It is difficult to say the right thing to parents who have lost their baby; many people are frightened of saying anything that will make the situation worse or trigger an emotion from the parents that they themselves cannot deal with, whether this be sadness or anger.
The parents understand this, however, the worst thing you can do is avoid making contact or avoid talking about their baby. Parents may initially say they need space to deal with not only their grief, but also the physical impact birth has on the mother’s body. Also, practical decisions and arrangements have to be made through this emotional time. Whilst parents may seek space initially, continue to reach out to them, if they do not reply straightaway, do not take it personally. There will come a point when they will reach out to you. Parents are often simply comforted just knowing that you are thinking of them. What you say and do at the time will make a big difference to the parents.
Each baby is special and irreplaceable to the parents. Do not say anything that will imply the baby is replaceable. Avoid saying, “there is always next time,” or “at least you know you can conceive”. To parents, these words are hurtful regardless of how well intended they are, as it implies that their baby was worthless or worse, that their baby never existed. Instead, address the baby by their name or refer to their baby as your niece/nephew or grandchild; this simply act can have an overwhelming effect on the parents as you are recognising their baby.
Avoid saying it is “probably for the best” or “it is your body’s way of saying the baby was not going to survive”. One phrase I often hear is “1 in 4 pregnancies result in a loss; you were simply unlucky”. These phrases are not helpful and is often distressing for the parents to hear; their baby is not a statistic but their child. Even if their baby was unlikely to survive, do not point this out to parents as it can make the mother feel unbearable guilt for not being able to care for her baby she was carrying; and can make the father feel inadequate as he was not able to do anything to protect his baby and the mother from the physical and emotional distress of losing their baby.
Do not pity the parents. Do not place your head to one side and say “I know how you feel” as chances are, you do not. Likewise, parents do not want to hear that “you know someone, a friend, who has been through something similar and now they have children”. This is not helpful and does not give parents hope. Instead simply say “I don’t really know what to say”. That way, you are being honest, and parents respond more to honesty.
Similarly, do not avoid parents. Parents often experience people crossing the road, turning, or avoiding making eye contact simply to avoid speaking to them. I often think to myself it is as if they are afraid they may “catch” losing a baby from me. This small act can have a huge impact on a parent and can make them feel isolated and lonely. Again, approach them and be honest; say, “I have heard your sad news, I don’t really know what to say”.
One reason parents isolate themselves is because they cannot take on another person’s grief. After hearing the news, try not to offload your grief onto the parents. If you find it hard not to, then be honest with the parents; do not ignore or avoid them simply because you find it hard to process.
Parents often feel pressured to “move on” or “get over it”. This implies forgetting their baby. Even though their loss is painful they will not want to forget their special child. Do not expect parents to get back to normal; as it is unlikely they ever will. Do not be offended if they avoid certain situations; for example, large gatherings. Do not confront them, do not take it personally or make it all about you by justifying your actions, as parents will isolate you more. Think about why they are avoiding certain situations. For example, are there going to be too many people there, will there be children or babies there, will there be someone expecting there. Try to be respectful of their feelings, guilt, anxieties and emotions. Usually parents will avoid certain situations in case they make others feel uncomfortable by their emotions; for example, they may not want to get upset in front people.
Some people assume that a loss during pregnancy is not as devastating as the loss of a baby at, or after birth. Similarly, do not assume that a loss through miscarriage is any less devastating than a still birth. The grief of the parents is overwhelming regardless of when the loss occurs. This grief can go on for weeks, months or even years, and it is not unusual to hear parents say that they will never feel like their old selves again.
Through my own personal experiences, I thought it appropriate as part of Baby Loss Awareness Week 2019, to highlight one of the main difficulties I continue to encounter; unintentional ignorance from family, friends and colleagues, particularly what not to say.
Personally, the most important point was the acknowledgement and recognition that we were parents despite our loss. Many parents may still have to go through the trauma of a labour and some parents will be able to hold their baby after birth. Their baby is a real, physical and unique little person. However, parents will then have the difficult tasks of making decisions, starting with when and how to say goodbye to their baby, and thereafter making decisions which range from whether to have a post mortem to making funeral arrangements.
Overtime, parents will find a new kind of normality which will enable them to cope with day to day life; but you may have to accept they may not be the same. Each day we wake up with the reality that we have lost a baby. It is like facing this big ugly concrete wall whereby there is no way around, over or through it. Some days, when we are low, we simply stare at it and the ugly reality of it is more prominent and raw, however there are days where we can decorate it to make it less visible; these are our good days, however, we recognise it will always be there.
Time and life does go on, however these parents will continue to experience grief. The death of a baby regardless of the stage is devastating and a life changing experience. The memory of a child lost will never leave them; but nor would they want it to.