TW: Miscarriage NZ. A warning that this story contains some graphic details about miscarriage that may cause distress.
In NZ we don’t collect data on the number of miscarriages, but it’s estimated that between 13,000 to 15,000 women experience a miscarriage in NZ every year. That means for every four pregnancies, one ends in miscarriage.
Then, there are the babies who are stillborn – who die during pregnancy or in utero after the 20th week of pregnancy. Each year about one in every 200 pregnancies ends in stillbirth.
For something that is not uncommon, it seems bizarre – and sometimes quite cruel – that it’s a topic we so rarely talk about and remains as something quite taboo. It means many women – and men – go through the experience feeling completely alone, often unaware that so many other Kiwis (perhaps even their closest friends!) know just how heart-wrenching their pain is.
Today we’re talking to Jessica Giljam-Brown, who many of you may be more familiar with, by her business: Wellness By Jessica.
Jessica is a women’s health expert, author and speaker, with a wealth of knowledge on hormones and pregnancy thanks to her training as a nutritionist and medical herbalist. She works one-on-one with clients, as well as taking hugely successful group courses, including her Fertility Masterclass and Happy Hormones.
While she’s been helping women across the world get pregnant, Jessica and her husband experienced their own incredibly painful heartbreak on their journey to parenthood just a couple of months ago when they went through a miscarriage in the first trimester.
Jessica has been incredibly generous and shared this experience with her followers in the hopes that it might make them feel a little less alone – and, most importantly, that they might stop fretting that it in some way it may have been their fault. Here we chat to Jessica about her own experiences and what she hopes other women may take away from it too.
How are you today, Jessica?
I am good thank you! My husband and I are in the middle of lambing on our farm at the moment, so it’s pretty busy, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.
So many of us follow you on Instagram to glean your insights about nutrition and herbal medicine – particularly around hormones and fertility. But for those who aren’t familiar with you, can you tell us a bit about what you do and why?
Yeah, sure. I am a nutritionist and medical herbalist. I’ve been working in women’s health now for the last seven years. And I got into this kind of work, because I love pregnancy and birth and those kinds of things – that’s what I really wanted to work with. Then, when I started seeing patients, and I quickly figured out that the issue wasn’t so much women needing support for pregnancy, but more they needed help getting to pregnancy, or resolving all of the issues that cropped up with their hormones before falling pregnant. So that’s how I fell into it! I support women with issues like PCOS and endometriosis, irregular cycles, thyroid problems and acne. And it’s all kind of evolved from there!
What’s interesting about your page too is that besides the professional side of it, you also share a lot of your personal life. Just last month, I saw you posted something very personal on your account – about how you had just had a miscarriage. First of all, I’m so incredibly sorry for your loss.
Secondly, we wanted to thank you for your openness on the topic. You had a particularly powerful message. I’ve talked to many women now after they have had a miscarriage or loss, and one thing that nearly always comes up is the mental gymnastics they go through, trying to work out why it happened to them. So often, cruelly, they end up blaming themselves or wondering if there was anything they did or didn’t do that might have caused it. But it’s very rarely the reason for the miscarriage! Your message was so powerful, in saying, look at all the knowledge and information I have access to and it still happened to me! Is that part of the reason you wanted to share your experience?
Yeah, that was exactly the reason I wanted to share. It’s one of those things that it is a very personal experience, and obviously it’s a heart-breaking experience. But I’ve spoken with so many couples – or women on their own – in my clinical practice the last few years, after they’d had miscarriages, and sometimes they’re even ashamed to share it with me. They’ve said they’ve thought ‘oh, she’s gonna think I didn’t put in enough effort, or I didn’t do the things she told me to do’.
The reality is that sometimes it just happens. It doesn’t matter how hard you try or how much you prepare or how much you exercise or how much broccoli you eat. Sometimes it’s still going to happen.
So I shared that because obviously I see all of those women all the time who are so ashamed to share it and just blame themselves. But also just to put that message out there but you don’t have to be perfect to get pregnant or stay pregnant because sometimes even you can do all the right things and it’s still going to happen.
