of it is dealt with can affect people for months and years, with one in five women developing PTSD from pregnancy loss.
Until we get the societal changes we need, all we can do as individuals is support those around us who are grieving. I’m sure you’ll know a few. The following suggestions are some things I have found useful:
If someone you know is grieving, acknowledge it, especially with pregnancy loss, which can feel so hidden at the best of times. Just saying “I’m so sorry for your loss, I’m thinking of you” is so simple and can mean the world to people who are grieving. To reassure you about any potential awkwardness, from my experience, I rarely actually want to discuss it in detail outside of close friendships and even then, not all the time. But lack of acknowledgement can be really painful as it can make people feel like their grief doesn’t matter.
Don’t do any “grief maths”
A common thing people do when told of a bereavement is something Cariad Lloyd, host of the Griefcast podcast calls “grief maths”, which is trying to make sense of someone’s loss through numbers. Questions like: How long did you know them? How far along were you? How old were they? How long were you together? risks suggesting there is some equation that makes some losses more or less painful than others. But it doesn’t matter if they were 90 years old, or you were 9 weeks pregnant, or you only met them a few months ago, or they were your pet, or you are crying more about a celebrity dying than you did about your own gran. We feel what we feel.
“Perhaps you too have heard a grief story and done the grief maths and thought, “Well that doesn’t sound too bad/too early/too hard/too painful/they were old/you did know they were ill/it was sudden … ” That’s OK, you are allowed to think these things, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s what you do with the judgment that counts. Know that you may not understand their grief, but if they are feeling it, it’s real”. Cariad Lloyd in You will get it wrong … but you can’t make it worse’: 16 ways to talk to people who are grieving
Grief will change you, let it
We’ve all heard of the five stages of grief. They can be a helpful way to think about the cyclical nature of grieving and the rollercoaster of emotions one experiences. But when you get to acceptance, it doesn’t mean that you will necessarily go back to who you were before. Grief changes you in a myriad of different ways. It can chip away at your confidence and your sense of safety. It can consume you with guilt or regret. But it can also bring you strength, resilience and appreciation. I doubt I’ll ever be the person I was before five miscarriages. But I look forward to seeing who I will become because of them.
Grief challenges our sense of control — the only way through it is to accept that we have often have none
This is the deeper existential work of grief and no doubt one of the reasons many turn to spiritual texts in times of difficulty. Grief is intrinsically linked to a loss of control — something our brains are hard-wired to need for a sense of safety. I live with a lot of guilt about my pregnancy losses, especially around my second miscarriage, which took place in a very tumultuous time in my life. For many years, I believed it was my fault and I didn’t do enough to protect my child but I’ve come to realize that this blame and shame is actually about control. Because if it was my fault, because of something I did or didn’t do, it means that by changing my behavior I could prevent it happening again. The tough reality is, I probably couldn’t. Accepting that lack of control is for me for the key tenants of the grief process.
I hope you found this newsletter useful and that it has perhaps prompted you to think about how you talk about grief. Do let me know what you think in comments below and of course, if you know anyone who might find this useful, please share it.
p.s. There will be no newsletter next week, as I’ll be taking a break to support my recovery, but I look forward to returning in a fortnight. Before then, I’ll be sending out the next instalment of The Culture Club, my recommendations round up this Sunday, filled with all the books, recipes, podcasts and links I’m enjoying at the moment. This is just for paying members, so if you want to recieve and can afford to support my work (which enables me to continue doing this writing) please go ahead and upgrade your subscription.