Yesterday I had a wonderful day with my mom. My car was in getting service, so I took advantage of the cushy loaner car I had for the day and took her out to the Ventura Harbor where we had lunch at a Greek restaurant overlooking the water. As we talked we got on the subject of the things people say to make us feel better.
We both acknowledged that we didn't fault anyone for the things they said, how would they know what would make us feel good and what wouldn't? If you haven't been in our situations, you don't know what to say, and we know everyone's intentions are good.
Her pet peeves were when people told her stories of their friend who had cancer and got better, or so-and-so that had gone through chemo for a year and never lost her hair. Instead of finding those stories encouraging, she finds them upsetting, putting undue pressure on her and getting her hopes up too high when they should remain positive, but realistic. Those anecdotes bring up her argumentative, logical side that thinks, "Sure there is that one story of that one person who was easily healed, but I could come up with a thousand stories of people who lost the battle."
She also dislikes it being called a battle, and a fight, making her feel that if she doesn't pull through, she is somehow weak, at fault, someone who just didn't "fight" hard enough to win. The whole vocabulary surrounding cancer is odd, it's all about fighting and surviving, whereas with other diseases, you're allowed to passively be a victim. In some ways these fighting words are good. They inspire and make the patient feel like he or she has a chance to beat the odds, but at the same time, they make it the patient's responsibility in a weird way that people don't do with other diseases. No one fights heart disease, diabetes, or kidney stones. You don't call a person recovering from the flu a survivor. There is a sense that other diseases are not the patient's fault, but that cancer is somehow something a patient can choose to overcome, if only they are willing to fight and survive.
I said the same thing, that I feel unsure how to react when people tell me stories of babies who measured small and ended up fine in the end, of faulty ultrasound machines and incompetent doctors and technicians who just measured wrong even though the fetus was perfectly fine. Part of me loves these stories, because I think maybe I too will experience this happy turn of events, but part of me, like my mom, can come up with a bunch of counter-anecdotes that say the first ultrasound was probably right. These stories play with my hopes in a cruel way, raising them up and then dashing them down.
The other things I hate are the platitudes that people only use for a miscarriage. I don't blame anyone for saying these things, it's what I would have said and thought before this happened to me. To someone who has never experienced the loss of a wanted pregnancy, the idea that it feels the same as a death sounds melodramatic and odd. How could you equate losing a tiny ball of cells in your uterus to losing a fully grown child? Until you've been pregnant, you can't understand how instantly attached and bonded a mother becomes to her child, however small and new that life is. We love it, make plans for it, dream about how it will look, sound, and act. We cradle our bellies and smile thinking of the budding life we're helping to nurture and protect. It's not just a ball of cells or a tiny little fetus, it's our child, our baby, already as important to us and loved as a child is to any parent.
When people express the standard miscarriage sentiments of "These things happen for a reason." or "This is God/Nature's way of weeding out the sick and the unhealthy ones." or "It's all for the best." or "You can always have more kids." It cuts mothers of the unborn to the core. Think of how cruel it would be to say any of those things to the mother of a 6 year old who had died of leukemia. You wouldn't, because that would be horrid. I can tell you that the mother of an unborn child, lost at any stage in pregnancy, feels just as much that she is a mother and that was her child as the mother of a child of any age. So telling her that her baby was just a malformed, sick affront to evolution that is better off dead is not helpful, comforting, or kind. Don't say it or anything that makes it seem like this was supposed to happen. Because even though we know it's true, and that if something was terribly wrong it probably is better that the baby died early, the idea that there was something so wrong with our child that it couldn't even live is frightening, upsetting, and awful. And none of it takes away the fact that we lost a child. We didn't lose a fetus, we lost our baby, it died. It will never be in our belly or arms again. We won't get to meet it or see it or hold it and play with it. We can't watch it grow up. It's gone and dead, which is tragic and intensely painful.
The best thing to say to a grieving mother or a diagnosed cancer patient is some version of "I'm sorry, and I'm here for you." That's it. Just tell them how much it sucks, how unfair it is, and that you understand that they're in pain. Let them grieve and cry and feel bad and know that you get that it's a big deal. That alone will make us feel better.