Two weeks after my second miscarriage, I was lost, confused, and grieving. Typically, as a therapist, I have a good sense of where to go when I need support. But I was in unchartered territory. My grief and confusion only intensified when my dozens of weight-crushing questions had ambiguous answers.
Prior to becoming pregnant for the second time, I was scheduled to attend a training in Dallas. The topic of the training was learning how to lead a psychoeducational group based on the work Dr. Brené Brown presents in her book, Rising Strong.
If you haven’t read Rising Strong, here is a brief synopsis:
In order for us to live bravely, we have to expect moments when we crumble, when things don’t go the way we want them to. Those moments can feel devastating. We start telling ourselves stories that are often inaccurate and self-deprecating. But, if we become aware of those stories we are creating, and if we work with them (or as Brené says, rumble with them), we gain clarity and strength to try again. Some of the ways in which we rumble with these stories include exploring grief, anxiety, shame, vulnerability, trust, and setting boundaries. By exploring how these concepts play a role in the story we are telling ourselves, we can pick ourselves back up.
As a Certified Daring Way Facilitator (someone who is certified in Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability), I was eager to attend a training and potentially distract myself from our pregnancy losses. I always found professional development a great form of self-care. I was unaware, however, that this training would also lead to personal development.
I entered a room with ten other women. I had previously worked with the facilitator, and she greeted me with a warm smile and a hug. I took my seat toward the back of the room. My husband texted me, “Have a great first day of training!”
The Story I Can’t Stop Telling Myself
We create stories all the time. We think millions of thoughts a day, many of which are off-the-wall, or lacking any evidence. They are simply thoughts. But we don’t often realize that. Sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves start to define us. When we start to believe our thoughts, we start to feel shame.
The Rising Strong process starts with you writing down the story you can’t stop telling yourself. By writing down your thoughts, you become acutely aware of their presence, rather than having them fill up in your brain, leaving you to wonder why you are feeling so sad/anxious/unhinged.
Examples of some of the stories people with pregnancy loss tell themselves include:
I’m not meant to be a mother.
I’m a failure as a wife.
No one understands what I’m going through – I must be making this all up in my head.
Why can’t I just get over this? Other women do.
Am I being punished for something?
Maybe I am really screwed up.
I can’t keep a child safe, even before she is born.
No wonder we experience deep shame after a pregnancy loss.
Beginning to Rumble: Shame
After identifying your story, the Rising Strong process has you rumble with the emotions embedded in your story.
The first big emotion: shame.
Brené Brown defines shame as: “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It translates to us saying to ourselves, “I’m not enough,” or “I’m too much.” In recurrent pregnancy loss, those can be:
I’m not woman enough.
I’m not a good enough wife.
I’m not deserving to be a mother.
It could also be:
I’m too fragile.
I’m too weak.
I should be over this by now.
Brené Brown writes, “You can’t engineer an emotional, vulnerable, and courageous process into an easy one-size-fits-all formula.” I remembered a book I picked up shortly after my first miscarriage, a book with a title that promised me I would be healed from the pain of my miscarriage in 30 days. You may or may not feel healed after 30 days. By promising a prescription that not only has no evidence supporting its efficacy, it is incredibly misleading. What happens when the prescription does not work? We personalize it: What’s wrong with me that I can’t be over this in 30 days, when I was promised that this would work! This only intensifies our shame and our feelings of unworthiness.
In pregnancy loss, we are not just experiencing that shame as it relates to our identity, but we might also be shaming ourselves for the grief we experience. Grief is not linear, and grief does not have a timeline. Grief does not promise that we continue to feel better over time, consistently. Rather, there are days when we feel better, and there are days when we feel worse. By normalizing this grief process as an individualized experience, we can potentially reduce some feelings of shame.
Rumbling with Grief
In Rising Strong, grief is defined in three ways: loss, longing, and feeling lost.
Understanding loss was straightforward: I had lost my second baby. Longing, however, was not something I had considered prior to the workshop. Longing is defined as “an involuntary yearning for wholeness, for understanding, for meaning, and for the opportunity to regain or even simply touch what we’ve lost.”
Women and couples who experience pregnancy loss grieve losing something that was not yet breathing, someone they had not yet held. They grieve the loss of an identity (mother or father), and the loss of creating the family they had so hoped to create.
