What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Baby
If someone you know is grieving from pregnancy loss, follow these do's and don'ts to ensure your words are helpful instead of hurtful.
My dreams of the perfect little sibling for my 2-year-old daughter were unexpectedly shattered when I lost my second pregnancy at 13 ½ weeks. In the days that followed, I realized how often people say the wrong thing to a newly grieving parent—and how often I had naively said those same things to others in the past.
In America, roughly 10 to 15 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, or pregnancy loss before the 20th week of gestation. Another 24,000 babies are stillborn each year. If you're wondering what to say to someone who lost a baby, keep reading for our top do's and don'ts.
Keep Condolences Simple
When talking to a friend after losing a baby, no explanations or rationalizations are necessary. "Try 'We're thinking of you and your family,'" suggests Katy Sedam of Fairbury, Illinois, whose daughter Zoey was born prematurely and died of a rare genetic disorder just a few weeks later. "From close friends, I appreciated all the offers of help and to listen if I wanted to talk." If you're struggling with how to broach the topic in person, consider putting pen to paper.
What about women carrying multiples who lose one or more babies during their pregnancy? They may be dealing with conflicting emotions, so try to acknowledge and honor their feelings of loss as well as express joy over their surviving babies. "I think a simple 'I'm sorry for your loss' suffices," says Janine Krause of Westchester County, New York, who lost one of her twin daughters at 15 weeks. "With any loss, people try to fill the conversation with so much more than what's needed."
Don't Ignore the Situation
Despite the confusion and blinding grief in the weeks following my own pregnancy loss, I remember every single person who acknowledged my loss—and the notable silence of those who did not. "Sometimes I wish people would have just been here, even if they were uncomfortable with our grief, because we felt so alone," says Amber Pullara of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, who was 6 months pregnant when she lost her daughter Anneliese. "When you bring a healthy baby home from the hospital, everyone wants to come over and see the baby and talk about the baby. When your baby dies, people don't want to come visit; they don't want to talk about your baby—and that hurts. I wish people didn't assume we didn't want to talk about her."
Avoid Triggering Phrases
I still remember a nurse in my OB-GYN's office, who cheerfully chirped "You can always have another!" as I cried during my post-loss checkup. Although it's meant to be encouraging, the phrase can make it seem like you're diminishing the mother's pain. "I wish [people] could have said, 'No one can ever replace her, but I hope that when you are ready, you get the healthy baby you deserve,'" says Pullara.
Here are some more sayings to avoid when talking to someone who has lost a baby.
"Everything happens for a reason." This is another platitude that does more harm than help. "People say things like 'Maybe it's for the best' or 'Maybe it was meant to be' or even 'It was God's will.' That just seems like people are trying to downplay my loss," says Trisha Parker of Lowbanks in Ontario, Canada, who has lost four pregnancies. "The loss of a child is a huge thing, and for people to try to explain it ... there is no explaining it. It doesn't help."
"He/she is in a better place." Religious sentiments can be tricky unless you are very sure of the parent's faith, and even pious people can find their faith tested or destroyed after losing a child. "It makes me so mad when people say this because the best place for a baby is in her mother's or father's arms," Pullara says. "If she can't be with us, I'm happy she is with God, but I have a hard time seeing how it is better this way."
"At least you already have a child." The subtext of this line is "Be grateful for what you have," which isn't something a mother needs to hear after losing a baby. Although it's true that a living child can bring joy during those dark days of mourning, the death of another child is still painful. "Once you become pregnant you start to have hopes and dreams for that child. You imagine your life and how your family will be with your newest addition," says Parker, who has a 2-year-old daughter. "It's the loss of not only your child but the whole life you had imagined for it."
"At least you weren't further along." Steer clear of this statement, no matter how early the loss. You don't know how long a couple might have been trying for and dreaming of this baby—it could have been months or even years. "I know the person who said this was trying to find the silver lining, but it was like they were saying it's not that bad, like I should just buck up and get over it; it could have been so much worse," Pullara says. "I already loved her. She was and always will be my little girl... It would have been nicer to hear 'She will always be your daughter' or 'I'm sorry for your loss' or 'This sucks.'"
Help Parents Remember Their Baby
There are so many creative ways to remember a lost baby. Sedam releases balloons every year on her daughter's birthday; some parents release butterflies. Pullara made a scrapbook for her daughter. "I found the process to be very healing," she says. "It gave me a chance to do something for her. I couldn't take care of her, hold her, feed her, or show her off. Making the scrapbook helped give me an opportunity to be her mom." Others might participate in an annual remembrance walk. Although some of these rituals might be private or personal, you can show a friend that you're interested—and get involved if it seems like your presence is welcomed.
- RELATED: How to Plan a Stillborn Baby Funeral
Along those lines, one of the most touching sentiments that I received was a lovely magnolia tree that three dear girlfriends ordered from SeedsofLife.com. I'll always treasure this living tribute to my second child's brief life. When my sister lost a baby in her fifth month of pregnancy, a relative planted tulips in her yard, a beautiful reminder that comes up every year around her loss date, and her coworkers bought children's books for the local library in her daughter's name. Another mom I know gave her husband a canvas print of their deceased son's name written on a beach at sunset (http://namesinthesand.blogspot.com).
Bring a Meal to the Grieving Parents
When my sister lost her baby, a neighbor brought her one meal per week for six weeks. As the woman explained, she would have done the same if my sister had brought her little girl home alive, and she figured it was needed even more now. The gesture meant a lot to my sister—and not only because she was trying to cope with her grief while working full-time and caring for two other children. It was a simple way to say "Your loss matters, and I'm here for you." You might also drop off gift cards to local take-out joints.
Check In and Listen Often
Sometimes family and friends offer a lot of support at first, and then move on after a few weeks or months. But it can take several years for a mother to feel "resolved" over the death of her baby, says psychologist Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., in her book Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby. "It seemed like a few months after my loss people stopped asking how I was doing," Parker says. "My friends thought I should be moving on. It doesn't work that way. Although we all find our own way to move on over time, we never 'get over' our loss. It is something that will stay with us forever."
Understand Miscarriage vs. Stillbirth
When thinking about what to say to someone who lost a baby, it helps to know whether they experienced miscarriage or stillbirth. In America, miscarriage is defined as pregnancy loss before 20 weeks of gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while stillbirth happens after 20 weeks. Both miscarriage and stillbirth can be devastating for the parents-to-be.
One major difference is that with stillbirths (and also late miscarriages), the mom-to-be must give birth to the baby. They might've already picked out a name, and they get to see, hold, and spend time with their little one. Even if the parents become pregnant again, they'll probably consider the stillborn baby their first child.
If you're close with the parents, they may want you to meet the baby after giving birth. Prepare beforehand for the shock of seeing an infant who has passed, and ask the hospital staff for advice if you're hesitant. They can share how to interact with the baby and answer other questions you may have. Also realize that the mother has gone through delivery; she may feel sore and need physical support as well as emotional support.
Many parents prefer if you acknowledge the baby using their name (if they have one) to commemorate their memory. If you didn't visit the hospital room, you might also ask to see photographs of the stillborn baby.
The Bottom Line
Every person is different, so there's no way to predict how a mother and father will react to losing their baby. It's important to follow the parent's cues and ask about their preferences if you're unsure. You'll find that many parents actually want to talk about the pregnancy loss to keep the baby's memory alive.