What to Say to a Friend Who Has Lost a Baby
An estimated 2 million women in this country lose pregnancies every year, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Follow these do's and don'ts to make sure your words to a grieving friend are helpful, not hurtful.
My dreams of the perfect little sibling for my 2-year-old daughter unexpectedly shattered when I lost my second pregnancy at 13 1/2 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. Make sure you avoid saying the wrong thing with our list of do's and don'ts.
DO keep it simple. No explanations or rationalizations are necessary. "Try 'We're thinking of you and your family,'" suggests Katy Sedam of Fairbury, IL, 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; LostforWordsCardLine.com specializes in cards about pregnancy loss, infant loss, and infertility.
DON'T say "You can always have another." I still remember a nurse in my ob-gyn's office chirping this line cheerfully as I cried at 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 Amber Pullara of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, who was 6 months pregnant when she lost her daughter Anneliese.
DO consider giving a lasting tribute. One of the most touching sentiments that I received was a lovely magnolia tree that three dear girlfriends ordered from SeedsofLife.com. I know I will 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).
DON'T say "Everything happens for a reason." This is another platitude that does more harm than help. "People say things like 'Maybe it is 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."
DO bring a meal to the grieving parents. When my sister lost her baby, a neighbor brought her a meal a 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."
DON'T say "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."
DO help the parent remember. There are so many creative ways you can 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 do to 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.
DON'T say "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 be told. 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 is the loss of not only your child but the whole life you had imagined for it."
Women who are carrying multiples and lose one or more babies during their pregnancy may be dealing with conflicting emotions, so try to acknowledge and honor their feelings of loss as well as express joy over their surviving baby or babies. "I think a simple 'I'm sorry for your loss' suffices," says Janine Krause of Westchester County, NY, 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 say "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.'"
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," Pullara says. "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."
DO listen and check in. 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."