FOR FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Supporting a friend, co-worker, or loved one through the loss of their baby can be a very helpless feeling. It is impossible to take the pain away or do anything to lessen the impact of the loss. The most important thing friends and family can do is just listen and be present. Honor your loved one’s thoughts and feelings which may seem foreign to you. It is helpful to mirror their words and beliefs regarding the loss of their baby, as well as their dreams and hopes for their child. As a grieving parent, they may not know or be able to express what they need. They are often aware only of what is not helpful. As a grandparent, aunt, uncle: you are most likely also grieving the loss of this baby, as well as feeling the hurt of seeing your child or sibling in pain and being unable to fix it for them. You can be overwhelmed with emotion and feel very helpless at the same time.
Baby Loss Support
A GENTLE REMINDER:
THESE TYPES OF STATEMENTS
ARE OFTEN INCREDIBLY HURTFUL TO GRIEVING PARENTS
Any sentence that begins with “At least...”
Sentences that begin with, “At least” are most often followed by words that are unhelpful and even painful to a grieving parent.
“At least you can have other children.”
“At least the baby didn’t suffer.”
“At least she is in a better place.”
“At least you miscarried before it was really a baby.”
“At least it never came home.”
Please, if you find yourself forming a sentence beginning with the words, “At least...” do your very best to refrain from speaking it. It is natural to want to comfort them this way, but again these well-meaning words can unintentionally cause such hurt.
“Better it was early before you knew the baby.”
Even though the parents had little, if any, time to know their child, the parental attachment is still strong. The bonding with their baby can begin even before conception. Parents are already building the dreams and plans they have for their child—first birthday, holidays, first day of school, sharing activities with their baby that they enjoyed as a child, etc. With the sad event of a baby’s death, parents lose a future they looked forward to sharing with their child. It is not the amount of time that someone had with their baby, child or loved one that influences how deeply they grieve; it is the amount of attachment, love, and the bond they formed with their baby that does.
“You must be strong. Don’t cry.”
These types of statements are telling parents how to feel and negate their feelings. It also sends the message to your grieving loved one, “You make me uncomfortable when you cry.” This places an added burden on them.
“Something was wrong with the baby anyway. This happened for the best.”
Well intentioned reasoning like this often makes the pain worse. It negates the love and natural, normal grief that a parent has at the loss of their child.
“You’re young, you can always try again.”
Parents have to mourn the loss of this baby before they can begin to think about having another. One baby does not replace another. The prospect of becoming pregnant again can be very frightening for they must risk the possibility of greater heartache if they lose another baby. Also, these parents may have gone through extreme difficulty and great expense to conceive the baby they just lost. Becoming pregnant again may not be as simple as “trying” again.
“I understand how you feel.”
Unless you have lost a baby or a child personally, you can not even begin to understand how a grieving parent is feeling. And, please do not compare the loss of a child to that of a pet. It is not remotely close. If you have lost a baby or child, your experience while similar is still different from theirs. In this case, you can simply say something like, “I, too, lost a child. It is such a difficult experience. There is nothing like it.” You can then follow their lead if they ask you to share.
“Thank goodness you have other kids.”
Having other children does not lessen the pain of losing this child. Pause to contemplate it from their point of view. Can you even imagine life without one of your children? Additionally, this baby’s siblings are grieving as well.
“You have an angel in heaven.”
They don’t want an angel in heaven. They want this baby. If in time they begin to refer to their baby as an angel baby, you can follow their lead. But please don’t make the assumption that thinking of their baby as an angel will be helpful to them. Some of us don’t view our children that are no longer with us as angels.
“It was God’s Will. He wanted him/her for His own.”
Losing a child causes many parents to question the natural order of life and death, their faith, and their beliefs about God. Making comments such as this can add to that confusion and pain. They may question how a loving God would take their baby from them. They may wonder if they are being punished. Also, unless you know for absolute certain that their religious beliefs are the same or similar to yours, it is best to forego any spiritual references. Sharing your religious philosophy at this fragile time can actually cause the grieving parent additional unnecessary stress and pain if they do not ascribe to your beliefs.
“Don’t dwell on this. Just put it behind you and move on.”
