October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. The March of Dimes says that stillbirth affects one in 160 pregnancies. This means that you have most likely already known someone who has experienced pregnancy and loss, and perhaps you may again. If you haven’t, chances are, you will.
Doulas, nurses, midwives, doctors and other birth and medical professionals know well that pregnancies don’t always go as parents hope. We see the tiny footprints left on grieving parents hearts.
If someone you know has lost a pregnancy or experienced stillbirth, it may be difficult to know what to say or do to be of support. Don’t let discomfort stop you from reaching out. Acknowledging the pain of loss can help grieving parents cope. It’s OK to not know what to say, and even more important to know what not to say.
Here are ten “what not to say about infant loss” guidelines that birth and grief counseling professionals offer when someone you know has lost a baby.
“I know exactly how you feel.” You can’t possibly. No one can. Feelings are unique to the individual, and may change from moment to moment. Better to ask how she’s feeling, and be prepared that she may not have an answer for that.
“This is part of God’s plan,” “Everything happens for a reason,” or anything else that reflects your personal belief system. Though well intended, these may not be comforting things to hear. They may not fit at all with this family’s beliefs. They deny the emotions that are genuinely felt, and may even evoke anger. Best to keep your beliefs to yourself, and find your own comfort in them.
“Look at what you have to be thankful for.” Chances are they know this already. Yes, they’re alive, and a couple still has each other, or may already have other children, or another chance. The time will come to think about these things. Right now, that’s not what’s important.
“You should…” or “You will…” Nobody needs unsolicited advice or to be told what to do. If you have information to share, and you are sure it is welcome and asked for, it is best to begin it with “One option is…”, or “You might consider…”, with no pressure or expectation.
“Tell me if there’s anything I can do.” Keep in mind that a person in grief may not have the energy or motivation to even know how to ask, or what to ask for. They might feel guilty or uncomfortable for being on the receiving end of so much attention. It’s better to be willing to take the initiative. “I’m stopping by the store on the way to your house. What do you need?” may be an easier question to answer. Drop off food, throw in a load of laundry, or do the dishes that are in the sink without being asked. Keep visits short, unless you have been asked to come and stay a while.
“You look great.” Appearances can be deceiving, and it’s important for grieving people to know that there’s no pressure to hide feelings through keeping up appearances. Know that life to them may not ever feel the same. The pain may lessen over time, and life does go on, but the sadness may not ever completely fade away.
“I’m having such a hard time because I feel so sad for you!” If you are having difficult feelings about someone’s loss, seek out your own support people who are not in the inner circle of the grieving family. It is not the grieving parent’s responsibility to listen or offer comfort. They are deeper in the pain of their loss than anyone else could be. Many grieving parents express that people who call or visit, while intending to share their loving concern, are really looking for the parents to reassure them that everything is ok, when it isn’t.
“Grieving for this long can’t be good for you. Shouldn’t you feel better by now?” Grief doesn’t have to happen in normal, predictable, measurable stages. It can be messy, with highs and lows, forward motion and setbacks. Everyone experiences this differently. Just as there is no set timetable for birth, there is no set timetable for healing. Recovery from grief may take weeks, months, or years. There will be plenty of people who convey the message to grieving parents that they have been grieving for too long. Please, don’t be one of them.
“I don’t want to say the baby’s name and upset them!” If someone has lost a baby, whether early in pregnancy or at full term, don’t be afraid to talk about the baby by name, if a name has been chosen and shared with you. This name is etched forever in a parent’s heart, and hearing it will provide comfort and assurance that the child is real and will not be forgotten.
It’s OK to talk about infant loss. Break the silence. Without forcing a grieving person to open up, let her know that she has permission to talk about her loss if she wants to. We can begin by simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?” Follow her lead when she’s ready, listen with compassion, and let her know that you are there. That’s enough.