I often wonder whether it’s the fact that talking about miscarriage is still quite taboo, that can end up exacerbating those feelings of shame, guilt and loneliness that can come hand in hand with a miscarriage. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
Absolutely. It’s crazy that it happens so often, yet people don’t really talk about it. And it’s not until, for example, where I told somebody I had a miscarriage and then they said, ‘Oh yes, I did too’. But I would have never known that they did unless I told them I had and so it’s still so secretive, even between close friends and women who know each other well.
You mentioned to me earlier that you posted your news really before you’d thought it all through. Did you have any regrets about doing it? What was the response like?
No, I didn’t. I don’t regret sharing it at all. But I think for me, I was very science minded about it. I fully understand that it is, unfortunately, a very natural part of women’s reproduction and humans having babies. You know, humans are just not great at having babies and getting pregnant, unfortunately.
So for me, it was kind of matter-of-fact, it’s something that happens and I knew it could happen to me going into the process. It did happen. So I let other women know about it.
It wasn’t until after I posted and then literally hundreds of messages came into my email inbox or into my DM’s on Instagram that I thought, ‘oh crap’. Emotionally, it was a lot to take on from other people. It was a lot of people reaching out, sharing their stories as well. So you kind of take on a little bit of that emotional side of things from everybody who shares – which was wonderful, but tough. But yeah, I think I was a little bit shocked at the response that I got, I didn’t think people would care as much as they did. But I definitely don’t regret creating that space for people to talk about it.
My gosh, that would be a huge emotional load to carry while you’re still navigating your own feelings of grief. How have you protected your mental health during this time – I mean, it must also be quite a challenge when your day job often involves talking about hormones and fertility and pregnancy?
It’s a tough one and I’ve spoken to a lot of practitioner friends who have been in similar situations. I think we all kind of feel like, ‘well, it is something that can happen!’ It is unfortunately a very natural event and it’s just nice putting our energy into helping other people.
It does become a little bit heavy and I have definitely taken a bit of a step back from my business in the past couple of months. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to help my husband on our farm, and do something a little bit different. But I still really enjoy my job and I’m fortunate that I do get to help women and I’m still very happy when patients get pregnant.
It’s definitely made me a little bit more emotional now with patients who have lost a pregnancy because I really know and feel what they’re going through.
Had you told anyone you were pregnant?
We had told a few people sort of as soon as we found out we were pregnant so that we had that support, knowing anything can happen.
I’m terrible with a secret so there’s no way I was going last for 12 weeks anyway, but yeah, I think it’s just nice having a few people who know and can support you and it does make that that stage a little bit easier, especially if things don’t go to plan.
And you sadly found out at an ultrasound appointment that you were going to lose your baby. Scans are nerve-racking enough – I can only imagine how devastating that must have been.
The thing is I looking back on it now, I wasn’t excited for the ultrasound. So whether I kind of knew something wasn’t right or not, I don’t know. It was at our 8 week scan that we found out the baby had a low heart rate and was measuring two weeks smaller than it should have been. As soon as I heard the heart beat I knew it wasn’t going to end well.
We kind of knew what was going to be coming and then found out at the next ultrasound, at week nine, that the baby had passed.
[A quick warning: in the next segment, we share some quite graphic information about miscarriage. We feel it’s important to share these details, but want to give you the option to skip over this section if it may cause you distress]
Has there been anything about this experience that has really surprised you?
While all of the medical staff I saw were really lovely, what surprised me was that no one tells you what is actually going to happen when you miscarry.
The most description that I got through the whole thing, was being told, ‘it could take some time. It’s going to be like a heavy period and then your cycle come back and life will go on.’ And that’s literally it.
Even the early loss clinic didn’t really give me the details of what a miscarriage is like. I was given the options of waiting to see what happened, have a D and C, or take Misoprostol. I wasn’t given any pros and cons of each option, if I hadn’t already been well education about my options I would have felt very lost. I thought the support was really lacking, to be honest.
If it was somebody who wasn’t at all medically trained, or who worked in this kind of health space they would have no clue what to expect. Which, after talking to other women, I can totally see why some women come away from the process of miscarriage completely traumatized by the actual passing of their baby, because they’re not at all warned what it’s going to be like which I really think is a real flaw in the system.
