When a baby dies, it can be hard to know how to offer support to the grieving parents. After all, what can we really do or say in the face of such an immense loss? While no one can make the grief go away, there are several ways you can support your friends following a tragic loss.
I talked with two women who’ve experienced the death of a baby, and they shared what they found most helpful in the wake of their losses.
1. Check in.
Keeping in frequent touch with a friend after their loss is one of the best ways of offering support. Sending emails or texts can be unobtrusive ways of letting a friend know you’re thinking of them without them feeling like they need to respond.
“It was helpful when friends emailed to check in days, weeks and months later. I didn’t want to talk on the phone, but it meant a lot to know that people were thinking of me,” says Jessica Thomas. Jessica's first son died when she was 30 weeks pregnant with him. She is now a postpartum doula, and one of her specialties is offering support to families after the death of a baby.
This loss stays with a mother for a lifetime. She is not angling for attention. She is hurting.
2. Send cards—and not just right after the loss.
Alexa Bigwarfe’s daughter Kathryn died two days after birth. Like Jessica, Alexa has used her experience to help other grieving parents by authoring the book "Sunshine After the Storm: Encouragement for Grieving Parents" and creating a nonprofit that sends care packages to grieving moms. Alexa recommends sending cards to your friend or family member from time to time to let them know you’re thinking of them and what they’re going through.
“Especially around any significant dates that could trigger sadness like the due date, the anniversary of the death, or the date when a diagnosis was received. Just when you think ‘she should be over it,’ send another card,” says Alexa.
Jessica also emphasizes the importance of recognizing the anniversary of the baby’s birth and/or death date. “Seven years out, one friend stills sends us a card every year. And it still matters to me,” she says.
3. Be selective with your words.
It’s hard to know what to say to a parent when the unthinkable happens. Simple, genuine statements like, “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m here for you,” are safe choices.
On the other hand, there are many well-meant phrases that can be hurtful. “People who said things like, ‘Heaven has one more angel,’ or anything about God made me want to smash shit up with a sledgehammer,” says Jessica. “Any statements that suggested there was any valid reason, religious or otherwise, were not helpful,” she adds.
4. Bring food.
“Take meals—more than once,” says Alexa. She suggests coordinating a meal train through an online site like Lotsa Helping Hands. Making sure the family has fresh food to eat is something people can actually do to make life a little easier in a time of immense grief.
5. Help them find support.
Both Jessica and Alexa recommend making the effort to connect your friends with a support group for grieving parents. Jessica shared that one friend helped out by asking around until she located a group for parents who’d experienced the death of a baby. She gave Jessica the information and even volunteered to drive her and her husband to their first meeting. While we want to be there for our friends, one of the things that can help the most for grieving parents is connecting with other grieving parents.
“The people we met around that table remain some of our closest friends. The facilitator and the other parents who were farther ahead of us on the grief journey gave us so much validation and empathy,” Jessica says.
“While you can listen to her all day, if you have never experienced this type of loss, it’s difficult to understand. Your friend will benefit from being around mothers who ‘get her,’” says Alexa.
6. Be patient.
“Those who have never experienced a loss may find it very difficult to understand how a mother can grieve and mourn for so long,” says Alexa. “But this loss stays with a mother for a lifetime. She is not angling for attention. She is hurting.”
Realize that the death of a child means your friend won’t ever get over their loss—they will get through it. Being a compassionate witness to your friend’s grief is one of the best ways you can help.
Photograph by: Pixabay