Tomorrow, August 30, is National Grief Awareness Day. And in pursuitx of grief awareness, I want to share an opinion I have that comes up occasionally when people ask how they can support their friend who just experienced a miscarriage.
Here it is: please reconsider giving your bereaved friend flowers.
I certainly understand why you would choose to give flowers. Flowers are a – if not the – traditional gift for loved ones when someone passes away in the United States. According to one study from 1994 (which uses very old data and, to be very clear, was funded by floral interests), 85% of consumers in the U.S. had purchased flowers for someone they knew after that person suffered a loss. Those flowers have beautiful purposes, including brightening up a funeral or visitation, serving as a final gift or tribute to the deceased, and bringing comfort and symbolism of social support to the bereaved.
Giving flowers to someone who has experienced an early loss might be a way to mark the importance of the loss – or the fact that a loss occurred in the first place. I understand and honor the impulse to give the same gift to a friend suffering an early loss as to a friend who lost someone after they had a long life. That way of validating the pain of their loss, no matter how long the life of the deceased, is beautiful. And treating an early death the same way as any other death might further be meant as an assurance that there’s no such thing as “not pregnant enough to mourn” or “at least it was early and you didn’t have time to get attached.”
But there are other impacts that cut flowers can have that, I suggest, make this tradition less favorable than others (sympathy cards, meals, and remembrance gifts). Those similarly serve the function of marking that this loss IS truly a loss, without incurring the downside of flowers.
What’s the downside?
Frankly, after the loss of a child, it can be hard to watch creatures die.
Even those who lose loved ones after long lives don’t necessarily prefer a cut flower arrangement or traditional bouquet. 53% of bereaved participants in the study mentioned above agreed that “I prefer giving living plants, bulbs, or seeds as a memorial for the deceased rather than a cut flower arrangement.”
That study didn’t examine the reasoning for this, but I identify with this viewpoint, and I can tell you why I do. Flowers are beautiful – for a while. They bring comfort and brightness to days – for a week. Then, they slowly wilt away and turn into a faded, motionless, brittle reminder of what was and no longer is.
There are two ways in particular that flowers wilting might create opportunities for retraumatization for those who have experienced a miscarriage.
First, those who have just experienced a miscarriage must contend with a societal perception that they are at fault for the miscarriage. Those societal messages get internalized. A 2013 study of people who had experienced a miscarriage found that “47% felt guilty, 41% reported feeling that they had done something wrong, 41% felt alone, and 28% felt ashamed.” This is despite the fact that at least half of miscarriages are caused by random chromosomal abnormalities, and many others have no scientific explanation that should lead us to fault the parent (read more here). Further, by the times most miscarriages are identified or suspected, there is little to nothing that a parent can do to save a child’s life.
Add to that guilt the fact that someone who experienced a miscarriage likely just witnessed their body delivering the body of their child. That vivid sight of death can be hugely emotionally scaring for many. Visual reminders of death may not be helpful for your friend so soon after that experience.
You know your loved one best, and flowers may still be the best gift for them even after you consider these points. In discerning that, I encourage you to consider that cut flowers and their ultimate death provide opportunities for someone who has experienced a miscarriage to relive elements of their experience of watching death occur and being utterly unable to stop it. That’s why I gently suggest you find a different gift for your recently bereaved friend.
If you’re looking for ways to support a friend who has lost a child, check out this article for non-floral ideas.