What to say when someone loses a baby (and what not to say)
I have come to find out first hand how incredibly difficult losing a baby is. My third pregnancy ended in miscarriage at almost 11 weeks.
I have had friends and family that have loved me and supported me through these trying times. The ones who have been in my shoes before often times give me advice that are like balm to an open sore. But sometimes words can sting a bit too, even though they may be said with love. Though mostly they are said to fill the silence and try to minimize grief.
And maybe you’ve never experienced the loss of a baby, either by miscarriage or stillbirth. It can feel awkward not knowing what to say. I was once there too, having friends lose little ones and feeling like I was supposed to say something, yet tr
ying to make sure I didn’t cause additional pain. Tripping over my words, everything seeming so hollow.
A while ago I asked my Facebook Friends to help me with this post and give me some of the things that people should and shouldn’t say. The problem with this list is that we all grieve differently, what may hurt one woman might not affect another.
- You shouldn’t ask: “were you trying?” It’s just completely irrelevant, and parents fall in love with their babies whether they’ve been trying for a long time, were ‘planned’, or a complete surprise.
- You shouldn’t: avoid them or pretend like it never happened. Yes, the couple may still be grieving and it may be awkward, but please don’t ignore the them. Saying nothing about their loss makes them feel more invisible or like the baby didn’t matter.
- You shouldn’t say: “It’s for the best/ It’s better this way.” Would you say this to someone who lost a parent or spouse to cancer? What about someone who lost a friend or relative in a car accident? Did those people die because it is somehow better that they did? The loss of this little baby is the loss of a person, and no grieving parent wants to hear that their child died because it’s better this way.
- You shouldn’t say: “there was probably something wrong with the baby.” Because no matter the disease, disorder, or handicap, the parent still misses their dear child. They would gladly welcome a special needs baby to their family.
- You shouldn’t say: “better luck next time.” This was actually mentioned a couple of times, so I thought I’d better include it. Though it seems so rude. I guess there are some pretty unsympathetic people out there.
- You shouldn’t say: “there will be more chances in the future.” or “you’re young you will have more.” No one has a “crystal ball”, no one knows the will of God. While you feel that this may help a hurting heart, it in fact minimizes their grief, and may not necessarily be true.
“This pregnancy, THIS child was special, loved and lost. It takes time to grieve that loss before considering trying another time to bring another life into the world. It’s not a ring toss. It’s a baby. Trying again has a much different context in that regard.” –Real Food Whole Health
- You shouldn’t say: “at least you have other kids.” Yes, to a couple that has other children, their sweet little ones here may be of some comfort. But they still miss THIS child and had dreams for THIS child.
- You shouldn’t say: “God wanted it this way.” or “It is God’s will.” This may be so. And it may be that we live in a fallen world where death and disease are part of it. But words said to minimize grief tend to make the mourning parent feel like they shouldn’t be sad. They may know that this was in God’s will, but they are still allowed to grieve.
- You shouldn’t: tell them you understand when you don’t. Even if you have experienced the loss of a baby, all of our stories are different: This couple may have struggled to get pregnant, this may not be their first loss. It may be her first child, or it may be her fourth (the grief will hit just as deeply, but the emotions and the reactions may be different). She may be waiting to miscarry yet, or she may not have found out she was pregnant until the miscarriage started. She may have had to experience a procedure called a D&C to remove the baby, or she may have had to deliver her baby at home, all alone in the bathroom. She may have to cancel orders for, or put away the maternity clothes. She may have to put away baby things.
And all of us experience grief differently. Some women have to deal with anger, others extreme sadness. Many experience some type of depression or anxiety and whether or not you’ve experienced a loss, you just can’t understand how she feels.
- You shouldn’t: call the baby “it”. One of the hardest things for a grieving mother to deal with is the fact that most of the medical community (especially for a loss in the first half of the pregnancy) medicalize what’s happening. The baby is only referred to as “tissue”, and they are almost afraid to humanize this little being, like somehow this will help a woman/couple get over their grief.
- You shouldn’t say: “it was just not meant to be.” Again, would you say this had they lost another family member? It’s just not helpful and can hurt.
- You shouldn’t: try to force them to “get over it” too quickly, before they are ready or when their grieving style is different than yours. We all go through the stages of grief differently, some quicker than others. The grief also comes in waves, one day they may be fine, the next may be quite difficult. Seemingly little things can bring back floods of emotion.
- You shouldn’t say: “you are getting up there in age and your eggs aren’t as perfect as they once were.” Most women start to blame themselves, that their body somehow did this. It’s hard enough for a grieving mother to comes to terms with the loss when she feels like she is somehow responsible.
- You shouldn’t say: “Be glad that he/she is in such a better place now.” Yes, this is true. But any parent who has lost a child can tell you that they would like to hold their child now. To enjoy them now, and watch them grow up, now. They know where their baby is, but it’s so hard to be glad about it.
- You shouldn’t: get mad at them or take it personally if they don’t call you immediately to tell you (even if you are a family member). Every person shares the news in the way that is most therapeutic for them, and sometimes having to speak over the phone about the loss of a baby when the grief is so fresh is extremely difficult.
- You shouldn’t say: “At least you weren’t that far along.” Would you say that it was better for someone to die at age 23 instead of 67? No matter how far along she was, the couple is still dealing with the loss of a baby and already fell in love with this little person. They most likely had already been planning out the logistics of bringing a new baby into the family. This was their baby, no matter how small.
