If your friend or loved one just lost a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or other neonatal loss, you may be wondering what you can do to help. How you and your friend navigate this precious time can bring you closer or pull you further apart. Here are some suggestions on how you can help a friend after pregnancy or infant loss.
1. Examine Your Own Grief
One of the best ways you can help a friend after pregnancy or infant loss is to examine your own experiences with grief. What messages have you received about grief that were helpful? Which weren’t? Many of us are not well-versed in what grief looks like, or how to support someone through it. Some of the most hurtful comments I heard after I lost my daughter came from people who had experienced grief themselves but shoved it under the rug instead of facing it. They felt “moving on” was the only way to “get over it.” They wanted me to stop “dwelling” on it because it made them uncomfortable. It took me awhile to understand this as a reflection of their own unresolved feelings. Somewhere along the line, they had started believing that hurrying up and moving on was what was expected after a loss. It isn’t.
You won’t know how to witness a grief process if you have never really confronted your own. You have to be able to face your own experience, and sit with it compassionately and patiently before you can show up for anyone else. If you can’t, please seek out support for yourself before jumping in to try to “rescue” your friend from grief.
2. Just Listen
You might feel like you don’t know what to say, and that’s okay. Listening is actually much more important than saying “the right thing.” Grief counselor and author, Patrick O’Malley, writes in Getting Grief Right, “listening with deep attention and compassion literally changes something in the brain of the person being heard.” Allowing your friend to tell their story, and talk about their loss, actually helps them heal. Let your friend know that you want to listen. Don’t assume that asking them how they’re doing, or bringing up their loss is too painful for them. Most of us want to talk about how we’re doing and will tell you if we don’t.
3. It’s Okay To Acknowledge Your Own Grief
You might think that your friend doesn’t want to hear about how sad you feel about their loss, or how ill-equipped you feel to say the right thing. It shouldn’t eclipse your friend’s experience, but I really appreciated people who were brave enough to say after my daughter was stillborn, “I’m so sorry, I just don’t know what to say.” Or, “I’m so afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing.” I could understand because, in their shoes, I would have felt the same way! I also really appreciated friends who told me how much they would miss Zoë, too. That they had looked forward to having her in their lives. Most parents want to know that their child’s life was important, touched others, and had meaning. It’s okay to show that you are sad about the loss, too.
4. Don’t Try to “Fix It” for Them
In my experience, the unhelpful comments came from people wanting to “fix” things for me. “She’s in a better place, now” or “everything happens for a reason” were not helpful. These kinds of things were meant to make me feel better but only made me feel worse. “I’m so sorry,” “I’m here for you,” and “I know you will miss her forever,” were better. If you want to help a friend after pregnancy or infant loss, just know that there’s nothing you can say or do to fix things. Losing a child isn’t like falling off a bicycle or failing an exam. It may be years before your friend starts to “feel better.” Grief is not a problem with a solution. Grief is a normal human response to love and loss. Let them grieve.
5. Do Specify What You Can Do to Help
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” is well-meaning, but most people won’t follow through on that. It’s also much too broad and confusing for a person in the early stages of grief. Specific, concrete offers of help are much better. “Can I pick up groceries for you? I’m going to the store, anyway.” Or, “I would love to take your older kids for a night or two.” Maybe even, “I’d love to mow your lawn for you. I can come tomorrow or Monday. Which is better for you?” Give your friend specific choices of what you can do for them. Or better yet, just notice where there is a need, and do it.
6. Check in With Them Periodically
Most offers of help and outpourings of support will start to fade after the first few weeks. This is usually a time when bereaved parents start to feel abandoned. They have to return to work or resume activities while they are still navigating their new normal. This is a good time to check-in, and find out how they’re doing. See what they might still need help with. When the holidays roll around, remember to acknowledge them, and that they are probably missing their baby a lot right now. Remember their child’s birthdate or anniversary of their loss. Send them a card or give them a phone call. Check-in periodically. Whether this is once a week or once a month, your friend will appreciate the continued support.
Know That This Experience Will Change Your Friend Forever
If you want to help a friend after pregnancy or infant loss, know that they will be forever changed by this loss. Walk alongside them, and allow yourself to be changed by it as well. You may just find that your friendship becomes stronger and deeper because of it.
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Robynne Knight is a writer, educator, and acupuncturist who lost her daughter, Zoë, to stillbirth in 2011. She is passionate about sharing her experience with grief and loss, and helping others find growth and healing through her writing, private practice, and sharing support and resources through The Zoë Project.