stillbirth: a guide for friends and family
the exact words are always different, and the names change … dear god, so many names … but the question is the same:
“my loved one’s baby died. what can i do?”
the tears come every time i read it. another life gone, another family shattered, a fellow mother hearing those horrible words, experiencing that horrible night, and the day after it, and the weeks that followed. the broken heart that breaks again, and again, and again.
in honor of pregnancy and infant loss awareness month, this is my answer to that question. i hope it will be helpful to you.
you cannot bring this life back, but there is so much you can do. you can be the reason they keep going, the reason they crawl off their tear stained pillow in the morning, the reason that, someday, they will laugh again. you cannot carry their grief, but you can carry them while they hold it.
you will never be more needed than in this moment.
(this post is specifically written for the loved ones of parents experiencing stillbirth and late-term pregnancy loss, but much of it will also apply to earlier miscarriage and infant loss as well.)
if you’re one of the first
except in rare circumstances, pregnancy loss is shockingly, traumatically unexpected. and then the parents, in their state of shock and grief, are immediately battered with dozens of time-sensitive decisions that they have no time to research. because of this, opportunities to create and preserve memories are often lost. if you are one of the first to be brought into the time of loss, you can help by learning about their options. there are organizations that can come to the hospital and take beautiful baby pictures. hospital staff can take handprints, footprints, and casts of hands and feet. the baby can be dressed in beautiful baby clothing. a lock of hair can be cut and saved. in some areas, parents can transport the baby to a funeral home if they desire.
there is no one assigned to coach parents through the options of pregnancy loss, but as a friend, you can be that person. know their options.
(the resource list at the bottom of this post is a great place to start.)
less words, more tears
there is nothing you can say that will make this situation better. there is, however, plenty you can say that will cause pain. instead, cry with them. if they have no tears to shed, offer your tears to soothe their heart-wounds. hold the baby, if you can, and speak in a quivering voice about its tiny fingers and perfect nose. cry for the injustice and pain of a lost future that no words will save.
don’t wait for them to ask.
take initiative. your loved one cannot ask for what they need any more than a car crash victim can ask a paramedic for the medical procedure that will keep them alive. right now, your loved ones’ energy is completely wrapped up in just surviving.
be proactive, and if you’re unsure if what you’re doing is useful, ask them.
her body is sacred ground.
a mother of loss carries a world of life and death within her. her body, wracked with physical and emotional pain, carrying the living cells of the soul who is gone, deflated, bearing her crushed heart, is profoundly mysterious. the threshold of life and death has met in her belly, and she was the whole universe to this child that you mourn.
care for her. feed her nourishing food and life-bringing water, massage her empty hands and swollen feet, speak softly in her presence, bring her healing teas and herbs, light sweet-smelling candles… she has been closer to the cycle of life than any human ever is, and has experienced things that she herself does not understand. you can help to ease her journey back toward the world of the living; accept this responsibility with reverence.
usually, the best thing you can say is nothing at all. usually. most of the time.
instead, listen with your heart’s ears to the quivers in her voice, to the love when he speaks his baby’s name, to the anger and confusion threatening to burst from behind every word. listen to her sob. listen to the silence. truly listen, and be silently awestruck at the volume of the pain and love you hear.
when you must say something, start with questions. if you are unsure whether a question is ok to ask, ask about that! “do you mind if i ask you ….?” “can i ask you about …?” if you suspect that they may not want to talk, ask, “do you want to talk right now?” always start with a question.
know your loved one…
there is no universal script for speaking to a grieving person. what is comforting to one person may be alienating to another, and what is refreshing to one may feel defeating to someone else.
“god is in control.”
“everything happens for a reason.”
“your baby is in a better place.”
“your angel was too good for this earth.”
“your baby’s spirit wasn’t ready to come down yet.”
“you can try again.”
these are all phrases that i have seen some cling to for comfort, and others reject as horribly insensitive. know your loved one, and choose your words carefully.
