Things to Know When Your Friend Loses a Baby

Mourning loss is healthy. It promotes integration of normal and understandable grief. When women are unable to access helpful social networks, however, complicated grief may present.
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Studies show that complicated grief may arise after miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. This can be generally described as grief or depression that lasts for an extended period of time and impedes general functioning regarding daily tasks and outlook.

It is clear that one hallmark for the emergence of complicated grief is a lack of social support. In the demographic of childbearing women, those who suffer perinatal loss may struggle mightily, coping with many aspects of loss, including depression and child-envy. "These women often struggle to make contact with friends or family members who have children or who are at the same stage of pregnancy as that at which the loss was suffered. Difficulty coping with these feelings and continuous avoidance often leads to isolation of these mothers."

Perinatal loss is recognized as a traumatic event. Mourning loss is healthy. It promotes integration of normal and understandable grief. When women are unable to access helpful social networks, however, complicated grief may present. This creates social isolation for women at precisely the moment when support would be most valuable. The sadness that women can feel about loss is not linked to the gestational age of their baby at loss. No one can know the back story to a pregnancy, nor should anyone guess at or judge the unique bonding experience that begins at different points for different women.

Speaking as a baby loss mom, I can say that the loneliness I felt in a peer group after the stillbirth of my son was profound. I understand that it took a kind of courage and tenacity to be with me in those early days. I know now that it was killingly hard to just bear witness to my steeping in a potent brew of guilt, fear, and sadness. I remember one friend, crying into the phone to my brother, pouring out all her love to me: "I wish it were me," she said. At the same moment as my broken heart surged with love for her, I knew absolutely that I would lie down in traffic to prevent her from experiencing what I was experiencing.

Lori Mullins Ennis, Owner and Editor of Still Standing Magazine, recalls the loss of her son Matthew, who died unexpectedly at 1 day old following a decade-long battle with infertility: "[M]y friends wanted desperately to 'relate' to me, but they just couldn't. Their words of, 'I can't imagine,' were so true -- they couldn't, and because their worst imagination didn't even compare to my every-day reality, even my closest relationships were somewhat awkward."

Women are often socialized to value and rely upon peer groups. However, when a peer group is also a mom set and a woman has just experienced baby loss in the form of miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death, seeking solace in a group feels complicated. Writes Dr. Julie Bindeman, "[G]enerally speaking, with loss comes a time of taking stock ... when it comes to pregnancy and infant loss, this reflection not only happens to the parents, but to their community."

This is what I wish I could have said. This is what I say now to the friends and family of a woman mourning baby loss. Your efforts to stay with her matter, and your willingness to remain with her in grief will transform her grieving process and help her heal.

Don't be distracted by living children. I have never believed that the phrase "child envy" conveys what I felt about the children of my friends and family. Certainly there is an indescribable pain associated with the absence of our own children, but the phrase child envy leads with an overtone of resentment. This I never felt. The pain I felt was, I suppose, a distant cousin to resentment, but it can be more accurately described as a self-inflicted wound. It faced inward, not outward. The closer you were to me, the greater the possibility that you would touch the blade. Certainly, there was my absence reflected in your presence but this created a sharp relief and a beauty too. Although it hurt me sometimes to look -- it felt like looking at the sun -- make no mistake, I felt your children were beautiful and allowed me the gift of hope. I just could not call it that yet.

I wish I had been better able to convey the depth of thanks I felt towards all of you who tried to navigate the extreme awkwardness that being my friend necessarily involved. I was living in a daily minefield of confusion, despair, then unexpected momentary reprieves. Think of a head submerged in water and then oxygen. Even when you did not know you were the oxygen, you were the oxygen.

I am in awe of you, my friend, who kept showing up. I am humbled by your ability to translate the things I could not -- specifically those of you who did not take personally my lack of affect or the fact that nothing seemed to help. Your presence did help.

Many of my friendships were left in shreds and this I deeply regret. I know the damage is done. I hold in my heart for you still the love and the gratitude I wish I could better have expressed. I miss the bond we shared, but the memory of it lives in me still.