How to explain a miscarriage to a child isn't always easy. But sharing the details and grief of my experience with my son somehow felt deeply disconcerting and simultaneously sacred.

By Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.
March 10, 2021
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An illustration of a mom driving with her son.
Credit: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

Last year, a moment I had long anticipated arrived. Liev, age 10, began talking about my work one evening as I was putting him to bed. 

I'd imagined the moment was imminent, as his inquisitive nature had blossomed all the more recently. A natural-born thinker, Liev is perceptive and thoughtful through and through. And as we parents craft the right way to teach our children about the topic of sex and conception, I was aware that I wanted to consciously invest some time in educating him about the possibility of loss, too. 

Sex-related conversations between parents and their children typically focus, firstly, on how not to get pregnant, and secondly, on the ease of reproduction—namely, on the live births that follow pregnancy. But if our children are being taught that sex (and other reproductive technologies) lead to babies, should they not also learn that some fetuses never make it that far?

Liev knew some of this already; because of my work as a psychologist specializing in reproductive and maternal mental health, we'd discussed it. But the specific situation of my loss—I was 16 weeks along in my second pregnancy when I miscarried at home alone—was one I'd been waiting to share. Partially, I didn't want to burden him, and wanted to be sure that he was mature enough to handle something this complex. 

Also, a part of me worried he might inadvertently blurt the facts of my loss in his younger sister's face, telling her before I had the chance to do it myself. I didn't know the best way, how to broach it, or how far to take it. 

Sharing any of these details and the resulting grief with my son felt deeply disconcerting and somehow also intrinsically sacred at the same time. In time, I will share—when the time is right, I thought to myself, trusting that I'd rise to the occasion if it came up. I would pick and choose carefully what to share and what to leave out, of course.

Ultimately, there's really only so much planning one can do for conversations like these. And then it happened. We'd been talking about our respective days, and he'd been curious to hear more about my work and the stories I hear there. He proudly tells people that his mommy is a "doctor of the heart" (so some actually think I'm a cardiologist, amusingly), and expresses intrigue in psychological development—the way our histories shape who we become. 

One question led to the next, and there in his bedroom, I shared with him how my work intersects with my life.

"Well, Mommy, at least you never went through what those women went through. Actually, though ... I guess if you had, you'd be able to understand them even better."

Here we were, I realized. It was time. I seized the opportunity and let him guide our way through it.

"Well, sweetie, I did, actually," I said.

"Wait, what?!" he replied. "You did? When?"

I brought him back to the day it happened, and piqued his memory by reminding him about how he'd had his first-ever semi-sleepover that evening, and that this was what led to it.

He pressed further.

"She was a girl," I told him, "and I named her Olive." I explained that, at just 3 years old, he'd told me he'd wanted a sister named Olive. So I told him that since his daddy and I had loved the name as much as he did, we had decided to give her this name.

"That's the name I loved. I really love that name, Mommy." There was a pause. "Wait, so you wanted three kids?" he asked.

"No, my love," I explained. "Noa wouldn't be here if Olive had made it."

He understood and opined about how much he loves his sister before telling me how sad he was for me that I'd had to go through that.

"I'm sorry, Mommy," he offered. His questions continued: "Why do babies die too soon?"

"Sometimes it happens because the baby isn't healthy, like Olive," I explained, "and sometimes it's because of other complications."

"So the baby's heart is beating one minute, and then not the next? Does it hurt the mommy's heart when that happens?" he asked, curious and concerned.

"They hurt indescribably so," I told him.

"But what do the mommies do the next day? Without the baby?"

"They rest. They cry. They remember. They receive support," I replied.

And at that, he asked to feel my heartbeat, and offered to let me feel his.

What a milestone moment this was, sharing about my loss with my older child. My tender-hearted son. Such connectedness was ushered in during this deeply important conversation between us. I can only imagine what it felt like for him to hear this, and the way his mind will tinker with this emboldened information over time.

This exchange precipitated several other conversations, piquing his interest in pregnancy, loss, and the ways families piece their lives back together afterward. It's thrilling to watch his mind work as he darts questions at me that even some adults have never asked. There's abounding empathy revealed in his every perceptive query; it just about bowls me over with pride and gargantuan love. It makes me want to eat him up. Talk for hours. 

The subsequent conversations frequently took place during car rides—en route to piano practice, baseball games, play dates, they just pop out. He'll spring a question on me seemingly out of nowhere, which reveals and reiterates to me how thoughtful his mind is and how huge a heart he has. Liev asks, unprompted, from the back seat: "Mommy, how old would that girl be now?"

Unsure what he's referring to, as just a moment ago we were talking about Fortnite, I reply, "Which girl, sweetie?"

"The pregnancy you lost. It's so sad. How old would she be? Because if Noa is 5-and-a-half, would she be like 7 or something? How old was I when that happened?"

His love. His memory. It stays strong.

I hope conversations like these continue until the end of time. I hope that lines of communication remain open between us—about life, death, and these liminal spaces—always. 

This article is an excerpt from I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, a Movement by Jessica Zucker. Used with the permission of the Feminist Press. Copyright © 2021 by Jessica Zucker.