These types of statements can make parents feel like the significance of their loss is being made light of or lessened. It can cause prolonged sadness because the parents don’t have a space to express and share the normal, natural feelings they are experiencing. Parents need time to grieve in their own way and at their own pace. Respect the parents’ right to express whatever they feel or think—regardless of how strange it may seem to you. Grief affects everyone differently, and it is impossible to know how they will react to the loss of their baby. Most people go through multiple phases and waves of powerful emotions that are a necessary part of the grieving process, and that may be difficult for others to understand. Grief doesn’t end at the funeral or within the few weeks following it. It may take 24 months or longer before parents feel normal again. But please bear in mind that they have had to create a new normal for themselves. When someone loses a child, their sense of the natural order of life is shaken. They can feel vulnerable in a way they never had before. They will never be quite the same again.
You Can Simply Say:
“I am so sorry. This is so incredibly hard.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I am here. I care. I want to listen.”
“What can I do for you right now?”
"Tell me more about your baby, please."
HELPFUL THINGS YOU CAN DO
Be present and listen non-judgmentally. This is the greatest gift you can give grieving parents. Allowing parents to talk about their pain and express all their emotions helps them to come to grips with the death of their baby. Like all parents, they want to talk about their child. Engage in conversation about their baby, their baby’s labor and delivery. Be that person they can always share their special memories and stories about their baby with. Research shows that people who get support from close family and friends are better able to cope with major stressors in life, such as the loss of a child. Your support is very important now and especially in the months following when life around the grieving parents goes on and the initial support drifts away. The real grief process often does take place until months after the loss. The death of a baby can be a very isolating and lonely experience. Your continued love, support, and willingness to listen and be there for them is absolutely invaluable.
Give the gift of silence. Sometimes just being willing to sit with someone, hold their hand, and allow them to cry or formulate their thoughts without saying a word is the greatest comfort of all.
Remind them their loss is unique and all their feelings are valid. When someone losses a child, hearing stories of someone else’s loss can cause inevitable comparisons. For example: They may feel that the depth of their feelings is not valid because they lost their baby at 10 weeks and someone lost their baby at 39 weeks, or someone else had a miscarriage or stillbirth after years of fertility treatments and your loved one became pregnant easily. Please, remind your loved one not to measure one loss against another.
Call their baby by name. This lets them know that you acknowledge their child as the unique person he or she is. It allows everyone to participate in the task of saying, “Hello” and “Goodbye” to this sweet child. Parents enjoy hearing their baby’s name spoken by others.
Gently support the parents and them to make their own decisions. When a baby dies, the parents are often suddenly bombarded with difficult decisions they were not expecting to make. Decisions such as when to induce labor or not to. Whether or not to hold their baby once he or she is born and to have photographs. (This is highly encouraged for as long as they want for it will be some of the few precious memories of their baby.) They are suddenly faced with funeral arrangements, the decision to bury or cremate their baby, and the reality of the baby’s room and belongings waiting for them once they are back home. As a grandparent or family member, your instinct may be to protect them and make these difficult decisions for them. But you can’t protect them from the reality of death. You can offer to help or make suggestions, but do not assume that they want you to take over. They need to make their own decisions. Making these decisions gives them a sense of control in a situation in which events and their emotions are out of control. The booklet Planning a Precious Goodbye can be helpful.
Offer to drive the parents (and grandparents) to the hospital, back home, and/or the funeral. They may not realize that their awareness of their surroundings and their decision-making skills are clouded while driving due to the shock of learning their baby has died. It can be unsafe for them to be driving at this time.
Include the baby’s siblings in an age appropriate way. The natural instinct is to want to protect children from death. But the loss of a baby affects the entire family, including the baby’s brothers and sisters. They may not know what death is or be able to understand it, but even the youngest child feels the tension and pain surrounding it. Children will grow confused if they sense something is wrong, are witnessing adults sad and crying, and then are told nothing is wrong. This can cause them to doubt their own feelings and intuition. It is important to be open and honest in your explanations as you share grief with children and acknowledge their loss in an age appropriate way. Children do grieve. Their response may vary according to their age and their feelings about a new brother or sister. A child may experience guilt if they had ambivalent feelings about having a new baby brother or sister. They will need the added support from grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and family members as their parents grieve. Don’t assume children are not grieving just because they are laughing and playing with friends. Children express their feelings through artwork and play. They may want to make things for the baby or share their toys with them. Including children as family says, “hello and goodbye” to the baby in the hospital is valuable. Little ones typically do remarkably well with this. Include children in the funeral and memorial services, but do not force them to attend or participate in the viewing or service. It is a good idea to have a support person for each child at these times, and a grandparent, relative, or family friend can fill that role beautifully. Please, please when explaining death to a child avoid telling them such things as: “He’s gone on a trip”; “God took baby brother because he was so special”; or “She’s gone to sleep.” While well-meaning, these euphemisms can really confuse and frighten a child. They may question, “When will he be back?” and become angry when he never returns. They may carry the fear, “If I am too special, will God take me from my parents forever?” Children may become frightened that they may also go to sleep and never wake up, causing sleeping problems for the child. It seems like a gentler explanation that is commonly used, but sleep and death are not the same things. Honest, simple, and clear age appropriate explanations are best.
