I’ve spent nearly every day of the past five years either pregnant or trying to get pregnant, and I don’t even particularly like babies. Blasphemous, I know. But I do love toddlers and children and the hope inherent in the whole process of parenting.
My road to bringing home children — and all of the hope that they embody — has been littered with grief. I have survived a miscarriage and the stillbirth of my second daughter. On many days, only the light that is my first daughter could pierce the shroud that I lived beneath.
While my husband and daughter gave me the hope to get out of bed each day, my friends stood beside me as I trudged onward. They knocked on my door to offer a meal, a hug or a listening ear. And they confessed that they felt nearly as lost as I did. What can you say after a baby dies?
Everyone grieves differently, but I’ve met enough grieving parents to learn that some needs are nearly universal. Given that 1 in 10 pregnancies ends in miscarriage and 1 in 160 in stillbirth, according to the March of Dimes, chances are that everyone will be touched by pregnancy loss in some way.
As we honor mothers this weekend, remember those who have endured the morning sickness and doctor’s appointments but have no baby to celebrate with.
Here are some tips that I’ve picked up from other parents and my own experience.
- If you are one of the first to learn of a loss, ask the parents if they want help spreading the news. After our daughter died, I dreaded leaving the house because I knew that I would bump into some innocent neighbor who would congratulate me on the birth.
- If you don’t feel ready to see the parents, send a card or an email. The one response that I found unacceptable after my daughter’s death was silence. I understand that it feels inappropriate to bring up something so painful; I would have had the same reaction a few years ago. But I know now that the parents are thinking of nothing else, and remaining silent suggests that you think their loss isn’t a big deal.
- “I’m sorry for your loss” is always an appropriate response. It’s also fine to say that you don’t know what to say. If the baby was named, be sure to use the name. Try to avoid platitudes like “This was meant to be,” or “You can always get pregnant again.” We don’t really know what is meant to be, and no one understands why babies have to die. Yes, the couple might try for another baby, but the baby that died cannot be replaced.
- Unless you are certain of the couple’s religious beliefs, leave religion out of it. After my daughter died, people told me that it was God’s plan and that I now had a little angel to watch over me. These statements came across as hurtful even though I knew that people meant to comfort me. I didn’t find any reassurance in the idea that God would want to take my baby from me. Grieving parents will spend months, if not years, trying to understand their loss, and nothing you can say will change that.
- Try to offer specific ways that you can help rather than asking “Is there anything I can do?” Grief is exhausting, and though the parents probably need help, they might be too tired to coordinate it. Some of my friends sent us a calendar with a schedule of the days that they would bring us dinner, which saved us from subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Other friends took care of our daughter while we attended a support group for grieving parents. You could walk the family dog. Help with laundry or housekeeping. Or just sit with your friends in silence. Even that is a gift.
- Remember that the parents will heal, but they will not forget their loss. After each of my losses, I avoided social events where I knew I would see babies. I still cannot bring myself to attend baby showers because I am so strongly reminded of all of my crushed hopes. Consider calling or sending a card for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day or for the baby’s birthday or due date. Child-centered holidays such as Halloween and Christmas can be especially painful. A year later, I still remember which of my friends mentioned my stillborn daughter at Christmas and asked how I was coping.
I am not the person that I was before, and I know that for a while I took much more from my friends than I gave. But I carry deep gratitude for those who endured with me, and I think our bonds are stronger for the struggle.