What NOT to Say to a Woman Who is Struggling with Birth Trauma

A few months ago I was lucky enough to enjoy a cup of tea and a lovely talk with Jen Hannah. Jen Hannah is a local mom who has made it her mission to support women healing from birth trauma. In talking with Jen I realized as compassionate as I try to be, there is still so much I have yet to learn about the experience of birth trauma. Jen kindly agreed to share a bit of her knowledge with the ohmMother Yoga community and has written a couple blogs for us on talking about birth trauma. Whether you've gone through it yourself, or have a loved one who has, this series will shine a little light on how to navigate those tough conversations where you don't quite know what to say. 

If you are struggling through postpartum depression, anxiety or attempting to heal from birth trauma on your own - please reach out. There are many local counselors and support groups ready to hear your story. You are not alone.

Keep your eyes on our social media pages next week for Part Two of this series from Jen Hannah. I am so grateful she has decided to share her voice, and her message with our community! 

Namaste - Liz

Witnessing the suffering of someone whom we care about can be heart-wrenching. We want to help ease their pain. We want to offer comfort, support and love.

Often, when we don’t know what to DO to help, we turn to words. But words are a double-edged sword. As the Buddha said, “Words have the power to both destroy and heal.”

Well-meaning words can have the opposite of the intended effect. The 5 statements below all have elements of truth in them and do have the potential to be encouraging and supportive. AND… they also have the potential to cause pain to someone who is already drowning in a tidal wave of it.

If you know a woman who is feeling traumatized by her birthing experience, the last thing you want is to unintentionally pour salt in her wound.

Here are some sentiments that can actually do more harm than good and are best avoided:

1. “It could have been worse.”

Yes, perhaps it could have been. AND… to a woman in the trenches of trauma, these words sound like, “You got off relatively easy. You don’t have as much right to feel this way as some one who experienced xyz.”

These 5 simple words, though they be well-intentioned, diminish her experience and belittle what she is feeling. And what she really needs is validation—whether or not we can relate or fully understand what she’s going through. She needs at least one person in her life to say, “I can hear your pain. I can see that you are really hurting and struggling with aspects of your experience. Yes, these are really difficult things to process…”

As Lynn Madsen said, “If she feels traumatized, she was”.

2. “Your baby is healthy. That’s the most important thing.”

For the majority of women who come away from their birthing experiences feeling some degree of trauma, their babies are born healthy. That does matter, yes. AND… it’s not the only thing that matters.

The mother most certainly matters, too. To dismiss her wellbeing—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—as insignificant or secondary, sets her up to take on even more shame, guilt, and self-criticism than she’s likely already feeling. In fact, she’s probably overwhelmed by it! Such feelings, combined with the highly-potent cocktail of postpartum hormones that has flooded her system, can pave a pretty smooth road to postpartum depression, anxiety, psychosis and more.

Our society has a (regrettable) way of neglecting the fact that in the postpartum period, the woman greatly needs to be nurtured, too. Regardless of how the birth unfolded, she needs the allies in her life to offer emotional, physical and spiritual sustenance as she integrates her experience into daily life.

(And besides, you’d think a culture that seemingly values the baby’s well-being above the mother’s, would realize that her health and well-being also affect her ability to care for her healthy child…)

3.   “Just focus on the good things.”

Yes, it’s true that what we put our attention on tends to grow stronger in our lives. AND… there’s a time and a place for focusing only on the “good” things.

In the case of traumatic childbirth, ignoring what doesn’t feel “good” is a gross sweeping-under-the-rug of a significant and very real presence in the life of a trauma-affected woman.

“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
~Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

4.   “Let it go. Put it behind you. There’s no changing it now.”

True: all the “what-ifs” in the world can’t change the reality of what occurred. AND… “there’s no changing it now” may trigger feelings of the powerlessness that is often a part of the trauma in the first place. A reminder of that sense of helplessness is far from supportive.

Often, those experiencing trauma and PTSD are stuck in a revolving door of Outward/Inward. The Outward attaches belief to how others’ actions/inactions contributed to the sense of trauma. The Inward is a finger pointed at the self and includes thoughts that one’s own actions/inactions could have prevented the trauma.

Unfortunately, this is not typically a cycle that a person can let go of or walk away from, simply by making the choice to do so. When we suggest a simple letting-go, we are unwittingly saying that what she is feeling doesn’t matter enough to look closely at.

5.   “Just give it time.”

We’ve all heard the cliché that “time heals all wounds”. It’s true that the passage of time following a life-changing or traumatic experience does change the way and the extent to which we are affected by it. AND… time alone cannot heal the wound.

Time—and often even our own conscious/subconscious choices—can heap distractions, numbing agents and numerous other fires-to-be-extinguished atop that wound, forcing it deeper and deeper underground. But if it is to heal in a healthy way, it cannot be avoided. The wound must be carefully examined and thoroughly cleaned, one layer at a time. The revolving of the afore-mentioned Inward/Outward door must cease. The root(s) of the wound must be looked squarely in the eye. And deep personal work must be done in order for the hold of the trauma to be released.

“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”
~Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

We’re all human. It’s our impulse, when we see a loved one hurting, to make it stop. We want stop it because we care about them and don’t want them to suffer any longer.

AND…often subconsciously, we want their suffering to stop because it makes us uncomfortable. It brings up feelings of helplessness. Powerlessness. Or it reminds us of pain that we’ve buried. And who wants to feel those things?! So we offer proverbs and platitudes, in hopes that they will “snap out of it” and will be back to “themselves”…because we know how to relate to that pre-trauma person.

One of the greatest ways we can support someone who is struggling with trauma, is to create a safe space in which she can befriend what is going on within herself.

So how on earth do we do that? What DO we say to a woman who is experiencing trauma following childbirth?

That’s a whole other post…