“I was at my 10-week scan and I just felt something wasn’t right. The doctor became very quiet and I instantly knew. Then I heard the words ‘I’m sorry, there is no heartbeat’,” recalls Emma Redston, a 38-year-old primary school teacher who lives in Surrey. “I remember falling to my knees, feeling like the floor had been ripped from under me.”
It was 2016 and Emma had suffered a miscarriage after falling pregnant quickly when she and her husband, Steve, tried for a baby. She was given medicine to induce the miscarriage, and after four hours of extreme bleeding and cramps she passed her baby in her bathroom.
Emma went on to have four further miscarriages. The second at 23 weeks, a daughter called Phoebe, who spent six weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit before being moved to a children’s hospice, where she died in her mother’s arms. Three other losses followed. The fifth was a boy, Harry, who died at 15 weeks this September. To date she has had more than 1,000 injections for IVF.
“Losing Phoebe changed me for ever. There is a deep sadness now that I don’t think will ever leave me,” she says. “I didn’t go to a supermarket for a year afterwards because I couldn’t be around people who were pregnant or with toddlers. Physically I recovered fairly quickly but emotionally I am changed. I am not the same woman I was prior to my first loss. I have had five pregnancies but still have no baby at home.”
With approximately one in eight pregnancies ending in miscarriages, Emma is not alone. Despite this, dozens of people who contacted the Guardian via a callout described a culture of silence around the subject.
This week, pregnancy loss has been thrust under a rare spotlight with the publication of a candid article from the Duchess of Sussex describing her miscarriage this year. Her admission has been widely praised for opening up dialogue.
“I haven’t heard of a single friend who had a miscarriage, and I can’t believe that’s possible. Statistically, surely it can’t just be me,” says Emma. “I wanted to talk, but I felt like I was being overdramatic. If no one else is talking about it, you think it’s not a big deal and you question your own feelings. But I’d much rather you say Phoebe’s name out loud.”
‘The heaviest weight from miscarriage is the taboo’
Jack*, 40 from Ireland has suffered three miscarriages over the last three years with his partner, and passionately believes that the subject needs to be dealt with more frankly.
“The heaviest weight from miscarriage is the taboo,” he says. “It’s a toxic secrecy that seems to drive the biggest long-term damage from miscarriage, which I think is self-blaming. You think: was it my diet? My exercise? How did I kill my own baby?
“Where I live there’s no conversation around it. It’s the type of stoicism that comes with Catholic culture. But you need to know it’s nothing to do with you as a parent. Grief can be managed but the questions can echo internally forever.”
After their first miscarriage, the couple joined a support group, which Jack says was a lifeline. “We talked to others who’d suffered and that meant we were able to deal with it better the second and third times.”
For Jack, however, the responsibility to open a dialogue around miscarriage shouldn’t just fall on those who have suffered it, though he says celebrities such as Meghan sharing their experiences provided “a great comfort”.
“It shouldn’t be for suffering mothers to normalise the frequency of miscarriage by sharing their stories,” he says. “It should be a responsibility for everyone to be sensitive about it.”
‘I just switched off, but I need to mourn’
For others, coping with miscarriage meant throwing themselves into other things, such as caring for other children or doing paid work. But the lack of focus on the experience has left some with unprocessed grief, years later.
Almost 10 years after her first baby’s birth, Renu Gupta, then 38 and living in Dubai, felt “the familiar flutter” and realised she was pregnant for a third time. The lawyer, now living in the UK, says both her previous pregnancies had been “seamless”.
She had taken her sons, eight and six, to a scan so they could see the baby and they were “thrilled” at the possibility of a sibling. “Bedtime story time became talking-about-the-baby time till they fell asleep,” she says. But at her next scan, Gupta’s doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat.
“My first thought was, how am I going to explain this to the boys? We told them the baby isn’t coming home and that the stork had lost its way,” she says. “When it dawned on them they weren’t going to have a new baby brother or sister, the eldest one cried for days.”
Gupta didn’t discuss the loss with many friends. In part, it was because it was “so personal” that she didn’t want to talk about it. It was also more difficult because she had pregnant friends – one gave birth around the same time Gupta had been due. The main reason, though, was because she focused on caring for her sons.
“Now, when I think about it, I just switched off,” she says. “When I wrote in [to the Guardian], I cried my heart out for hours. It felt like I hadn’t mourned it for myself, and I need to mourn that loss.”
‘One by one, women started unburdening their stories’
Alison, who lives in Yorkshire, had a miscarriage in the early 90s, at 33. She was married to an Anglican vicar at the time and describes it as “living in a goldfish bowl”.
“You couldn’t do anything on the quiet,” she says. “You had to be careful about putting your recycling out because people would see how many wine bottles were in there.
“I can’t remember the exact details now, but I started bleeding one morning less than 12 weeks into the pregnancy,” she says. “I was rushed to hospital where I was told I would be booked in for a D&C [a surgical procedure where the remaining pregnancy tissue is removed]. I cried all the way to theatre on the trolley and I remember the nurse burst into tears as well.”
When she was in the church hall kitchen the following Sunday, she was surprised to find herself surrounded by a group of female parishioners.
“Six or eight women came in, and one by one started unburdening their stories,” she says. “I was just so taken aback by the number of women that came and opened their hearts to me at that time. I’d never known anyone who’d had a miscarriage.
“The fact that it happened to me, and was relatively public, just gave people the excuse they needed to share their experience,” she adds. “There wasn’t such thing as support groups then. I don’t think anyone else was listening. I found it helpful to hear their stories. It helps you realise you’re not alone, you’re not the only person who has experienced this.”