Pregnancy & Infant Loss: 10 Dos and Don'ts for Family and Friends
There’s a hole in my heart where joy used to be.
There’s a hole in my heart where anticipation resided.
There’s a hole in my heart where hope bubbled over.
There’s a hole in my heart where you used to be.
I will not get over it, but I will get through it.
October is pregnancy and infant loss awareness month. I have learned from my personal experience that losing a baby can be a very lonely place. It is a place of disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is grief that is hidden or unaccepted. It is often minimized and goes unacknowledged or invalidated by social norms. This makes it particularly hard to process and work through because people do not view it the same way as other deaths. Therefore, they tend to minimize your loss and your pain. Since my experience with losing my son, Walter, in the final weeks of pregnancy, (Stillbirth is Still Birth, Stillbirth is Still Birth...Continued) I have endeavored to not only help other mothers and families who have had similar experiences but to also help you. You the friend. You the aunt or uncle. You the mother of the mother. You the coworker. You the church member. You the sorority sister. You the grandparent. You the classmate. You the associate. Every. One. Of. You. Though the bereaved parents need much love and support, the loved ones need help too. This is especially the case when it comes to knowing what to say and how to say it. This is often a unique territory for loved ones and it is difficult to know what to say and not to say. So let me help you. I have made a list and I encourage you to share this with everyone you know because unfortunately you never know when you may need it.
1. Don’t say “God knows best.” This does not help the bereaved parents during the suffering. Deep down we know this may be true, but it is beside the point at the moment. Comments like this may minimize a person’s grief. It could also cause feelings of guilt and shame because if the person does believe in God, you have just made it seem as if they are not trusting in Him. This of course was not your intent but it could be taken that way. Try saying, “I am praying to God on your behalf” or “I pray God comforts you during this time.”
2. Don’t quote statistics. Grieving parents don’t care nor do they need to be reminded that around 20% of pregnancies result in miscarriage or that most stillborn babies are boys. In my case, I did not need the immediate reminder that the infant mortality rate of black women is significantly higher than white women. Though all these things are true, it is not appropriate to make these kinds of exclamations as a way to “help” the parents. These kinds of statements basically add salt to the wound and though they may need to be addressed at some point it does not have to be immediate. Before speaking, ask yourself if what you are going to say will lighten the load for the grieving parents right now? If the answer is probably not, then wait.
3. Don’t say “at least you can have another one” or “you can try again” or some other variation of this sentiment. This is insensitive even if well-intentioned. Having another baby does not negate the fact that you lost a baby, your baby. As thankful as I am to have my three living children, I always know in my heart that there were four. I often wonder what he would be doing right now and what his younger siblings would think of him. Think before you make this statement. Also, you don’t always know the circumstances surrounding someone’s pregnancy. This may have been the last opportunity for them to “try”. Instead say, “I am so sorry that you are experiencing this” or “I imagine losing a child is a lot to overcome” or some variation of these statements.
4. Don’t say, “at least you have other children.” This of course applies to the parents who have kids at the time that they have lost one. As I said in number two, having children already does not negate the fact that you lost “this” baby. Of course, the parents are grateful for the other children. They do not need to be “reminded” that they have them. Try instead, to offer to assist with the other children by watching them, cooking dinner, taking them on an outing, etc. Offer support to the other children if they are of age to understand what has happened.
5. Don’t say “God was protecting you from something.” This is impolite and does not convey the message you are trying to convey. Oftentimes, the “something” implies, the baby would have grown up to be a “bad” person, or the baby would have had a medical condition, or that you were not ready for a baby yet. The list of “somethings” can go on and on and it is likely that you do not mean for this to sound like that. A lady once told me that my baby was a “bad seed”. This did not make me feel better. I was stunned by her statement, but at the same time still so caught up in my tragedy that I could not appropriately respond to her. When we left her presence I cried. We know that God allows things to happen and that we must find a way to accept them but do not put words in God’s mouth because you feel the need to say something. Try leaving God out of it if you are unsure whether or not your intent will be misconstrued.
6. Don’t say, “you can get my children at any time.” Offering your children may seem like a nice gesture, but in essence, what you are saying without saying is that I know you lost your baby but since I have one (or more), you can just get mine for a little while. Now that you are reading that sentence that way it probably sounds insensitive and I am sure that was not your intent. Wait until the bereaved parent offers to see your child(ren).
