Name: Jennifer Chen
Claim to fame: Writer, author of the BuzzFeed essay Why I Don't Want My Miscarriage to Stay Secret
Wise words: "I think there’s a lot of dismissiveness in this culture, things like ‘you’ll have a baby someday’ or ‘oh, this wasn’t meant to be, this wasn’t your baby’ but this person really lost someone in their life -- you would never say to someone who lost their mother ‘oh, you can just get a new mom’."
I met Jennifer Chen on a Sunday afternoon in a sun-drenched UCLA classroom. The small room was packed with women who were gathered for the inaugural BinderCon LA, a conference for women and gender non-conforming writers. It was the last session on the last day of the conference, and dozens of participants were there to hear six women (myself included) speak on their experiences of writing about death and loss.
It is a special kind of woman who chooses to attend a panel presentation on death and grief. Everyone in that room was there for a reason and you could feel the presence of the stories and the losses that inspired them to attend the session. While that could have made for a sad group of women, the energy in the room was quite the opposite. I saw a few tears being shed, but I heard a lot more laughter.
The hour that we were allotted for our session flew by, and we only had time for a small handful of questions from the audience. One of those questions came from Jennifer.
She stood up from her seat, turned to the group and explained that she was at the session in part because she was working on an anthology of women’s stories about miscarriage and looking for women who were willing to share their stories of pregnancy loss in the book.
“But,” she continued, “I’m not sure how to approach people about it. I feel really awkward going up to people and asking them ‘have you had a miscarriage?’” If I recall correctly, the common consensus was that, yes, the question is an uncomfortable one to ask, but that it shouldn’t be considered offensive.
This question is illustrative of a bigger problem in our society: miscarriage is still widely considered to be a taboo topic, and this isolating silence is causing some women to feel as though their experience with pregnancy loss is somehow shameful. This is something that Jennifer, unfortunately, has experienced first-hand: just over a year ago, Jennifer suffered a miscarriage.
Despite our society’s obsession with women’s bodies -- in particular those of pregnant women -- we are often silent on the topic of pregnancy loss. “Sadly I think we’re so used to people talking about pregnancy and being a mom and having a baby,” she said, “but no one talks about the women who have lost their children.”
It is the stigma borne from that silence that drives Jennifer’s advocacy work as a writer and journalist: “This [the anthology] is a project that I want to do mainly because I’ve heard from so many women who are so ashamed, scared, lonely, and I want them to know that there is no reason to be alone, that there are a lot of us, but we just don’t tell each other.”
On Becoming an Accidental Miscarriage Advocate
“How I came into this was that a friend had told me to check out the hashtag #IHadaMiscarriage,” Jennifer explained to me, “it took me a day or two and then I checked it out and it was like ‘oh my god, there are lots of us! why did I think I was alone?’”
Up until that point, it hadn’t quite dawned on Jennifer just how common the experience of pregnancy loss is, because no one that she knew personally was really talking about it.
“I felt like I was alone because, in my immediate circle, no one had told me what they had been through,” she said, “I think the messages really taught me that we’re just not talking about something that’s very prevalent for women. It feels secretive and it shouldn’t.”
This sense of isolation is deepened by the fact that there is little information about miscarriage in pregnancy books and resources, despite the fact that as many as 25% of clinically recognized pregnancies will end in miscarriage. “I think I read the same one or two pages about pregnancy loss in What to Expect When You’re Expecting dozens of times,” she laughed, “it was that or WebMD.”
It is this separation -- in the literature and in our personal conversations -- of miscarriage from pregnancy, as if they are not two sides of the same experience, that contributes to the stigma and feelings of isolation that Jennifer described. This collective silence around pregnancy loss has very real consequences for the health and well-being of women whose pregnancies do not come to term. “Not knowing anything about something that’s happening to your body can be very frightening,” she added.
“There was really nothing on how to deal with my emotional health, my physical health, or how to talk to people about this,” she continued, “I wish I understood more about miscarriage before this happened to me. I didn’t even know what was going to happen to my body and I felt like if only I had a friend who was able to say ‘hey this is what is going to happen, and you’re going to be okay, and it might be a little scary’. I feel a sense of responsibility to create that.”
This dearth of accessible information on the topic of pregnancy loss not only means that women lack the resources that they need when they experience a miscarriage, but that their support network is generally ill-equipped to help them through this painful, complex experience.
“From what I’ve heard and read and had women tell me, no one is supporting them through this process,” Jennifer said. To illustrate her point, she shared a story with me of a woman who wrote to her saying that her husband’s response to her grief was to ‘just get over it’ and to tell her to stop crying. While that might just be an unfortunate case of an asshole husband being unsupportive, Jennifer argues that it is emblematic of the way in which our society treats pregnancy loss.
“I think there’s a lot of dismissiveness in this culture, things like ‘you’ll have a baby someday’ or ‘oh, this wasn’t meant to be, this wasn’t your baby’ but this person really lost someone in their life -- you would never say to someone who lost their mother ‘oh, you can just get a new mom’,” Jennifer remarked.
She believes that through education and de-stigmatization work being done by authors like Dr. Jessica Zucker, a psychologist specializing in maternal mental health, we can teach people to have a more empathetic response to these losses.
