Published on December 21st, 2015 | by Meg Lemke0
THINKING OF YOU: An Interview with Jessica Zucker on Pregnancy Loss Cards
When someone tells you, or you hear, that they’ve lost a pregnancy, it can shock, no matter how aware you’ve become about the statistics. It may bring up your own personal griefs and memories. The desire to help can feel as overwhelming as the taboo around the topic. How can we speak when we don’t have the words?
Dr. Jessica Zucker has written extensively about the politics of pregnancy loss, and last year joined in a burgeoning movement towards public conversation and acknowledgment, initiating the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign on social media. She wrote a New York Times piece “Saying it Loudly: I Had a Miscarriage” and then followed it up with an illustrated guide on “what to say and what not to say” to someone who has experienced pregnancy loss.
There’s not one thing to say, one thing to do. The friends and family who have shared their stories with me (and I know others may not) have been as different in how they reacted, and how they did (or did not) invite conversation around it, as people are different. Which is to say: We each must be allowed our own unique grief. And the space to ask for solace or solitude. There is simply not “one right way to grieve,” as Dr. Zucker says.
But still: as a supporter, we want an action, we feel powerless. That action can be to respect privacy, if that’s what’s been asked. But giving someone space doesn’t mean you go away to never come back. It can mean stepping aside while repeating “I’m here.” Or hearing when what someone needs is actually for you to step up, step in, and help take as much on as you can. Here’s one way to start: Dr. Zucker has created a new line of cards to offer a tangible expression of support, a gesture that can be non-intrusive but “makes concrete” ongoing support. Her “pregnancy loss” cards are like sympathy or condolence cards, but more like “you’re wonderful” and “this fucking sucks” cards. I see these and I feel glad they are in the world, but nervous about the presumption of giving one—maybe because I’ve heard so often “this is a secret.” I talked to Zucker about these conflicting feelings and more about why speaking out about miscarriage and creating a new culture around grief has become her personal mission.
MUTHA: Why did you create these cards?
JESSICA ZUCKER: To fill what I see as a gaping hole in the cultural conversation, as well as the marketplace, surrounding pregnancy loss. What you often hear from people is: I just didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything, or I didn’t know what to say, so I stumbled around and maybe even said the “wrong” thing.
My hope is that the pregnancy loss cards actually provide a concrete and meaningful way for people to connect after loss, so that women feel less alone. The cards provide another way to bring the topic itself out in the open, away from being shrouded in silence or shame. These cards go beyond the personal narrative—the essay format—in an effort to have a practical way for people to show their care and concern. We needed this.
MUTHA: When you describe the need in the marketplace; do you mean you hope this is also a profitable business venture?
JESSICA ZUCKER: I have made the money back that I spent to create the card series, but what I wanted more than anything in creating these pregnancy loss cards is for people who Google “miscarriage cards” to find these. My aim was to have an impact on culture. Now, when people go looking for pregnancy loss cards they exist in a way that really resonates. There are a variety of sympathy cards related to pregnancy loss in the marketplace already, but I was yearning to create a series that communicated care, consistency, validation, and also illuminated a spectrum of feelings that often emerge for women in the aftermath of loss: sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, disappointment, isolation, and so forth. My hope was to puncture the silence but also help women feel less alone. The research states that women tend to blame themselves and feel a sense of shame after experiencing a pregnancy loss. I was hoping to ease this, even just a little bit, by helping loved ones have card options that would deeply connect with the griever. The standard messages in the cards that existed didn’t necessarily resonate for me, or most of the people that I know personally and professionally.
MUTHA: I think you politely mean yours are a lot cooler: updated, modern girls’ pregnancy loss card.
JESSICA ZUCKER: Exactly. And they approach more specific situations. Like, we have a card about pregnancy after pregnancy loss, which I had never seen anywhere. Being pregnant after a pregnancy loss is just completely different than being pregnant before a loss. Now, we can acknowledge, holy shit, you had a late loss or you terminated late because something was wrong with the baby, or you had a stillbirth, you must be fucking terrified to be pregnant again.
In our culture, we focus so much on moving forward and looking at the bright side. Now you’re pregnant with a healthy baby, so we don’t have to even bring up your previous experience. Too many women are walking around living their stories, still in their bodies.
MUTHA: Here’s something I want to broach: is it presumptive to give one of these cards? I know people who might be offended. Some people truly value privacy in this grief—due to the prevailing taboo, or their personal comfort level. Some who just aren’t ready to talk about a loss, to acknowledge it, publicly.
JESSICA ZUCKER: Some of us heal or process through being public, connecting with other people about these losses—and others do not. And I do not believe that grief is experienced in one way. It’s not linear. It is circuitous. We shouldn’t judge anyone for how they process their grief. And so I agree, if people want to be private about their experience, they definitely should be. I want them to feel supported either way.