Attend the funeral/memorial service. If the parents decide to have a funeral or memorial service or ritual for their baby, please attend if you can. This caring act shows your love, support, and that you honor their precious baby. Parents do remember who was there with them. If you are unable to attend, you can send a card or letter that they can keep with the mementos of their baby.
Be available to help with daily chores and needs. Caring for children, preparing meals, running errands, doing the laundry, or cleaning the house can be the biggest help to grieving parents. In the weeks following the loss, parents often find themselves disorganized and unable to do daily chores. They may not be sure what you can do to help if you ask them or suggest they call you if they need anything. Being specific is best, “May I help you with ____?” Grieving parents can find themselves overwhelmed if too many people bring meals in the first weeks. Grieving people often have a loss in appetite, so spacing meals is best. There may be some days that the parents just are not up for interacting, so checking in first is a great way to honor that. They might just appreciate the meal being dropped off without a visit. Other days they may really need the help and a listening ear. Holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.
Remembering the anniversary of the baby’s birth and/or passing is one of the most significant and meaningful things you can do for your loved one. Honor parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. They may want the day to pass quickly; however, they do appreciate being honored. Bereaved Mother’s Day and Bereaved Father’s Day are held the Sunday before Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. This is a wonderful way to remember all grieving parents. It is equally valuable to understand that parents may not be up for holiday celebrations, baby showers, birthday parties, etc. Invite them of course, but give them the dignity and space to decline or leave the event early.
Take time to honor your grief. As a grandparent, aunt, uncle, relative, or friend, you may feel you must be strong for your loved ones. You need the time and the space to grieve, also. The loss of a baby or child can be very lonely and isolating. Finding a support group, counselor, friend, online resources, or a clergy member or spiritual leader to work through your grief is invaluable. It enables you to provide better support to your loved ones.
I wish you wouldn’t try to comfort me by saying something to try to make me be okay with my child’s death.
I am more comforted when you acknowledge how sad it is.
I wish you wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable when I mention my child’s name.
I also wish you would not be afraid to speak my child's name.
My child lived and it brings me comfort to hear their name.
I wish you wouldn’t think that when we talk about my child if I cry or get emotional that you have hurt me.
The fact that my child has died is causing my tears. You have allowed me to cry and share my sadness with you,
and I am grateful because you helping me to heal.
I wish you would accept that I will have emotional highs and lows. Please don’t think that if I have a good day
my grieving is over, or if I have a bad day I need counseling or medication.
I wish you knew that the death of a child is different from other losses and must be viewed as the unique loss
that it is. It is the ultimate tragedy, and I wish you wouldn’t compare it to the loss of a parent, spouse or pet.
I wish you wouldn’t shy away from me. I feel alone enough missing my child; I feel more alone missing you, also.
And it makes me wonder if you think being a bereaved parent is contagious.
I wish you knew that all the crazy grief reactions I am having are, in fact, normal. Depression, anger, frustration, guilt, and the questioning of values and beliefs are all a part of grieving the death of a child.
I wish you wouldn’t expect my grieving to be over in a few months.
The first few years are going to be exceedingly traumatic and difficult for me.
I wish you would accept that like an alcoholic, I will never be “cured” or a “former bereaved parent.”
I will forever be a “grieving parent.”
I wish you wouldn’t measure my partner’s grief against mine. We’re trying to understand the differences in how
we are grieving. You can help by caring for us both equally at this time of need.
I wish you would understand the physical reactions to grief. I may gain or lose weight, sleep all the time or not at all,
be absent-minded, develop a host of illnesses, be accident-prone, sigh all the time, and overreact to almost everything;
all of which are related to my grieving.
I wish you would tell me if you are thinking of my child on their birthday, the anniversary of their death, or
any special day. Be assured I will be thinking of them. Special days will be more difficult for me than other times.
So if I am quiet and withdrawn, know that I am thinking about my child and missing them terribly.
I wish you wouldn’t expect me to get back to my “old self” and be the same person that I was before my child died.
I can’t be that person again, I am now different. But I hope you can accept how I’ve changed,
because then you may find you like the new me.
~Gary Vogel, MA, LMHC, 2006