I miscarried a child 20 years ago, and I know the language we use really matters

Shelley Silas
Photograph: Alamy

It was the day before my nephew’s barmitzvah, almost 20 years ago, when family and friends would gather to celebrate my sister’s son’s coming of age. After nine years, my parents had just accepted my wife into the family: this was going to be an important moment for us as a couple. But it wasn’t the happy event I’d hoped for.

My wife and I had already told my parents – and others – that we were pregnant. I wanted a boy, and we knew his name: Eli. That day before the barmitzvah, I was due to have the all-important first scan where a heartbeat would be detected – but when I woke that morning I knew something was wrong.

Our friends enjoyed our good news and grieved with us in our sad news. Who do we protect if we remain silent?

At the hospital a scan showed the sac but no heartbeat. I was to return to the hospital on Monday but first had to go through an entire weekend of family celebration. I’d alerted my parents, telling my dad not to ask me to dance as I probably wouldn’t want to, so he danced with my wife instead – something I never thought I would see.

On Monday I was given medication to start the miscarriage. From hospital bed to my own bed, I was in the most excruciating pain, unable to get any relief. A day later I had a D&C procedure to remove anything that was left from my uterus, and that was it. Eli was gone. We were heartbroken. That was to be my only pregnancy.

Friends came to the rescue. Those who had miscarried were sympathetic and kind. Those who had given birth were very much aware of their luck. I am glad we previously shared our excitement about the pregnancy with those friends, regardless of any supposed 12-week rule – it meant they were there for us right from the start through to the end. Our friends enjoyed our good news and grieved with us in our sad news. Whom do we protect if we remain silent? We need to talk about miscarriage more – we need to talk to the professionals but also to each other.

Prior to treatment, because we were a same-sex couple, we had to undergo counselling to ensure we would be “good” parents. When I miscarried there was no counselling offered. Maybe this has changed now, but given my miscarriage and the experience of other people I know, it’s clear we need greater care and support. This is vital for our mental and physical wellbeing. Our bodies and minds have suffered a great trauma. We have been filled with pregnancy hormones, readying us to carry a child, to nourish it, watch it flourish and enter the world. To lose that causes tremendous distress. It’s not surprising then to read a study this week that suggests “one in six women who lose a baby in early pregnancy experience long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress”. We need help.

After I miscarried, a friend who did have a child said to me, “Oh well, nothing’s changed for you, your life is the same as it was before.” We are no longer friends. Everything had changed.

Society has much to answer for on this. To be a family is seen by many as having children. Women are expected to procreate. The number of miscarriages some women go through before a live birth is shattering. Is this because as women we do not want to be seen as failures? The very formulation of the word miscarriage can denote a mistake, an error, a failure to meet the intended result. But it is not a mistake or a failure, it is just unlucky. It is simply an ending.

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All of us – including the medical professionals – need to rethink our language around miscarriage. We should not camouflage what has happened and pretend it is something else in case we cause upset. We are already upset. Those cells and tissue are part of us, not some alien matter. Miscarriage is tough. Whether we miscarry at six weeks or 12 weeks or 23 weeks, the result is heartbreaking. Our minds and bodies are deeply distressed. We are grieving. We need proper care from those who are trained to give it, acknowledging our loss and offering space to heal.

My miscarriage was almost 20 years ago, but my wife and I still relive it. We still wonder who Eli would have grown into, how we would have raised him. We note his would-have-been birthdays every year. The pain never goes away completely. We cried for a very long time. We still cry. And we still talk about it. Because dialogue matters. It really matters. The right words matter.

• Shelley Silas is an award-winning playwright. Her play, The Trial of the Well of Loneliness, is on BBC Radio 4 on 25 January