…but not too well.
losing a child has a way of throwing our paradigms on the floor and crushing them. your devoutly religious sister may be enraged at the god she trusted; your atheist friend may suddenly cling to the hope of meeting his baby in the afterlife; your optimistic coworker may feel betrayed by the universe they believed was a good place. when in doubt about what to say, see above: ask questions.
it’s not about you … or is it?
parents want to know that their baby mattered. the loss of a life is too great a magnitude for one family to bear alone; this small human who would have interacted with thousands is gone before they can be missed by more than a few. the grief of the mother, the parents, and the immediate family is the most profound and acute, but your grief is valuable too. tell how you will miss the baby. your pain is a precious gift, and sharing it will ease your loved one’s isolation.
say the baby’s name.
speak the name. write the name. there is power in a name, and there is healing power in sharing the name of one who is gone.
don’t forget family.
every member of the family experiencing pregnancy loss is grieving. don’t forget partners, other children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives. you can validate their grief and give them a safe place to express it, and you may be the only one doing so.
give practical help.
grieving is exhausting. the physical side of pregnancy loss is exhausting and expensive. caring for a mother who is recovering from birth is exhausting. the trauma and shock of pregnancy loss is exhausting and all-consuming.
bring meals or snacks.
give a thoughtful gift or gift card.
do something. they need it.
adjust your expectations.
your loved one will never be the same person again. don’t expect them to be. once the dust settles from the initial stages of shock and trauma (and that may take much longer than you expect), start getting to know this new person, the parent-who-has-lost-a-child. don’t place burdensome behavioral, social, emotional, and spiritual expectations on them – it won’t help, and may cause you to miss opportunities to empathize and connect. grieve the loss of the loved one you used to know, and realize that they can never return to “how things used to be.” don’t place blame. instead, accompany them into this new reality with respect and acceptance.
practice rituals of remembrance.
after we lost our baby on december 14, a friend emailed me remembrances on the 14th of every month for a year. another friend lit a candle for him at her church and sent a certificate. another friend sent a care package, with books and a prayer box, and several friends gave thoughtful gifts. some sent greeting cards with pictures that reminded them of sky. others have given charitable contributions in his name. several friends made a christmas stocking for him, and gave it to us on his first birthday. one friend lights a candle for sky every year on infant loss awareness day. several people give gifts and flowers on his birthday each year.
remembrance rituals are deeply personal and can be shared with the parents at any time. you can be as creative as you wish, or use google for ideas. rituals can embody thoughtfulness, intention, focused emotion, personality, a sense of transcendence, and effort, all of which are soothing to the lonely experience of grief.
you are needed. yes, you.
it is natural to feel intimidated by parental grief and unqualified to enter into it. these feelings are normal, but they cause harm when they lead to a decision to step back from the grieving parents at this time. your voice, your listening ear, your questions, your practical support, your insight, and your shared grief are valuable. losing a child is incredibly isolating, and you can be sure that many of the people that your loved ones have depended on are dropping out of their life right now.
yes, being around grief is scary and unnerving, but don’t add yourself to the long list of people who are emotionally abandoning your loved ones. lean in to the pain and fear, and know that your choice to forego the easy path will result in an intimacy that is deeply rewarding.
don’t ever stop.
in one paradigm, the human experience can be divided into two parts: before experiencing profound loss, and after. eventually, everyone who lives long enough joins the “after” crowd, and must learn to incorporate grief into their daily lives. those who are here know the confusion of sudden grief; the lines of their face speak to the paradox of sobs and smiles, tears and laughter, profound ambivalence.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
~ anne lamott
the pain of losing a child doesn’t end after a few months, or a year, or another baby. almost all of the voices that share your loved one’s grief will dim and disappear as the months pass; don’t let your voice be one of them. continue to ask questions, share your grief, speak the baby’s name, observe remembrance rituals, give thoughtful gifts, and practice acceptance as the years go by.
this is the new normal.
when the next one comes…
the new baby doesn’t replace the former.
joy can live with grief, but doesn’t remove it.
every happy moment will have undertones of sadness.
every hopeful moment will have undertones of fear.
the new baby will not put the parents “back to who they were.”
experiencing pregnancy and infancy will bring new facets and depths of pain to the parents’ grief.
the new baby needs people to be excited for it; don’t let fear override that excitement (but be understanding if the parents do).
living babies are a lot of work, even without the emotional processing required by a previous loss. your loved one will need your acceptance, involvement, and practical and emotional support more than ever.
faces of loss: resources | a comprehensive, well categorized resource list of everything from memorial jewelry to books on child loss.
unexpected goodbye: when your baby dies | a step-by-step pdf, part personal story, part guide, on the days immediately following baby loss.
glow in the woods | a nondenominational website for babylost parents to grieve, connect, and learn.