On the Nice -- and the Nasty -- Responses to Her First Essay on Pregnancy Loss
Inspired by women like Dr. Zucker, Jennifer penned her own essay on miscarriage for BuzzFeed Ideas. When Jennifer and her editor published the piece, titled Why I Don’t Want My Miscarriage to Stay Secret, they expected a certain amount of attention and discussion, but they had no way of anticipating the deluge of comments and messages that they were about to receive.
“We published it on a Sunday, by Thursday I had emails, tweets, Facebook messages, comments,” Jennifer recalled, “it was just this huge flood of not only support, but women sharing their stories saying ‘this is what happened to me, this is what I went through’ and it just exploded.” In telling her story, Jennifer had given a sacred gift to countless women (and men) around the world: permission to tell their own. From a man in Scotland who wrote to her telling the story of his wife’s three miscarriages, to friends in Jennifer’s own circle who had never said a word about miscarriage before disclosing their losses.
“It was a lot. I’ve had people email me about things that I’ve written in the past, but never like this,” she recounted, “it was a lot of people who just wanted to say ‘I’ve been there.’ I think people wanted to connect with me because I shared something so private that they also felt comfortable sharing something private about themselves.”
For Jennifer, it was yet another realization of the stigma-busting power of bringing stories of miscarriage into the light: “I also saw community in those comments. People were sharing their stories in that comment feed in a way that was like having a big group discussion that we’re not having elsewhere.”
But, it wasn’t all love notes and group hugs.
“I think the challenge with the comments is that I did see some negative comments,” Jennifer said. It was one comment, though, that stuck out for her as particularly hurtful, for a variety of reasons: ‘well, it’s a first trimester miscarriage, so who cares? it wasn’t a baby and she needs to get over it’.
“It hurt, because I’m a person, but I tried to reframe it as grief striking everyone differently and for some women they don’t feel like it’s a huge deal,” she offered, “but in the conversations I’ve had with women I’ve found that it doesn’t matter if you’re six weeks pregnant or seventeen weeks pregnant: it’s still a loss, it’s still sad. I think some people feel like it’s not a big deal, but to certain people it is a big deal and I think we should honour all of those experiences.”
Jennifer believes that by creating safe spaces -- from online communities to kitchen tables -- where women can speak the truth of their experience with miscarriage, we can foster a greater acceptance and understanding of the diversity of women’s pregnancy experiences.
“When I read Jessica Zucker’s essay, I was sobbing at my computer like a baby, but I was also having an amazing moment of ‘oh, someone else has felt this way?’ and I think that’s the beautiful thing about writing and sharing those stories that aren’t told as often, that it makes someone else feel less alone,” she said. “I feel really grateful to her because her story was able to get me to tell my story and that brought other stories out that may never have been heard. Even if just one person emailed me their story, that means one person told it and got it out, it’s not a demon living inside of them in that little place of shame. It’s not pleasant and it’s not fun, but these stories are important.”
On the Painfully Precious Gift of Loss
I’m a big proponent of changing the narrative about grief from one that defaults to trauma and damage and pain to one of transformation. Why? Because talking about grief through the language of transformation allows space for both the painful and the positive aspects of grief. I refer to my mother’s death as “the one gift I would do anything to return, but can still appreciate.” Jennifer, it seems, shares this approach to loss.
She explained to me that, before becoming pregnant, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to become a mother. Then, after much discussion with her husband, she became pregnant and was overwhelmed and a little taken aback by the depth of the love and protectiveness that she felt for someone she had never even met. But it was only after this great loss, when she was confronted by the absence of his being in her life, that she truly understood just how deep that love ran. “What I’ve come to realize through this experience is the depths of how much I can love someone,” she shared, “and when you love someone, there is also the other side where it is going to hurt deeply when that being is not here. I think after that experience I was understanding more that when I’m putting myself out there to love anything, whether it’s a pet, a baby, a friend, there’s also a greater capacity for loss.”
But it didn’t stop there. Unfortunately, this lesson was underscored by a second loss: at the time that Jennifer was going through her miscarriage, she was also saying goodbye to her beloved cat, who was dying of cancer. Although the experience of enduring two major losses in such quick succession ushered Jennifer into a period of great sadness, it also rekindled a profound sense of gratitude for the blessings in her life.
“It is a traumatic experience, it’s painful to lose anyone, but it helps me appreciate the people that I have in my life now,” she explained to me as she told me about her daily practice of mentally cataloguing all the things she appreciates in her life. Often, that includes this tragic loss: “Even though it was shitty and I wish it never happened, I’m grateful because I was able to become an advocate for women who felt like they didn’t have a voice, I was able to understand that I want to be a mother, I was able to understand how much I could love someone I haven’t met. It really taught me a lot of things I wouldn’t have had. I wish none of this happened, I wish loss wasn’t a part of life, but it is.”
It is my hope that as more people like Jennifer speak about about this complex, messy duality of loss -- as both painful and precious -- more people will become open to engaging with their grief instead of numbing out, like I did for quite some time. Although the lessons we learn never make up for what we lost, it can help us make sense of what feels like senseless tragedy.
“It’s a big teaching tool that you never really wanted,” she said with a laugh and a small sigh, “but I’m grateful to be challenged because I think it’s pushed me to a depth that I didn’t have before and a growth and life experience that makes me appreciate everything. I hope that loss teaches us to appreciate every single person in our lives and every being and everything that’s happening. It’s easy to forget.”