- You shouldn’t ask: “what did you do wrong?” or “what was the problem?” Again, she may already be dealing with the issue of blaming herself for something she did, and asking this can cause a great amount of guilt. Most miscarriages, unless you’ve had multiple, are not usually ‘diagnosed’ and there is no testing done. So they may never know why their little one passed away. A still birth or known ectopic pregnancy may have an answer or it may not – and the family will share what they would like to share of the “cause”. I they do share a cause, let’s not mention the “well it’s better this way then”.
- You shouldn’t forget: it takes time to heal, physically & emotionally. Sometimes the physical process of miscarriage is much overlooked. Even the medical community considers it like a heavy period. But on top of the bleeding (which sometimes can be so heavy it leaves the woman anemic for months) she also has to deal with the major hormone upheaval that happens after a pregnancy. She may need many weeks or even months to heal and spend time out of public eye.
- You shouldn’t: bring your new baby to “cheer them up”. Children should always be left at home when visiting a grieving family, especially infant babies when they’ve lost a baby themselves.
- You shouldn’t: imply that her loss isn’t that bad or compare her situation to someone else’s loss. Just because someone else has lost more babies, or were further along, or lost multiples, doesn’t mean that this couple shouldn’t grieve as deeply.
- You shouldn’t: take it personally if she seems to avoid you or defriends you (or hides you) on facebook, especially if you are pregnant yourself. Losing a baby is difficult, and seeing a pregnant relative or friend’s belly grow each week can often be a painful reminder. So please give them space if that is what they need. Don’t forget about them, just know that some women need extra space.
- You shouldn’t ask: “if/when they’ll have another child” or “ask if/when someone else will have another child”. First off, to put it bluntly, it’s none of your business. This couple may have dealt with infertility and have no idea when they’ll be able to conceive again, or afford more treatments. They may be dealing with physical issues due to the miscarriage that will prevent them from having another baby for some time. They may need more time to grieve or may be worried about a future pregnancy. And to the second comment, again, it’s just none of your business, or theirs, to know what any couple is doing to grow their family.
- You shouldn’t: surprise them around a group of people with news of your own pregnancy. Yes, your pregnancy should be received with joy, but many times it’s difficult for a couple (especially the woman) to be surprised by your news. Especially when it involves a group of people or public place. Don’t get me wrong – she will be happy for you, but many times she will also need to grieve the loss of her baby and the loss of her dream first. Telling her privately beforehand is a nice gesture.
- You shouldn’t ask: Is there anything I can do? A grieving family can rarely come up with something you can do to help. So when you ask, also ask specifics. (“Can I help clean, bring a meal, get groceries, etc)
- You shouldn’t: pressure them or tell them what to do regarding miscarriage inducing drugs or d&c. If you’ve been through a miscarriage or loss of a baby, share your experiences, but let them make their own decisions. Some women were grateful to have the option of a D&C, others preferred to miscarry at home. Many couples have to deal with ectopic pregnancies and are probably having to deal with making some very tough decisions, so even if you made a different decision when you walked that road, just be there for them. Same for a couple that is preparing for a stillborn baby.
What to say when someone loses a baby:
- You should say: “I am so sorry for your loss”
- You should: bring them a meal. The physical process of a miscarriage is much like the birth of a baby. She’ll go through contractions, many times it’s painful. And even if the process has to be helped along medically, there are still major physical things going on in her body. The birth of a still born baby brings all of the risks to the mother that any birth brings and then some. The grief from any loss can be overwhelming for at least the first few weeks. People bring food after the birth of a baby, and people bring food after the loss of a family member. This is both, ask when you can bring them a meal.
- You should: give them a hug and let them know you care and are thinking about them.
- You should: Send them a card. Many times these are the only physical things that they can hold that are proof their baby existed. I can’t begin to tell you how precious those cards are that I received.
- You should: offer physical help. Taking out the garbage, washing dishes, mopping floors, take their dog for a walk, pick up groceries – these are the things they may be unable to do or to keep up on for the first few weeks. My sister came and washed my dishes after they’d piled up for over a week and it was a wonderful expression of her love. (and if they have other small children, you could offer to babysit – though they may want their children close by – or play with them outside)
- You should say: “I don’t know what to say, but I’m so sorry.”
- You should: share your own story of loss, gently, and without minimizing their pain. Women who have been there before can often times minister in such a special way.
- You should: be gentle in your speaking.
- You should: be a shoulder to cry on. In dealing with grief, people may cry. And while it can sometimes feel awkward talking to a crying person, know that they need to cry at that very moment. No words are needed.
- You should: pray for them. Let them know you are praying, ask them what their specific prayer requests are, pray with them.
- You should: encourage them to rest and take time to heal both physically and emotionally.
- You should: acknowledge there was a baby. Call the baby a baby, talk about the baby, mention their baby by name if they decided to name him/her.
- You should: listen when she needs to talk, reserving all judgment.
- You should: remember this child. Write down the date of the loss or the due date and send a note letting them know you’re thinking about them. These dates, along with major holidays in that first year or two bring a lot of different emotions to surface. Mother’s remember their babies due dates, and not a year goes by that most don’t take notice. The first few years are especially painful.
What else do you have to add? What did someone do for you during the loss of your baby that truly helped you?
If your little one has passed away, I’m deeply sorry for your loss. The heartbreak is unbelievable. I recommend the book “Grieving the Child You Never Knew” as a starting point for emotional and spiritual healing. It’s a tough road as you begin to heal, and there is no “right” way to go about this, so be gentle with yourself as you learn your new ‘normal”.