What a pickle.
Most people are aware of some of the things that are best not said, even if you’re thinking them. Just in case, here’s a partial list:
You’ll have more children (or, alternately, you have other children).
It was for the best.
There was something probably wrong with the baby.
It was God’s will.
Are you still upset over that?
It could have been worse. (note: Logically, anything could be worse, but does that really help?)
So, are you going to try again?
You were too old (frail, nervous, tall, short, purple) to have a baby anyway.
It is all part of a bigger plan.
When written down, it is fairly obvious that these are all insensitive things to say. Unfortunately, sometimes things just pop out. Everyone is human. If you accidentally dropped one of these bombs, it is perfectly acceptable to apologize and take it back.
So what do you say? Sometimes, the best thing is silence. Just sitting with someone, letting them cry, crying with them, allowing them to talk (without trying to fix everything), can be better than words. If you are tongue-tied and don’t know what to say, “I don’t know what to say,” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. “I’m so sorry,” can be sufficient too. Grieving parents don’t need people to fix their grief, they need people to allow them to grieve and to support them while they do. Grief doesn’t go away; if you try to suppress it it just pops up later when you are least expecting it. Sometimes the parents, especially the mother, will not want to talk to anyone afterward. This is reasonable. Gradually they will reintegrate themselves into normal life. You can always send a note or e-mail to express your sympathy if you feel they will not want to talk on the phone.
Another good thing to mention: don’t be afraid to say the baby’s name. Parents loved their babies and want to keep their memories alive. Saying the name won’t make the pain worse. Feeling that no one wants to talk about or remember your baby is much more painful.
Anniversaries are hard. And they’re not only obvious ones. Some possible dates: the original due date, the year anniversary of discovering the pregnancy, holidays like Christmas, Mothers’ Day [Good article on Mothers’ Day here] or Fathers’ Day, the year anniversary of the baby’s death or the miscarriage. Even if by God’s grace the parents are expecting another baby during one of these anniversaries they are probably still thinking sadly of the baby they lost. It is nice to acknowledge this by sending a note or mentioning to them, “I was remembering N. and thinking about you today.”
Do not be surprised if a subsequent pregnancy brings a renewed wave of grief. Each milestone in the pregnancy will bring back the parallel milestones from the previous one. Reaching the week in pregnancy when the previous baby was lost will be frightening for them. The entire pregnancy will probably be filled with more anxiety because the parents have learned that there are no guarantees. Even reaching labor and delivery does not land you on solid ground. It is not unusual for the birth of another baby to be accompanied by visible grief over the lost one. The best thing to do to support the parents during this time is to just be with them and listen. Do not give false reassurances (how do you know everything will be fine?) and do not minimize the anxiety. Offer love, compassion and prayers.
There are some practical things you can do to help. You can ask, “What can I do?” and you might get an answer. On the other hand, if the parents are in a fog it may be better to offer something specific: Can I run to the store for you? Would you like me to have the children over to play/pick them up from school? Could I keep the children for you while you are at the hospital? Also useful is bringing meals. I can testify from my own experience that I had no appetite for days after we found out Innocent had died and I lost quite a bit of weight. I had no interest in food and couldn’t think straight enough to cook. Fortunately my husband was able to keep going and provide meals for the children. Depending on how well you know them or how close you live to them, you can offer to do laundry, clean the house, cut the grass, or any other things that would be helpful.
There is no script for how to handle an encounter with a bereaved parent. There are some suggestions listed on this page, but this is not meant to be all-inclusive.
[I have since found an exceptionally good and comprehensive “Dos and Don’ts” list here.]
To many people hearing about a dead child is terribly upsetting, and even traumatizing. That is secondary trauma. If the person who experienced the trauma wouldn’t be telling their story, then the other person wouldn’t be traumatized, too.
So, if it is that upsetting, why don’t these babyloss parents just keep their mouths shut and be polite? Ah! Therein lies the problem. What is in one person’s interest, is directly in opposition to another person’s best interest. It is in the best interest of the person who experienced the primary trauma to talk about their experience. Talking about it is cathartic. It is healing. It is healthy. It needs to be done. And the person who is secondarily traumatized doesn’t need to hear the stuff….or else they wouldn’t try to shut us up! When they change the subject and try to silence us, they are actually saying through their behavior, “This is too big, bad, scary, upsetting, and more than I can handle. Stop! I can’t take that much stimulus to my brain!.” That is why they try to shut down babyloss parents from telling their story. And the babyloss parent is saying by telling their story, “I need to heal. Won’t you PLEASE listen to me and let me heal?”
While it may be difficult to admit, and especially with family members, babyloss is not for the faint of heart. OFTEN, it is our own family members who make the situation worse. Why is this? Well, for one, they know us better than a casual acquaintance. And at some level, we also have to acknowledge their grief as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. BUT, make NO mistake about it, AT ALL!!! When it comes to babyloss, THE MOST TRAUMATIZED PERSON INVOLVED IS ALMOST ALWAYS, IN EVERY SITUATION, THE MOTHER!!! Rarely is there an exception to this. Why is that? It is because mothers have a bond beyond what anyone else has with their child. It is called biological intimacy. This is the bond formed between the mother and the child as s/he forms in the mother’s womb.
So, as to the impasse of what do we do as babyloss parents when we need to talk about our loss and another person does not want to listen? What do we do when their behavior is saying, “Not here, buddy. I don’t need or want the trauma,”? In this case, discretion is our friend. Know that there ARE those who do care and WILL listen to your story. Know, also, that it is just not them. Does that make them mean, cruel, unkind, or uncaring people? No. It only makes them a person who does not fully grasp or comprehend the situation at hand.
The best answer I have come up with to the dilemma is to talk about our stories. That is healthy, functional, and appropriate. We need to speak up for ourselves. (ie: I need to speak about this, mentioned to family members.) Just know that not everyone we talk to will want to hear it. And so be it. Listen to people’s nonverbal and verbal clues, and take the lead from there. They will either want or not want to hear the story and communicate this at some point in time & through our interaction. Listen to their nonverbal cues the best you are able to do so. That is a HARD JOB when you couple it with all the sadness & pain of losing a baby. Then, just for good measure, throw in all the crazy babyloss hormones flying around everywhere with plummeting oxytocin & progesterone levels. It truly is a recipe for disaster. That’s why some people, and families in particular, get into it at some point after the loss of a baby. The other family members usually lack the sensitivity, and therefore nurturance towards the bereaved parents, and put their needs first. As in, my need for not receiving secondary trauma supersedes your need to talk about & process your level of grief and trauma.