Standing Beside Your Friends Battling The Trauma Of Child Loss
Losing a baby is never part of any mama’s plan. Unfortunately, miscarriage and infant loss are all-too-common. Whether you have experienced this hardship or not, understanding this type of trauma can be confusing and hard to bear.
March of Dimes reports that up to 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (loss of the baby before 20 weeks in utero), and the CDC states that stillbirths (loss of the baby after 20 weeks gestation) affect one in 160 births in the U.S. each year.
While these numbers may seem small to some, there is no statistic that can alleviate the fears or calm the hearts of hurting parents. Every baby lost is a precious baby that doesn’t get to go home. If you have lost a child in any form, you are seen and loved in this community. It’s likely that at some point you will know or already know a friend who has suffered this great loss.
What can you do to show your support? It can feel overwhelming to know how to be a good friend during bad times. Here are a few things you can keep in mind as you navigate trauma alongside a mama missing her baby.
Grieve with them, and keep it about them.
It’s okay to be sad and confused when your friend has lost a baby. In a fair world, all babies should be given a full life. Allow yourself the chance to grieve with your friend. It’s scary, it’s confusing and it’s utterly heartbreaking to process this news. Try your hardest to keep the focus on your friend and avoid bringing them into your own questions, worries, or processing. Avoid comments like, “I wish you had told me right away so that I could have hugged you,” or “How could this have happened to a wonderful person like you?” and “I’m having a hard time dealing with the fear of this happening to me”.
With statements like these, even though you might mean well, you are actually turning the focus on your own fears and questions, and now is not the time to burden your friend with this. It’s also okay to cry and to let them see your sadness. Let their grief process guide you in how you should grieve with them, and mirror that. If you need to weep privately when they aren’t weeping, that’s okay too – just find a time to do it when they won’t be around.
This might seem obvious, but it’s very important to avoid sharing platitudes with friends who are suffering in any type of tragedy. Platitudes are statements that we use with a well-intentioned heart to respond to our own fears. When we share platitudes, we are really just providing answers that we want to hear in response to our own questions. “There is another angel in heaven now”, “There is sure to be a reason for this”, “Do you have other kids?”, “At least you have other kids”, “You’ll be able to try again soon”, “I’ve been through this and you’ll come out eventually”, “It’s like a breakup – each day gets better”, are all examples of platitudes.
It’s very uncomfortable in our Western, independent society and culture to sit in pain, but some other phrases that might help are, “This really sucks”, “This is not your fault and you did not cause this”, “This is not the way it should be”, “I do not understand your suffering, but I am here for whatever you need”, “We love and miss your baby along with you”.
It’s also okay to not know what to say. Sometimes the best friend is the one who sits silently by, giving tissues or holding hair back for the grieving mama to suffer. Maybe the mama wants to talk about her baby – let her, and let her lead the conversation. Expect that her grief will ebb and flow in the way it presents itself, and make sure you are along for the ride.
My own mother told me when my dearest friend suffered a stillbirth that, “This will change her life forever”. She couldn’t have put it more plainly. Expect that the grieving process for your friend will take a long time and will be marked with wonderful days and painful days full of sorrow. It probably won’t be appropriate to say, but hide the knowledge in your own heart that each day will get a little bit better, if slowly and painfully. Give your friend time.
Don’t hide your own life.
You may be pregnant or have other happy news in your own life that you want to share with your friend. Odds are, she will want to hear it. She loves you, and in the same way that you are weeping along with her, she likely will want to rejoice with you (but give her grace if she can’t). She might need a reason to rejoice, and what a delight it can be to give her one. Evaluate the specific scenario before sharing good (or bad) news with her and ask her if she would like to hear your news before sharing. She doesn’t want you to be a stranger.
Validate her trauma and offer only solicited advice.
Miscarriage and stillbirth are so common that it often gets brushed aside and minimized. It shouldn’t be. Miscarriage and stillbirth come with physical trauma for the mother and emotional trauma for both parents. Do not compare pain and suffering – just validate the horror that she is facing at that moment.
It is likely that she is horrified and needs to express her pain and confusion. A lovely, precious child has been lost and that alone is enough to cause severe trauma that can last a lifetime. When in doubt, it is always better to ask questions rather than offer unsolicited advice.
Be specific in ways that you can help.
If she has other children, offer to babysit. Offer to set up a meal train. Offer to do her laundry or arrange for a cleaning service to clean her home while she goes out for coffee or takes a nap. Keep your expectations of your friend low during this time, and be very specific in ways that you can help her (and can’t).
Offer to communicate with friends and family in her stead. Think of things that would be helpful to do for a friend when bringing home a new baby, and offer to do those things for her. It is likely that she needs help with the same things, and has no new baby to celebrate. Offer to help keep her home private; offer to help her acquire a breast pump if she needs one. She has a lot of sad things she will be facing in the coming months, and she might need you right beside her.
Send meaningful gifts.
The first impulse might be to find a memorial or keepsake to help mama remember her baby. It might be better to give her some time to decide how she wants to memorialize her child. Something that you might think is special might unintentionally cause her additional pain.
Rather than sending keepsake or memorial items, send her gift cards to her favorite restaurants and stores, send her thoughtful handwritten cards, or flower seeds to plant in her garden. She might need help cleaning her home, and gathering a group of friends to pitch in for a cleaning service could mean a great deal to her. Puzzles, fiction books that you’ve enjoyed, bath salts or a fuzzy robe are all great ideas.
Find ways to remember the father.
There is no doubt that a mother’s suffering is unprecedented and unique when it comes to miscarriage and stillbirth, and it is still important to remember the baby’s father. He is grieving too, in his own way, and often in the dark.
Ask your friend if there are helpful things you can do to show him that you care about him too. Some ideas of things you can send to a grieving dad are restaurant gift cards, his favorite candy or snack, crossword puzzles, or a sports team baseball hat that he would enjoy. Showing him some care will speak volumes to mama and will help alleviate the burden she might feel to console him alone.
Honor the baby in the same way as the parents do.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the loss of a baby belongs foremost to the baby’s parents. Grandparents, siblings, friends, and other family members suffer too, but we suffer at a distance. Allow your friend the dignity of her own grief journey and follow her lead. You might imagine your own way of handling things, but this loss is your friend’s to bear. If mom and dad want to host a memorial service, be there. If they prefer to keep their grief private, check in on them, but honor their wishes. If they named their baby, refer to the baby’s memory by his or her name.
The loss of a child is a nightmare that no parent should ever have to face, but we do in the dark more commonly than any of us would like to imagine. With compassionate friends who are slow to speak and quick to listen, any loss mama would be glad to have you stand alongside them. Hold them in your heart along with their sweet baby, and quietly remember as you walk with them that, while they will carry a hole in their heart forever, they will begin to heal one day at a time with cherished friends at their side.