I’ve written before about how phrases such as “Your baby’s healthy – that’s the most important thing” or “Time to put it behind you and move on” after a traumatic birth serve to minimise a woman’s feelings of pain or grief.
There’s a good post from an Australian site called BellyBelly that addresses this exact point. The writer, Sam McCulloch, spoke to a group of women about their traumatic birth experiences who said they found the phrase “at least you have a healthy baby” particularly painful – and it was often used by people close to them as well as health professionals.
McCulloch gives a helpful quote from Debby Gould of the birth trauma site BirthTalk:
“Imagine it’s your dream to go to Paris – you go! And you love it! However your plane was hijacked en route – you were terrified and it was the worst twenty hours of your life! Would the fact that you landed safely in Paris cancel the trauma of the flight? Would people say, ‘Well you got to go to Paris, that’s the important thing?’ I think not.”
Actually, I’m not sure that Debby is right about that – human beings are very good at putting a positive spin on someone else’s suffering – but you take her point.
BellyBelly has some good suggestions for things to say to women who have experienced a traumatic birth – some of these are better than others (“You are a strong, amazing woman” might be a bit too much for understated British sensibilities) but the central message is spot on: listen to what the woman is saying, don’t tell her how she should be feeling and don’t try to minimise her pain.
I once interviewed a woman whose baby died at birth. What stays most with me about that interview is that she said she would brace herself whenever someone began a sentence with the words “At least…”. Even when a baby has died, it seems, those around you feel the urge to point out the bright side. But as she said: “There was no silver lining, no reason and no bright side.”
Since then, whenever I talk to someone going through a difficult experience, I’ve tried to avoid using the phrase “At least”. It’s harder than you might think. But it’s something we could all try: the first step to helping someone recover is to stop pretending that their experience doesn’t really matter.