Losing a child causes some of the most intense pain possible on the human spectrum of emotion.
I miscarried two of my own treasured children at ten weeks. I also lost my son Stephen who was born near full-term, and died after forty-seven precious hours. Eighteen months later we lost our daughter Esther, who was stillborn at full-term.
Even as a writer I find it difficult to adequately express the crushing weight of grief that grinds your life to a halt, and the emotional pain that makes it physically hard to breathe. You simply cannot know what it is like unless you have lived it, and I sincerely hope that you will never have to.
After losing my son, I established a website for parents, family and friends of those who had lost a baby or received a difficult pre-natal diagnosis. I had just been through eighteen months of watching our own family and friends wrestle with how to interact with our family and our news.
Some were mind-blowingly supportive and non-judgemental. Others failed spectacularly to bring comfort. Almost all came from a place of love and supportiveness.
This is a key consideration to keep in mind as you navigate the journey of grief with a loved one. Some people who are grieving will be able to see your good intentions (even if you end up saying or doing things that cause more pain), and others will be so overcome with their own heartache that they will snap at your or act irrationally. Most will likely oscillate between the two.
Please be as patient, understanding and as non-judgemental as you can. If you’ve had your head ripped off, the true character of your friendship will be shown by your next move. Will you judge, cut and run? Will you bite back? Will you wait patiently?
I won’t pretend that it will be easy, and sadly many relationships are broken during a time of great sorrow. It can be very difficult to know what to say and do (and equally what not to say or do).
Try not to fill the awkward silences with pithy remarks. If you really thought about these go-to expressions ahead of time, you’d realise they probably don’t reflect how you actually feel.
Below are five examples of things to avoid saying, followed by five examples of ways you can help.
1. “At least you weren't further along.”
Regardless of your views about foetal development and life in the womb, a mother who has lost a baby even in the early stages, is not only grieving the loss of a life, but of all the hopes and dreams for a future with that child. It is incredible how quickly our mind’s eye can envisage what motherhood will look like; coming home from the hospital, ice-creams at the beach, the first day of school – all shattered in an instant. The loss might seem less tangible or significant to you, but for a mum it's a whole lifetime of hoped-for memories vanished.
2. “It's better to have lost your baby than look after a child with a disability.”
In a world where the views of living with disability are painfully slow to transform, there may be many parents who would agree with this statement. However, be careful as not all parents will share your view, and may be deeply offended by the notion.
3. “Everything happens for a reason.”
There is nothing like the helplessness of holding your dead child in your arms to hit home some hard truths. The most optimistic of souls will find it difficult to find ‘reason’ or ‘purpose’ in the death of their baby. Even if you truly believe that there is a reason or purpose for this loss, it is best for you to keep that idea to yourself.
4. “At least you can get pregnant.”
There is no comfort in this remark. When a woman miscarries, her mind is spinning with the ‘why?’ and ‘what did I do wrong?’ Knowing that she can get pregnant does not mean that she will be able to have children. Making her feel guilty about her ability to conceive when there are millions of women who cannot is sadistic. What she feels at this moment is not joy in being able to conceive, but fear that she may not be able to have children.
5. “Everything will be fine next time.”
Big. Fat. Lie. We all know of too many awful stories where things have been far from okay ‘the next time.’ A parent who has lost a baby has just had a huge reality-check about their own mortality, and hollow comfort like this only sends the message, ‘I have no understanding of what you’re going through – let’s move on.’
Instead, here are five things you can do or say that may convey the sense of love, grief and support you want to show your loved ones:
1. Help in the hospital
If your loved ones have only very recently lost their child and are in the hospital for any length of time, remember the support persons who are with them in the hospital. For example, the mother is looked after with meals and supplies as a patient but often the spouse is not. Consider dropping off some sandwiches, home cooked food, snacks and drinks at the nursing station to be passed on to the spouse if he is spending a lot time at the hospital. Passing it on through the nursing station means that you are not encroaching upon the couple but still supporting them. You could also contact the spouse and check to see if there is anything he or his partner are in need of – supplies, clean clothes, snacks, errands to be run etc.
2. Allow them space
Understand that the person grieving may need some space. You might be very eager to help and show them your love and support, but it may be too much for them. The best way to know is just to ask: ask them what they need from you. You could suggest things to them that are within your capability, for example: minding children, cooking meals, doing some housework, answering phones, spending some time with them, leaving them alone etc. The best thing to do is ask. If your loved one asks for something that you are just not able to provide for them, be open and honest with them. You could also ask them if they are happy for you to arrange for someone else to help them with that particular task.
3. Be specific with offers of help
Be aware that grand statements such as “if there’s anything you need, just ask” are well-intended and appreciated, but can be very difficult for someone who is grieving to follow up on. For example, if the loved one has other children, rather than just saying to them “if you need me to mind the kids for you, just ask” consider contacting them when you have a free afternoon and saying “I have a free afternoon today – would you like me to take the kids for a few hours?”
4. Monitor your expectations
Try not to place expectations on your loved ones in how they grieve, act or how they decide to handle arrangements. Whilst you may find it difficult to cope with and things may be hurtful (and behaviour that is harmful should not go un-checked), understand that whatever hurt or upset you are feeling is being felt ever so much more by the parents. In most cases, parents who are trying to process their grief and make funeral arrangements are not likely to be doing things or saying things to deliberately upset you. Show them some grace and understanding, even if their actions or words are upsetting.
5. Provide financial assistance
There are a lot of expenses involved with medical treatments and funeral arrangements. For many people some financial assistance would be greatly appreciated. Then there are issues of decreased pay or no pay depending on the time needed to be taken off work by either parent. For families who rely on government support, the unexpected loss of a child may have longer-term financial implications for the family as they will no longer be entitled to the same level of benefit. If you are in a position to assist financially, you may feel it appropriate to offer some financial support to the couple, however be aware that it can be very difficult for people to accept financial generosity. Even though you might ask, people may still be reluctant to admit they are struggling. You could consider simply presenting them with the amount you are able to, or even providing it to them anonymously to avoid a feeling of guilt or forced help. If you are not in a position to personally provide financial assistance, you could consider organising a fundraising event.
For more ideas and resources for supporting loved ones through this difficult time, visit 47 Hours With a Prince
I will admit that I couldn't finish reading after the third point; I look at my beautiful 8-week-old son and it doesn't ease the pain of losing my first at approximately 8 week's gestation almost 20 years ago. Gestation length makes no difference, the first was still my child dammit!
I heard so many of these same sentiments when I miscarried that time, and having a healthy son now doesn't change the trauma I went through earlier only to be told "it's for the best" or "everything happens for a reason".
To this day I feel real pain whenever I think about the loss. You do not. ever. get. over. it.
Even though I could not finish reading this, I am glad you wrote it. The pain can be eased somewhat if people know how damaging such "kind thoughts" can be.