After unexpectedly losing our sweet son at just shy of 39 weeks gestation, we were floored by the outpouring of love and support we received. I can honestly say I was, and continue to be, astounded by the kindness and actions of family, friends, and even strangers.
We are so fortunate to be surrounded by so many amazing people. After talking to other parents who have also lost their children to stillbirth, I can appreciate even more how lucky we were in our support network. I have found a common theme among friends and family after witnessing loss to be the desire to help, but feeling paralyzed by the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, or simply not having any idea WHAT to do.
It is for this reason that I am writing this post, to empower friends and family in supporting their loved ones during the most difficult time of their lives.
Here are fifteen simple ways to help grieving families following stillbirth:
1. The most important thing you can do to help someone after they experience this kind of loss is simply to show up. Be there. Call, email, text, facebook message – reach out to them. And then, reach out again, and again, and again. Don’t expect a response, just let them know you are thinking of them.
The parents frequently won’t feel up to answering questions, but a simple, “I love you and am thinking of you and your son” goes a long way. The most painful thing you can do is not acknowledge the gravity of their loss. You may say the ‘wrong thing’ at times – honestly, that’s fine, as long as your intentions are love and support. Parents will remember your intentions long after they remember your words.
2. This sounds cliche but send food. If you are local, organize a meal train. Bring frozen foods and stock their freezer (the parents will likely feel unable to cook or go about normal household activities long after the meal train ends).
If you are not local, you can still send frozen foods from many online sources – we received so many frozen meals from across the country that we had to purchase an extra mini freezer to store them all. You can also send food delivery gift cards, gift cards to favorite restaurants, or ask if there is a night you can call in a delivery order for the family. While being local is the only option for physically making food for the family, there are many ways you can help feed them from across the country or even the world.
3. Send mementos of their lost baby. If they have shared pictures of their baby with you, create gifts incorporating those images. Jewelry is a lovely memento, and there are many online options for personalized jewelry, but anything the parents can wear and touch on an everyday basis to feel connected to their little one will be treasured.
The parents will also need a special place to put the blanket their child was wrapped in and any clothes they wore in the hospital – a personalized wooden memory box is a lovely gift to store these precious items. Be creative with mementos; a friend sent a personalized blanket from an organization that supports foster care and adoption. I love the fact that she chose to help children in her support of us. I love that through our son; she found a way to improve the world.
4. Ask about the baby. Ask what he was like and express interest in any pictures the parents may have. Grieving parents are just as intensely proud of their children as the parents of living children and want to share them. I love talking about Kegan. I love saying his name, and I love hearing other people say his name.
I love hearing them exclaim over his dark, curly hair (so like his daddy’s!), his sweet seashell ears, or pointing out how much like his big sister he looked at birth. I love reminiscing about how early I was able to feel his little kicks, and how he loved to do acrobatics at 3 o’clock every morning.
Grieving parents are still parents; they are still amazingly proud of their baby. It means so much to have the opportunity to share your pride in your child.
5. Remember the grieving sibling. Our daughter was just under 2.5 when her brother died. The number of people who reached out to her by sending her puzzles, books, and stickers astounded me. These gifts serve a dual purpose – they help bring joy into the grieving sibling’s life, and they also help keep them happy and occupied during the times while their parents are struggling.
Remember, even if the child is young, they have still lost a sibling. Young children may not have the language to express grief, but I have learned through watching my daughter that they grieve, and moreover, they find their parents’ grief confusing. If you have direct contact with the remaining living sibling, ask the parents how they would like you to address any questions the child may have.
We opted to tell our daughter that Mommy and Daddy were sad because they missed baby brother, that Mommy and Daddy love all their children very much and so we are sad when any of them are away from us. We emphasized to her many times that we love both of our children and went over this explanation with her babysitters.
6. You can also offer to babysit. The parents will have doctor’s appointments, funeral home appointments, therapy appointments…they will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of times they need to find a babysitter. Offer to watch their living child while they try to make arrangements for their deceased one.
7. This brings me to the next issue – arrangements for the deceased. The parents will have to decide if they want to perform an autopsy on their child. They will then have to decide if they want to bury or cremate their child, what they are going to do with their physical remains, and if they’re going to have a memorial service.
If you are very close to the family, ask if you can help with logistics. The parents may say no, they may want to do everything themselves. I did not want anyone doing anything for my son because I wanted to parent him every last second and through every final act that I could. However, I have known other parents who would have welcomed support in these logistics; it is simply a personal preference.
8. Please remember the baby on anniversaries and holidays. Every month, the day my son died and the day he was born are excruciatingly painful. I have no idea how I will survive the one year anniversaries of his due date, death, and birth, or these anniversaries on subsequent years.
The holidays that have been the most painful to us so far have been Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Valentine’s Day. These are all days centered on being with someone you love, so when one of the people you love most in the world is missing, they become days of grief.
Please be mindful of this; reach out to the parents on holidays, remember they may not be happy days for the family.