I ended up having to take Misoprostol, which is a drug that encourages the miscarriage to happen, because it wasn’t happening naturally. All I had to go off, was they said, ‘Yeah, you have some cramps, take some ibuprofen’. Basically just, suck it up, you’ll be fine. I was like… okay, cool.
So, of course what do you do? You Google.
And there was no solid advice online. So what you end up reading is , message board stories from women, which are not very reliable. And women pretty much only shared their experiences of when it went horrifically wrong! So, I’m about to take this drug, and I’m thinking ‘this is going to be the most horrific day. It’s going to be traumatic.’
But then the reality was it was done and dusted within four hours. And it actually wasn’t the painful, horrific experience that people had talked about online. I think I was very lucky with that, but having no nobody talk about what it’s like was difficult. Everybody talks about the different types of birth, you hear about all the lovely births that all go to plan and you hear about the ones where nothing goes to plan, but for something like miscarriage, which is still pretty common, there’s no talk about the variations of it.
Far out. That’s such a good – and hideous – point. That part of the process is often so sanitised too, or quickly brushed over. For women who are reading this, and are wanting more information, do you have any advice? Were there any resources you found that were of any help that you can share?
Honestly, no, I didn’t.
What I would probably advise people to do is just push your midwife your GP for more details. And you know, even ask to speak to somebody who has had a miscarriage, because they will give you better information as to what you can expect.
Because, for myself, thankfully, I knew what to expect. I knew sort of the amount of blood and the amount of clots to expect. I knew that there was a possibility that the sack could come out whole and that I could see the baby in the sack, which is what happened for me.
But for patients who haven’t been told about that before it happens, that’s a really traumatic event. It’s not even the pain that’s the trauma of it, it’s coming to terms with the fact that suddenly you’re holding your miscarried baby in your hand in the bathroom – which is obviously hugely traumatic if you’re not at all expecting to see that.
So that’s the kind of information that they should be preparing women with. telling them some things that could happen or things they might see. It’s not about scaring women but preparing them for what might happen.
No, while it is really graphic, I so appreciate you telling me these details. That sounds hugely traumatic, even if you were anticipating that it may happen. But if you weren’t expecting that? I can’t imagine. I haven’t heard someone speak so openly about what actually happens, so, thank you for sharing – and hopefully it’ll mean that if someone is googling it, trying to get some answers, they’ll land here, rather than a scary message board.
I think it’s important and people might think, ‘oh, geez, I can’t believe she shared that’. But, you know, when I listen to women, absolutely sobbing in my office because they didn’t know that that’s what they were going to face during their miscarriageI think it’s important to share the realities of miscarriage . It is an incredibly common event that the majority of women have no idea about before it happens to them.
My God. Well, it certainly doesn’t sound like ‘just a heavy period’ that you should just get on with.
It’s completely different! For me personally, I went through kind of like contractions on and off for four or five days. And then when it happened, it was kind of all over in a rush and suddenly I’m fishing this embryo out of my pajama pants. For me, I wanted to be prepared for that, because when it happens, even though I knew exactly what could happen, it was still a shock. If you didn’t know, it’s would be like being hit in the face.
I’m so sorry, Jessica. It’s such a truly unfair thing to happen. But I so very much appreciate you sharing your story with us – and getting that message out there that a miscarriage is not your fault!! I hope that as we share more of these stories it’ll take away a little bit of the loneliness women feel after a miscarriage – and, with your story in particular, that women will stop feeling all that unnecessary shame and guilt about what has happened, when it was completely out of their control.
Absolutely! Women should never feel like it was their fault or there was something that they could have done, because 99% of the time it is nothing that could have been done! Unfortunately, the fate of that embryo was decided sometimes even before you even realize you’re pregnant. It’s just one of those things Mother Nature decided just wasn’t quite meant to be and there’s absolutely nothing you can do.
So, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it or hide it. If it’s something you want to share with people then you should share it because there shouldn’t be any judgement around miscarriage. You haven’t done anything wrong.