by Jessica Martin-Weber
As with any loss of someone you love, when a baby dies, whether in pregnancy, stillbirth, or after birth, there is a profound grief that never fully goes away, even if it becomes less prominent in our daily lives. There is an additional loss in the ending of dreams of what could have been as the baby grew. All the firsts that won’t be experienced, the interests that won’t be explored, the memories that won’t be made. The loss of what could have been compounds the loss of what was.
We all wish there were magical words that could be said to fix the pain of the death of a loved one but we know that’s not possible. Grief is a path that must be journeyed in loss. After the loss of a baby, it can feel even more challenging to know what to say. While there are no magic words that will stop the pain, bring back the loved one, or make the grief journey less agonizing, there are some ways of showing care and support that will bring some comfort without increasing the pain.
While I have 7 living children, I have lost 7 in pregnancy through miscarriage. In addition to my own loss, thousands have shared with me their own journeys through pregnancy and infant loss, opening up about what helped and continues to help them as they grieve their child. Here are 10 proven ways for supporting and caring for someone who has experienced the death of their baby.
1. Admit you aren’t sure what to do or what to say.
If you don’t know what to do, it’s ok to say that. They don’t know what to do either. Admitting you don’t know what to do is better than ignoring them and pretending it never happened. Together you can figure out what works.
2. Be present.
It may be tempting to give them space and you certainly should do so if that is what they wish. But often giving people space leaves them feeling alone when they really need to have people around them who care. It doesn’t have to be much and you don’t have to fill the silence, just sitting with someone can mean a lot. Be there, check in on them, spend time with them, be present, it will make a difference.
3. Share the burden where you can.
If there is a funeral to plan, assist where you can. If there are medical procedures (such as a D&C) offer to drive or watch older children. If there are errands that need to be run, see if you can do them. Pick up sanitary pads if they will be needed. Lifting any of the additional burden that comes with loss gives the family space to grieve. It can be overwhelming to face the additional burdens that come as a result of loss and to have someone walk that with you means a lot.
4. Talk about the baby.
Unless they say they don’t want to talk about it, talk about the child they loss. Ask the name of the baby if you don’t know and then say the name of the baby. Let them know you think of them and of the baby. Sometimes we avoid painful topics because we think that talking about them will cause more pain but the pain is already there, you won’t cause more pain and talking about the baby helps the grieving parents know others cared and their baby mattered.
5. Cry with them.
You don’t have to be stoic and strong for them. Don’t ask them to ease your own grief or carry your sadness but crying with them shows them that their baby was important to you too.
6. Help with the mundane.
Our lives don’t leave room for grief and it can feel cruel that “life must go on” after a parent loses a child. Going through the motions can be such a draining experience for someone in the midst of grief. Showing up for the daily mundane aspects of life is a powerful way of showing support and care. Give older children a ride to their activities, take them a meal or have one delivered, drop off groceries, hire a cleaning service or go do some cleaning yourself, etc.
7. Listen to them.
If they need to vent, listen. If they need to vent over and over and over again, listen. If they say they need space, listen and give them space (but then check in again too because that can change). If they say they don’t want to be alone, listen and stay with them until they say they’re ready to be alone. If they say they want a distraction, listen and help find distractions. If they say they hurt every day more, listen and don’t try to fix the hurt. Listen to them.
8. Agree that it sucks.
Because it does. It is a terrible thing. There’s no good reason and a baby dying absolutely sucks. Families that have lost a baby in pregnancy, stillbirth, or in infancy do not need to hear that it is God’s will or that there will always be another baby or that there must have been a good reason for it to happen. It just sucks a lot and they feel that intensely every day, so admit it to them and with them, don’t pretend that it isn’t as awful as it really is.
9. Accept their grief process.
Whatever it may be, accept it and don’t try to fit them into some grief mold you feel they should fit. Support them in how they choose to remember and honor their baby, join them in the rituals that are meaningful for them, and care for them along the way.
10. Give them time.
Their grief process is their own grief process and nobody can dictate how long it should or shouldn’t be. It may be longer or shorter than you think it should be but it isn’t your journey. Give them the dignity of understanding that their journey will take the time it takes. There may still be bad days 20 years later, grief isn’t a linear experience.
There are no perfect words or acts that will make a parent’s grief go away, there’s no way to fix it. Don’t try to. They just want their baby back and that’s not going to happen so you can’t fix this but you can be there for them through the most difficult time of their life and in the end, that is healing.
About the author: Drawing from a diverse background in the performing arts and midwifery, Jessica Martin-Weber supports women, mothers, and families, creating spaces for open dialogue. Writer and speaker, Jessica is the creator of TheLeakyBoob.com, co-creator of BeyondMoi.com, host of MomTalk and has a book soon to be released. She co-parents her 7 daughters with her husband of 23 years and lives in the Pacific Northwest.