I created the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign as a way to reveal the statistics. So if approximately 1 in 4, 1 of 5 pregnancies end in loss, people can claim the hashtag and show the world and each other how real this is. But, it’s also for those who didn’t want to participate, but could take comfort when they saw others speaking out. I’m not as alone as I thought. There is no shame in having lost something longed for.
The cards aren’t for everyone, but to me it’s essential that they exist. We needed a way to mark this important, persistent, women’s health issue. This isn’t a disease, no one’s curing pregnancy loss. It’s going to continue. As a culture, we need to get more comfortable in the uncomfortability of these losses—it’s a natural, organic, and very difficult part of life.
MUTHA: What we see reflected commercially in our environment—what is “for sale”—does influence our expectations of ourselves and what is “normal.” So by making this a business, you are helping create that shift. But, I admit I still worry that giving a card could be seen as politicizing someone’s loss, co-opting their experience because you believe the taboo should be broken. I wouldn’t want to push someone when they’re not ready (and in grief).
JESSICA ZUCKER: There are so many different types of women and people in the world. I see each card as filling a different void. For a friend who is more private, I would send the card that says “I’m deeply sorry for your loss. I’m here. Always.” And we should just say that, no matter how private or public you are about your loss.
But the “Fuck Loss” card, for example, I envisioned people would buy it for themselves and put it on their refrigerator or something. Though, it’s been selling, so maybe it’s also being given to friends or loved ones who they think would really appreciate the anger or other emotions and platitudes mentioned in this particular card.
There’s another card that says, “I imagine you feel like shit right now, but I just had to remind you how wonderful I think you are.” That could apply to anyone at any time.
As a psychologist who specializes in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health, what I wanted in these cards was to convey a strong sense of validation. I’m with you. Whoever is sending the card is conveying: You’re fucking amazing, I fucking love you. You may be feeling like crap right now; I just want you to remember how amazing you are. I’m here for you.
In some of the other cards, I’m trying to convey a sense of consistency. I’m here for you always–call me morning, noon, and night. Our culture stays focused as briefly as possible on loss, especially these types of losses. But for people who have complicated losses or see their grief as ongoing, what they need is a supporter to say I’m here for you, and not just this week. If you want to talk in a year or in ten years, I’m here for you. That is an opportunity to convey that even if you don’t know what to say in that moment, or they don’t want to talk in that moment, you are always going to be there.
Because, unfortunately, a lot of the research reveals that women tend to blame themselves, feel ashamed, and have a sense of guilt after a pregnancy loss. Supporters need to reiterate during these times, whether it’s a private person or a public person, that you are wonderful. You did nothing to deserve this. Because that’s a mainstay.
MUTHA: I really like that the cards also begin to normalize the responsibility of friends and family in this time of grief. In the way that there is a more established etiquette around responding to someone’s “death in the family.”
The taboo is pervasive. It came up for me when I told people I was pregnant before 12 weeks in. I have not experienced a loss. But, with my daughter, I had a high-risk pregnancy where I was frequently reminded about late-term miscarriage/still birth. So it was on my mind from the outset.
In the beginning, I was so sick all the time—and I started telling people during the first trimester. It was so loaded, those exchanges. One woman, a colleague and not a close friend, she responded “I don’t know if that’s wise, though I’m glad for you.” I realized, she’s warning me! She’s saying, if you tell people now, then watch out because you’re going to have to tell people about your grief.
JESSICA ZUCKER: Why does our culture focus so much on waiting until you’re “out of the woods” after the first trimester is over? Why? Because then you can never share that you were ever pregnant and you can get pregnant again? It doesn’t make much sense. It basically sets up the potential for silence and isolation.
MUTHA: Keep your secret so that then it doesn’t burden other people with having to process your grief.
JESSICA ZUCKER: That was part of what was so confounding about my experience of loss, because my miscarriage was at 16 weeks. Which was quite frightening for some of my patients. It was unusual, how it happened, and in the context of my home, rather than that I went to the doctor and there wasn’t a heartbeat. I don’t want to say it was “traumatic” because everybody’s experience is traumatic in its own way. But, what I later found myself wondering, was, is it harmful to share the details of my experience, or is it helpful?
MUTHA: You can say your experience was traumatic. It is yours, your experience.
JESSICA ZUCKER: Yes. It was traumatic.
MUTHA: I’m sorry.
JESSICA ZUCKER: Thank you.
MUTHA: What helped you the most in your own loss and grieving?
JESSICA ZUCKER: Writing about it has helped tremendously. I feel like I’ve written my way back to health. I’m charged by this idea of helping our culture change, and have healed through connections with other women in the loss community, who are writing about these issues or starting organizations of support globally.
As a psychologist, it was one thing hearing all these stories. Then I went through it myself. Then I kept hearing the stories. So many women are judging their grief or ashamed of their losses. Together with many other women working on these issues, I hope to make an impact in a humble and profound way. Let’s shift things, so that future generations grow up in a society where it is considered normal to talk about loss. Let’s disband the shame and the stigma. No more whispering.
Follow Dr. Jessica Zucker on Instagram and Twitter @DrZucker.