We are asking friends and family to donate to chosen charities in our son’s name on his birthday and Christmas. If the family provides such an option, please do it! And then tell them you did, because not all charities will notify them of donations.
Alternately, you can choose a charity the parents would support, make a donation in their child’s name, and then tell the parents. I love to hear the ways Kegan is making the world a better place; I love to hear how people remember him in their philanthropy. If you give holiday presents to the couple’s living child, it means so much to remember their deceased child as well (donations are the easiest way to do this).
9. Please remember that the mother is postpartum. This is frequently overlooked for the simple reason that people forget you are postpartum when you don’t have a living baby. Her breasts will cruelly fill with milk; her body will ache at the places where childbirth tore her open, her hormones will be fluctuating and adjusting to the end of pregnancy. Physically care for her.
10. Support the marriage. There is an increased incidence of marital strife and divorce following the death of a child. Knowing this, we have chosen to go to grief counseling as a couple to learn how to best support each other. Every couple will deal with losing their child differently. We have turned to each other in our grief, but it is just as common for couples to shut each other out.
You can help by offering to find a grief therapist who takes couples (and their insurance), helping them plan a date night, and merely building them up to each other. The couple needs each other’s love, help them to see it.
We are incredibly fortunate that most of what I have to share are ways to help the parents. We have not been on the receiving end of very many unintentionally hurtful statements or questions.
However, I have talked to enough parents to know how common some of these statements are and feel the need to share them.
Please remember, however, the most important thing is to continually reach out, even if you accidentally say the wrong thing. I hold no resentment towards anyone who has stumblingly said something offensive if it was said with love; however, I have been hurt by those who were not there for us when we needed them.
The most hurtful thing you can do to a grieving parent is deny the existence of their child, either by not reaching out to the parents or through actual words. Too often, parents of stillborn babies are made to feel that their loss was merely a medical incident instead of what it was, the soul-crushing loss of their child.
11. Please don’t ask if they will ‘try again.’ This implies the baby was a replaceable, amorphous baby figure instead of what they were, an individual whom the parents fiercely loved.
Similarly, don’t ask if/when they will give their living child a sibling, no matter how long it has been since their baby died. Their child has a sibling; they aren’t alive.
12. Please also don’t ask how the baby died. The question of ‘what happened?’ was deeply upsetting to me because it implied Kegan’s death was my fault, that I had done something wrong in carrying him. Frequently, the cause of late-term stillbirth is never identified, and by asking this question, you are further torturing the parents with a problem that already is a constant refrain in their minds.
13. Similarly, don’t say that something must have been wrong with the baby or that all things happen for a reason. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with our son, his death was a statistical anomaly, but even if there had been, that does not mean he deserved to die, or that we deserved to have him taken from us.
Religion is also best avoided unless the parents bring it up. If the parents are not in religious agreement with you, religious platitudes can come across as disrespectful and overbearing, and even if they are in theological understanding, hearing God planned for your baby to die is incredibly hurtful.
14. Please also don’t tell the parents how to grieve. This can take place in well-meaning statements such as ‘be strong,’ ‘move forward,’ or ‘you need to eat/pray/workout/etc. more.’ The only thing the parents need to do is survive from one day to the next. Grief is a profoundly personal road, and there is no correct way to go through it.
15. This brings me to the next item, saying you understand what they are going through. Saying you know how they feel, while very well-intentioned, frequently backfires. No one knows how anyone else grieves, no one knows what anyone else is going through at any particular moment (even if they have been through a similar experience), and this turns the focus of the conversation to you instead of the parents’ lost baby.
Further, understand that the parents may not want to hear about the trivialities and normalities of your life for a while.
It’s not that they don’t care about you; nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the realization that the rest of the world has continued turning when their life has slammed to a halt also emphasizes to the parents how very alone they are in their grief. Instead, express sympathy and love, offer to listen or sit with the parents.
I want to conclude by emphasizing again how incredibly important it is to be there for the parents actively. Reach out when their baby dies, and reach out again the next day, week, month, and year. We will never get over the loss of Kegan. You are not supposed to outlive your children; we will never get over the fact that we have one living child, and one dead one.
Long past when society thinks we should be ‘better’ or have moved on, we will be grieving. Please don’t mistake our outward smiles or appearance to be functional in life to mean we have moved on; we will grieve Kegan until our dying days. Please continue to walk this path with us. Please continue to love our son with us.
To our friends and family, thank you so much for your amazing support; I hope this post will enable another grieving family to be supported as well as we have been. To other grieving families, please know you are not alone; we love your children, and we grieve with you.
Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: free, professional photography of stillborn babies and a source of parental support
Star Legacy Foundation: foundation supporting stillbirth research, education, advocacy, and bereaved parents
About the Author: Terrell Hatzilias, Ph.D., is mother to both a sweet toddler and her little brother who left too soon. Terrell is a neuroscientist who enjoys writing, running, and playing with her daughter. She hopes that by sharing publicly about the loss of her son Kegan, she will be able to comfort other families forced to endure the loss of their perfect babies to stillbirth.