It’s the phone call you never expect to receive. It comes from your sister; your coworker; your best friend. She has been pregnant, and you’ve been following her pregnancy with so much excitement. You threw her a baby shower. You bought her a box of diapers and a ridiculously expensive ruffly outfit for coming home. You’ve been so excited to meet this new child, and when you pick up the phone, your first words are, “Is he here yet?” You assume she is calling to let you know her baby has been born. Instead, she tells you, “He died.” And then only tears.
I don’t know what this phone call is like. I can only imagine the spectrum of feelings–anticipation leading into shock; shock into anger or second-hand grief. I don’t know what this phone call is like, but my best friend does, and for that I will always be thankful.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I read all the books. I signed up for every mailing list, and I asked constant questions of my providers. Everyone who knew me called me a pregnancy nerd, because I could share information on just about every aspect of pregnancy, save one—I didn’t know that sometimes, babies die.
I think we are all familiar with the statistics about miscarriage, and how approximately 1 in 4 pregnancies ends during the first trimester. I think all of us have also heard somewhere that once you pass that 12-week mark, you are in the “safe zone”. Your pregnancy and resultant child are now guaranteed. Unfortunately, this is not true. Statistics are debated, but the latest information available tells us that in the United States today, 1 in 160 pregnancies ends in stillbirth. 1 in 160. And almost no one talks about this at all.
The day before my child died, I was 40 weeks, 6 days pregnant. I was doing regular monitoring and he always passed with flying colors. I had a few of what I now know are concerning symptoms, but they were so minor my providers dismissed them as the typical complaints of a first time mom. My son was even active and kicking at 10:00 p.m. the night before he died. Sometimes it happens just that fast, and with almost no warning. Because by the time I woke up at 6:00 a.m. the following morning, he was dead.
I think one of the worst things about this lack of knowledge surrounding stillbirth in our culture is that most people don’t know deceased children still have to be born. And although it was 24 hours too late, my body did go into labor and I gave birth to my son. He was 9 pounds, 0 ounces; 22 inches long. He received a Certificate of Vital Statistics. I gave him a name. He is a real, individual, human being. My best friend was one of the first people to acknowledge that, and that is a feeling I will always treasure.
I write this story for two reasons. One is that October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Declared by President Ronald Reagan on 15 October, 1988, this month has been in existence almost as long as I’ve been alive, but until my son died, I didn’t know stillbirth was a possibility. The loss of my child never seemed like something that could realistically happen to me. And this is something we need to talk about, because child loss shouldn’t be treated like a shameful secret.
The second reason I write is to share some details about my friend, and some others who formed my support crew. I hope by sharing to give you insight and perspective to know what to do when you receive that unexpected phone call. Because you may not ever experience the loss of your own child, but I can guarantee you—you already know at least one person who has.
Below is a list of things you can do to provide comfort and support when someone you love has lost a child:
Learn about child loss and grief—Losing a child is an experience like no other. I have provided you a glimpse here, but the best thing you can do to inform your support of bereaved parent(s) is to learn more. Read books or blogs about child loss. Follow professionals like Megan Devine who specialize in grief. Read or listen as much as you are able.
Related: Resources for Support Persons
Understand the deceased child is a human being—Regardless of the length of gestation, planned or unplanned pregnancy, or any other factors surrounding the loss, understand that the deceased child is a loved and wanted individual. Ask for and refer to the child by name. Ask to see photos, or for details like size and weight. Ask for and listen to favorite memories of the pregnancy. Whenever possible, express your own favorite memories and things you were looking forward to experiencing with the child.
Take care of the details—The second most important thing you can do is provide practical help. Show up with groceries. Mow the lawn. Wash the dishes. Walk the dog. Do not ask the bereaved parent(s) how you can help; they often won’t have the mental presence of mind to know. Just show up and do, or at least be specific in your offer of assistance: “I would like to send a cleaner on Tuesday so you don’t have to worry about the house. Is that okay?”
If you are close to the parents, offer assistance with things like planning the funeral, fielding questions from acquaintances, and organizing details when the parents are ready to return to work, but be flexible if the parents say no or aren’t ready to accept such assistance. Let them know you are available to help at a later date and will check in on them again in a few days or weeks—and then do it.
One important note—do not, under any circumstances, move the baby’s things without permission. It may seem counter-intuitive, but many bereaved parent(s) find comfort in seeing and touching the things they were planning to use for their child. I came home from the hospital to a fully furnished nursery, and I needed my son’s things to be present. Do not pack up or donate anything unless the bereaved parents have asked you to do so.