Brené Brown defines this type of loss as ambiguous grief. Ambiguous grief is different from other types of grief in that we have lost something or someone that is either still alive or was never born: divorce, job loss, ending a dear friendship, and pregnancy loss. We don’t often know how to respond to this type of grief, because it typically isn’t honored in our culture. We don’t allow for the time and space to heal from this type of loss.
Feeling lost generally accompanies grief, in that grief requires us to reorient ourselves. After a pregnancy loss, we are reorienting our bodies physically by being pregnant to suddenly not being pregnant. We are also reorienting our plans, hopes and dreams. I had to let go of the plans I had made for my babies to arrive in this world. The next year that I had mapped out was now erased. I went from being an expectant mother to a recurrent miscarriage survivor. How do we reorient ourselves after that?
We reorient ourselves, gradually, by mourning.
As we neared the end of the workshop, the facilitator instructed us to do something that honored our grief. I wrote a letter to my unborn babies, and hold a small memorial service for them.
It was a warm, sunny January day in Dallas. I removed myself from the group to complete this exercise outside. I sat on a bench in a garden, underneath a willow tree. Birds were singing. It was the perfect spot for a memorial. I expressed my love and gratitude to my babies, and I cried. A real, deep, cathartic, cry.
When I returned back to the group, we looked back at our original story we were telling ourselves. And we began rewriting them. My story went from a shame-filled, demeaning, degrading tale, to the following:
I feel sad I can’t give my family what we want. Being pregnant allowed me to feel hopeful. I felt connected to my partner. Just because I feel failure does not make me nor my body, by definition, a failure. I can honor my grief and my pain, and I can trust that I am not alone in that.
By rewriting our stories, we are not hiding our pain. We are acknowledging it and holding it up, free from shame, and full of self-compassion. This acceptance doesn’t mean that you have wiped away pain; rather, you have accepted the event, and the deep hurt, and by doing so, providing your grief an outlet. Acceptance means we are rumbling with our grief, and not turning to shame.
This doesn’t mean that trying again isn’t hard. In fact, after a pregnancy loss, there is immense strength in saying, “let’s try again.” The courage to try again doesn’t mean we don’t feel fear. But, by returning to the Rising Strong process, we feel the courage to do so. As Brené Brown says, “We are the brave and brokenhearted.”
For more information on Rising Strong, by Dr. Brené Brown, visit her website: www.daretolead.brenebrown.com.
I’ll be honest – I’m exhausted. And I know I am not the first person to express that in the last five minutes. Between the pending election, the rising cases across the country and constant news updates warning us of another spike in cases, and simply the general unrest, our world is holding a lot right now.
I’ve recently, however, found myself doing something I know is unhelpful. It’s something I can easily point out to others when they engage in it. I found myself looking at my own pain, and comparing it to others’ pain: “Yes, I’m feeling all of these feelings, but I have a job so I can’t really complain.”
This is called comparative suffering. Comparative suffering is the practice of ranking, evaluating, and judging painful events. It is detrimental to our emotional wellbeing. And when we do it to ourselves, it becomes that much easier to do it to others. When we engage in comparative suffering, we feel invalidated, as if our grief does not matter. We are unable to navigate our own sufferings. As a way to cope (or maybe to avoid our pain), we minimize others’ pain. This leads to extreme disconnection from others. It reduces our capacity for empathy, and enhances our scarcity mindset (scarcity meaning we believe things or people are “never enough”).
Yes, there are people out there who have it worse than you. And there are people who have it better than you. But this comparison doesn’t make our own pain easier. Pain is pain. And when we don’t honor our pain, it intensifies. When we don’t honor others’ pain, we conserve kindness and empathy. And kindness and empathy are unlimited resources. No one is served in this conservation.
Antony Polonsky, a professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, refers to this as the “suffering Olympics.” I am not out to win a gold medal in those games! The most important pain I feel is my pain, and the most important pain you feel is your pain (I’m paraphrasing from the great David Kessler, an expert on grief). Pain is an inevitable part of life, and rather than competing, we can use this to connect with one another. I might not know your pain, but I know what it feels like. I might not know what it feels like to be furloughed during this pandemic, but I’ve felt all of the feelings that underlie that situation: fear, uncertainty, anxiety in checking my bank account every hour to make sure I had sufficient funds.
Comparative suffering disconnects us; we engage in a series of empathic fails which, overtime, erodes our relationships. Empathy connects us, and allows our relationships to deepen in a beautiful, vulnerable, and authentic way.