Yesterday, someone I know asked for advice. Her friend, 4.5 months pregnant, was told that her son would likely not survive, due to a heart defect. She wanted to help her friend but didn’t know how.
I mulled it over for a few hours. For the mother, I instantly thought of her agony: possibly weeks ahead of doctor’s visits, days between visits of feeling like the rest of the world is racing by while she is living a nightmare.
I knew I could offer something because I knew. My daughter Nelle was stillborn at 21 weeks of pregnancy after I learned at a routine prenatal appointment that she had no heartbeat. Less than six months later, the joy of being pregnant with a rainbow baby turned into agony for a second time when my daughter Iris had no heartbeat at 16 weeks.
Lightning had struck twice, unexpectedly, and in a way that nearly broke me in half. So many people did not know what to do to help me in my grief, and so they did nothing.
I tried to think of tangible advice: What are things that can be done to help? What can make the unbearable suffering of losing a child a little more bearable?
Here are five ways you can help when mothers are hurting:
1. Tell her that you are here with her, not for her. “For” implies that you are going to do something. You are going to stand with her through her pain. A nurse held my hand. A friend came to visit me in the hospital. Another loss mama held me tightly while I cried. Show up. If you are going to do something for her, bring a meal or hire someone to clean her house for an hour or two. Anything to make the days easier.
2. Check in with her every few days. Then every few weeks. Then every few months. She will be surrounded by people in the beginning, but then those people will fall away and she will still be hurting so much. It is isolating to be in such a world of pain while everyone else keeps moving.
But don’t stop checking in to see how she is doing. Losing a child is not something she will “get over.” If she answers “I’m fine” try to dig a little deeper. She may be so used to saying “I’m fine” to the outside world that it is an automatic response when she is anything but fine.
3. Use his name. Let her know that you haven’t forgotten her son. Parents who lose babies fear that their children will not be remembered. Do not fear “reminding” them of their child: we remember our children every single day. Saying their names is an acknowledgment that they existed.
4. When she delivers, make note of the day. Put it as a recurring event on your calendar. On his birthday, send her a message and wish her son a happy birthday.
5. And when the time is right, a support group will likely help her tremendously. It may not be right away. It took me a year to attend my first meeting. But fellow loss parents are the only ones who truly understand.
I am appreciative of people who ask “What can I do to help someone who is hurting?” rather than doing nothing, saying nothing, or saying the wrong thing. Intangibles like thoughts and prayers are a nice sentiment, but that mother will probably need help just finding the strength to get out of bed in the morning.
Losing a child cannot be fixed. It is seared by platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” or “you can have another child” or “at least he’s in a better place.” Or later, “Aren’t you over that yet?”
No. Just no.
Be with her.
Anna Burgess Yang writes to bring awareness to how pregnancy loss continues to permeate everyday life. Loss is part of her identity, but does not solely define her. She lives in a suburb of Chicago and writes at http://www.grievingoutloud.com