Understand that words are important. Use caution…
…With religious sentiments or platitudes—When someone we love is hurting, it is tempting to share things that bring comfort to us. I know many people find comfort in religion, or in the thought that “everything happens for a reason,” for example. However, even if the bereaved parent(s) feel or felt this way prior to their child’s death, those feelings may change. Be cautious offering sentiments of this nature unless the parents have expressed those sentiments first. In particular, do not refer to the deceased child as an “angel” unless they have done so.
…With concepts and phrases like strong, brave, transformation due to grief, and moving on—There is tendency in our culture to describe victims of tragedy in a heroic light, casting them as fearless people who continue living life and become better versions of themselves due to their tragedy. This is not only unrealistic, but it also puts an unfortunate pressure on the bereaved person to be and act in a certain way. Allow your friend space and acknowledgement to be and feel whatever they need.
…With attempts to distract, cheer up, or find the silver lining in loss or grief —It can be hard to see your loved one in pain, but sometimes that’s what they need. Allow their pain to exist without trying to erase it. Acknowledgement is so much more powerful than attempts to “fix.”
…With questions about the cause of death—Curiosity is natural, but sometimes it won’t be satisfied. If your friend doesn’t mention the cause of death, don’t ask. Some things need to remain private.
…When talking about future children—Many bereaved parents do go on to have children subsequent to loss, and this is a beautiful thing. It is not, however, mandatory or a “cure” for grief. Allow your friend to express their grief without asking when or if they will “try again.” And if and when they do have a subsequent child, remember that this child is not a replacement, but a uniquely new human being.
…With sharing your own story or likening your friend’s experience with your own history—Even if your circumstances are exactly the same, no two people will react or feel the same way about the same experience. Further, grieving people are often overwhelmed with their own experience and aren’t equipped to process or fully appreciate someone else’s grief. Be cautious of sharing, unless the bereaved parents request it of you.
Understand that both parents grieve—As a single mother by choice, I was not partnered when my son died. However, I have heard from many partnered parents that the non-gestational parent’s grief was often diminished or ignored in favor of the mother. Many fathers and second parents report being asked how their spouse is doing, but not being asked about themselves. Many also report feeling like or being explicitly told they must “be strong” and take care of the gestational parent and put their own grief on hold.
Please remember that all parents grieve, whether or not they carried the child within their body. Please don’t expect either parent to be strong or to subsume their grief in order to take care of the other.
Dealing with your own grief—It is understandable, especially if you are close to the parents, that you will feel anger and grief about the death of this child. This is natural and you have every right to express it. Remember though, that your feelings will never be harder or more important than what the bereaved parents are feeling, and no matter how close you are, they should never bear the burden of having to comfort you.
Susan Silk and Barry Goldman wrote an important article on this subject, entitled, “How not to say the wrong thing.” (Los Angeles Times, 7 April, 2013). I highly recommend reading it. If you feel overwhelmed or in need of support for your grief, express your feelings to someone outside your “ring,” or find a counselor or therapist.
Understand that death and grief both last forever—The trauma of the loss of a child is not a one-time event. It is repeated at every birthday, every holiday, and every missed milestone. And sometimes it rises up out of “nowhere” too. Bereaved parents will love and miss their child for the rest of their lives. This is normal. The best thing you can do is acknowledge these dates. Send flowers; make a card; show your friends you love them and their child.
Don’t disappear—If you take away nothing else from what I’ve written here today, remember this: Your words may be awkward and you may not know precisely what to do, but if you truly care for the bereaved parents, you can’t disappear. Embrace the awkwardness. Admit you don’t know what to say. But the worst thing you can ever say is: nothing. Silence is noticed. Do not disappear.
Follow the bereaved parents lead—Regardless of anything I’ve written here, people are individuals and process things differently. If your friend asks for a different kind of support, follow their lead.
Some important dates to keep in mind:
- International Bereaved Mother Day – Sunday before American Mothers Day
- International Bereaved Fathers Day – Sunday before British Fathers Day
- Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month – month of October
- Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day – 15 October
- International Wave of Light – 15 October; light a candle from 7pm-8pm in your time zone
- Most importantly: the date of birth, due date, and date of death of the deceased child
Resources for Support Persons
Adrian James Hernandez Official Comment Policy, aka Things Not to Say To or About a Bereaved Parent
Miranda’s Blog: Understanding
Miranda’s Blog: “It’s not your fault”
Miranda’s Blog: Why you shouldn’t ask a bereaved parent if they plan to “try again”