By Erica Kain, a contributor to the Seleni Institute, a nonprofit mental health and wellness center for women and mothers in New York City.
When someone you love loses a baby, you may feel helpless and uncertain about how to respond. And you might not get it right. If you've never experienced such a loss yourself, how can you know what your friend or family member needs at this terrible time? As someone who has miscarried four times, I humbly offer these simple guidelines that can be helpful when supporting someone who has experienced a miscarriage or lost a child to stillbirth or in infancy.
Four Things You Should NOT Do or Say
It can be very tempting to try to ease the parents' pain or console them with comments such as, "Be grateful for the kids you do have," or, in the case of miscarriage, "You can try again," or, "At least you know you can get pregnant." But this only dismisses their pain and hurts them more by adding doubt that their grief is real.
Don't push them. People often mistakenly urge grieving parents to "get out there" or "move on," even suggesting they try to get pregnant again. If they choose to move forward by trying to conceive, they probably will keep it to themselves for a while. But for many couples, that's the last thing on their mind.
Keep theories to yourself. This is not the time (nor will there ever be a good time) to share your theories about the loss. The details are between the couple and their doctor, and hearing from others that "perhaps you exercised too much," or "maybe it was too soon after your last pregnancy," is extremely hurtful and guilt-inducing.
Let the parents bring religion into it. Almost everyone who has ever lost a pregnancy or a child hears the phrase "It's part of God's plan," at some point. This may be a comforting statement if it's in line with a couple's religious beliefs, but you can't assume that's the case. Better to let them bring up any kind of spiritual comfort or philosophy.
8 Things You Can Do for Grieving Parents
Deliver meals. You can cook and deliver your own meals or arrange for delivery through a local service, such as San Francisco's Home on the Range, or a national service like Magic Kitchen, which offers special bereavement meals.
Suggest specific ways you can help. "When you say, 'Let me know if there's anything I can do,' it puts too much of the burden on the bereaved parent to figure out how to manage that," says Alison Eddy, 34, of Orinda, California, who lost her baby George at 10 1/2 months. Instead, she suggests saying something like, "'I'm free on Wednesday afternoon. Can I come over and do your laundry, cut your lawn, or watch your kids?'"
Just show up. When Sue Harris, 57, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, experienced her second miscarriage, she was deeply moved by a close friend who came over unasked and cleaned all three of her bathrooms. "When she arrived," says Harris, "she said, 'I know where your bathrooms are' and she went to work. It was a lovely, lovely thing."
Include the father in your condolences. He's often overlooked, even though he has suffered the loss too. Every person handles grief differently, but look for ways to talk and connect with the father about his experience.
Use the baby's name if the baby was given one. Do this whenever you ask directly about the child. One common mistake people make is thinking that discussing a miscarriage or lost child will somehow remind parents of their loss. Trust me, that loss is very present all the time, and knowing that others remember your child can bring comfort. If the baby was stillborn or lost in infancy and you feel comfortable, ask to see pictures and talk with your friend or family member about the child.
Do good deeds. Many parents report that they appreciate when people give a donation in honor of their child. Noah's Kindness Project is one example of an organization led by parents.
Commemorate anniversaries. It's appropriate to send cards to recognize the day a child had originally been due or the anniversary of the miscarriage, stillbirth or death. Those are excellent times to check in with parents and invite them to talk if they want to. You can find these types of cards at the Etsy shop "A Loss Remembered."
Share your story. Many parents report that when they are past the early shock of the loss, it can be comforting to hear others open up about how they survived a loss. The more we open ourselves up, as an entire community, to the reality of loss, the better chance we have of helping families who experience it.
A version of this article was originally published on the Seleni Institute website. Seleni is a nonprofit mental health and wellness center providing clinical services, research funding, and online information and support for women and mothers. You can follow Seleni on Twitter @selenidotorg.