7. Don’t say “be glad it happened before you got a chance to “know” him or her.” Other variations of this statement are be glad it happened early or be glad it happened now. This sentiment is to imply that had the baby died as a young child or a teenager or a young adult that losing the child would be “harder”. This statement exhibits a poor understanding of grief and loss and is tremendously hurtful. Once a parent learns of a pregnancy you immediately begin bonding with the baby especially if the pregnancy was planned or the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy are joyful. Losing a baby feels like losing a part of yourself and the implications of the above statement are like a knife in the wound. It does not matter at what point you lose a child, it hurts, whether they lived a life outside of the womb or not. Refrain from making these kinds of statements. There is no substitute.
8. Don’t say “you can always adopt.” Besides this not being true for all parents, it is inappropriate. How do you know that they want to adopt? How do you know that they have not already considered adoption? Who are you to assume such things about another person’s life? Yes, for some adoption is a wonderful opportunity to parent but keep in mind that these parents are already in the throes of grief. Refrain from making suggestions like this. They do not make the situations better but can actually make it worse.
9. Don’t ask “when are you coming back to (insert various places here such as church, work, group meeting)?” This is probably where the disenfranchisement of grieving parents is most pronounced. Many people expect that you should just pick up your life right where you left off with little regard for your emotional and physical state. It is an unspoken thought that since it was a baby lost in pregnancy or just after, that it does not matter as much or that it does not hurt as much. Furthermore, people assume that since there are no funeral arrangements in the case of miscarriages and some stillbirths that time off is not needed. Additionally, many jobs do not mention pregnancy loss in the bereavement policy. This further highlights the issues surrounding pregnancy and infant loss. Try saying, “take the time that you need” or “don’t worry about the deadline at work, I am going to work on the project with you.” If you are an employer, consider allowing the parent to take bereavement days and extend extra support.
10. Don't ask "what happened" or "do you know what went wrong?" This is inconsiderate and insensitive. Oftentimes, there is no explanation and the bereaved parent is dealing with the situation the best way they know-how. Also, trust that their healthcare provider is working to identify any causes that they can. Asking questions like this can imply that someone did something wrong or caused the circumstance. Asking questions like this also distracts from your genuineness and makes you appear nosey. I know that it is natural to feel curious but refrain from asking bereaved parents these kinds of questions. Allow them to initiate telling you themselves if and when they feel like it. Also, understand that many times there is no known answer.
This list is not all-encompassing but I hope that it gives you a good idea of how what you say impacts others. I hope that it also encourages you to be more thoughtful about what you say. So I’m sure you are asking what else can you do for your loved ones who are in this place. The biggest thing that you can do if you are struggling to say the right thing is to not say anything but to instead offer silent support. Those who helped me the most were the ones who simply sat with me and allowed me to just “be” whatever that meant at the time. My closest friends and family were great with this. I also appreciated my aunt’s approach. She was upfront and said that she could not relate and that she can’t fully understand what I was going through but she loved me and was there for whatever I needed. She also gently reminded me that I have aunts who had similar situations and that I could rely on them for additional support as well. Grieving parents “get it” we know that people don’t know what to say. Cut yourself some slack. We would rather you not say anything if it means you not putting your foot in your mouth.
Other statements that you could consider include:
“I hate that this has happened to you.”
“I am thinking of you during this time.”
“My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
“I am here to listen if you want to talk.”
“ I may not understand what you are experiencing but I know that it is painful and I’m sorry.”
“I will be praying for you.”
Also, try action. A few examples include:
“I would like to bring you lunch, what would you like?”
“I would like to offer support; may I sit with you?”
“I am going to pick up a few things at the grocery store for you.”
“Are there any pressing errands that I can take care of for you?”
Pregnancy and early infant loss hurt. Do your part to be a positive support to families who have to deal with these losses. For those who are experiencing pregnancy or early infant loss, always know that you are not alone and that your grief deserves to be acknowledged. Seek professional help through counseling, books, and support groups in your area.
Have you had personal experience with a bereaved parent of pregnancy or infant loss? Could you have improved on your interactions? Are you a bereaved parent who can relate? If so, what would add?