How can you, as a support person, help when you find out that a family member or friend has experienced the loss of a baby during pregnancy or early infancy? While desiring to be supportive and loving, most people find they have no idea what to say or do.
At our support meetings, grieving parents have often shared ways that people have helped them, as well as words and actions that have hurt deeply and created barriers in their grief recovery process. As a support person, you have the opportunity to significantly influence the healing process in a grieving parent for the better or worse.
Our parent volunteer team created the list below. Please note that there is no one way to support a grieving parent. Every parent and situation is unique. These suggestions will help give you some ideas as to what may be appropriate. When we created this list, we found that some things that helped one parent made another parent angry. For example, many of our parents loved that people sent flowers in honor of their baby, while other parents viewed the flowers as just another thing that was going to die and therefore a painful reminder of their babies death.
However, one thing was universal amongst our volunteers. We all appreciated acknowledgement of our baby’s life and the people that allowed us to share without judgment or without trying to fix us. Grief is a journey, and no two journeys are alike. Please do not put your personal timelines on a grieving parent. We, the grieving parents, know intellectually that it hurts for you to see us in pain, but we need to walk the complete journey and heal in a manner that is specific to our situation.
“Do’s” – Supportive Ways to Love Grieving Parents
- If the parents named the baby, please call the baby by name when referring to him/her.
- Simply saying, “I’m sorry” can be very profound.
- Do listen carefully and be attentive. If the parent is willing to speak, allow them the time to get everything out.
- Do ask about the baby. It is okay to ask “What did she/he look like?” or “What was the birth like?”
- Do ask what you can do to help.
- Do help care for young siblings.
- Do treat the couple equally. Fathers need as much support as mothers.
- Do validate how much they love and miss their baby.
- Do drop off dinner/lunch/snacks to the family’s home. Chances are they will need and appreciate your kindness.
- Do call and visit in the weeks and months following the baby’s death, not just immediately after their loss.
- Do remember the baby’s birthday/passing anniversary. Mark the date on your calendar and call on that day to check in.
- Do consciously make it your role to listen, rather than feel the need to give advice.
- Do give them a memento to help provide ways that they can remember and honor their baby.
- Plant a tree.
- Engrave a Christmas ornament with the baby’s name and birth date.
- Provide a doll for an older sibling in memory of her sister/brother.
- Give the parent a gift of jewelry including the baby’s birthstone or some other special symbol of the baby (angel, butterfly, heart, footprints).
- A gift of a book, bear, blanket (tokens that a parent can physically hold that remind them of the baby).
- You could send a letter/card sharing how the loss affected you as the grandmother, aunt, uncle, etc.
- Do be supportive; let them know that you are there for them. Give hugs. Be free to express your emotions and cry with them.
- Do respect the manner in which the parents are grieving. Even if you do not understand or agree in the way the parents are dealing with their grief. They need understanding and support at this time.
- Do offer to help in the way that is best for the family. Often the loss comes as a surprise and parents are ill prepared for the expense of a funeral, burial, and headstone. Monetary gifts may be helpful.
- Do take time to understand how their baby died. Get literature about the disease or type of death and the grief process to help you understand.
- Do give special attention to the baby’s younger/older brothers and sisters (if any). They too are hurt and confused and in need of attention which the parents may not be able to give at this time.
- Do bring a small gift for mom/dad and baby if they are in the hospital/NICU. You do not have to stay and visit.
- When you are visiting grieving parents, let mom/dad talk when they are ready. Do not try to fill all silence with too many words. Offer your support, but let them talk as much or as little as needed.
- If you had purchased the baby/parents a gift(s) before the loss, do ask them what they would like you to do with the gift(s). For some parents those gifts are invaluable and a tangible reminder of their babies existence.
- Rather than removing the baby’s things from the parent’s home in hope of eliminating pain, do ask the parents if they want anything moved. Allow them to make decisions and determine what should be done with the baby’s things.
- When dealing with a genetic issue be careful what (if any) advice you give.
- For Grandparents: When someone asks how many grandchildren you have include the baby that died.
- If the parents are able to get pregnant again, do realized that being pregnant again doesn’t mean that they have forgotten about the baby they lost. You might feel the new pregnancy is a fresh start and that the have “moved on,” but for them this is another step in the process of their grief journey
“Don’ts” – Unsupportive Examples
- Don’t be afraid of mentioning the baby’s name, out of fear of reminding them of their pain. They have not forgotten.
- Don’t pretend that the baby did not exist.
- Don’t ignore the parent when he/she needs to talk. Do not be too busy to listen, even if many years have passed since the loss.
- Don’t assume that there is a grieving time limit. Allow parents the full process of the grief journey.
- Don’t try to “fix” it. Unless you have a way to bring their baby back to life, you really do not have a way to “fix” their pain. Remember that you cannot take away their pain, but you can share in it and help them feel less alone.
- Don’t push your religious ideas if you are unsure of the parent’s belief system, for it may not be the parent’s religious belief system. If the parent does not share your beliefs, these statements create barriers and can be hurtful/frustrating.
- Don’t question the medical decision(s) the parents made or tell them what you would have done differently.
- Don’t quit checking in with the family after a couple weeks or months.
- Don’t act as if you know why or what happened. Every situation is unique and has its own story. Take time to ask the parents.
- Don’t force yourself to say something; silence and tears can be as comforting as words.
- Avoid the following cliché statements:
- “God’s will” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “It was for the best.”
- “You can always have another baby.”
- “I know how you feel… my dog just died.”
- “It was meant to be.”
- “That is very common.”
- “Something good will soon come out of this.”
- “There must have been something wrong with her/him.”
- “The baby was suffering. They are better off now.”
- The words “at least.” For example, do not say, “at least it happened early” or “at least he/she isn’t suffering.”
- Don’t say things that take away permission for the parent to grieve.
- Don’t force the parents to focus on trying to have another baby or push them to get pregnant again. Allow them the time they need to grieve their loss.
- If they are able to get pregnant again, please don’t tell them “everything will be fine.” A subsequent pregnancy is scary, as there is no guarantee that they will not lose another baby.