In the 770 days since my first daughter, Maeve Evalyn, was inexplicably stillborn just before her due date, I’ve been asked a lot about what people should do or say to help someone with a similarly unimaginable grief.
There’s something about sudden grief, grief that’s out of the ordinary or the expected, that can render us feeling helpless or scared to say or do the wrong thing for a friend. We want to help, but we just don’t know how. We mean well, but we don’t want to make it worse. It can feel overwhelming and uncomfortable.
Here are some tips to help.
What Not To Say
1. “There was probably something wrong, so maybe it’s better this way.”
No, it’s not. Instead of bringing home a baby from the hospital after I deliver her, I’m planning a funeral service and deciding on cremation or burial. Nothing about this is better. She was fine and perfect and then she wasn’t and there was no medical explanation.
2. “God needed her more than we did.”
False. If we’re talking about an omnipotent God here, God doesn’t need anything. We’re the ones who need our baby. Grief is often a very confusing time for people of faith because it’s a paradigm shift of everything they thought they knew or understood. There are many questions, and most of them don’t have satisfying answers—and they’re certainly not easy ones.
3. “I’m glad to see you’re healing.”
This is kind of like saying, “It’s so good to see you’re getting over it.” In the case of losing a child, there is no getting over it. There is a learning to live with the new reality instead. For me, while welcoming a rainbow baby has been full of deep joy, it’s also ushered in a new phase of grief because now I realize even more deeply what I’m missing with Maeve. So it’s an ongoing journey.
4. “There must have been a reason.”
I think if there was, I’d know it already, so you saying that there was is upsetting. Grief is emotional, so logic doesn’t help. It makes it even more confusing, especially when a search for answers has been inconclusive and there isn’t a way to keep looking for them.
This may be the worst thing you can do or say. I was told in the hospital that I would lose friends and family over Maeve’s loss. While it seemed inconceivable at the time, sadly, that’s turned out to be true. Some just disappeared for a few months and reappeared later. But some pulled away and are still gone, perhaps for good.
I know now that this is more about them than me; they can’t handle the ways grief has changed me (and has actually made me much more emotionally healthy and less people-pleasing, I would add), they’re uncomfortable that Maeve is still a part of my daily conversation, it reminds them of or triggers them about something they haven’t dealt with themselves. But it has made my grieving journey that much harder.
The thing is, there’s actually nothing you CAN say that’s going to make it better. That’s why your friend is grieving―because there’s something she wishes she could change but she can’t. Grief is her way of learning to live in her new reality.
Assuming you have the emotional strength and willingness to support your friend, even though it’s uncomfortable, because grief ain’t pretty, and that uncertainty is part of what scares us, here are a few bereaved-approved suggestions for what to say:
What To Say
1. “There are no words.”
This is the truest thing you can say. Because they’re aren’t. There’s a reason you can’t find the right words―because there are none. So, permission granted to accept and express that. This implies that you show up for your friend as real, and genuine, and honest. It’s ok to say that you don’t know what to say. No one does.
2. “I’m here.”
Only say this if you mean it! Go sit with someone if you’re able to, not with the expectation that you need to even say anything, but just because your presence will be the most helpful present you can give.
3. “I’m thinking of you today.”
You can deliver this in a text, Facebook message or email whenever someone comes to mind. One of my most supportive friends lives halfway across the world! I run an entirely online business with a remote team, so I’m a big believer in the power to connect via technology. Of course, in-person connection is important too, but both are possible and valid and helpful.
4. “I will never forget [name of lost person].”
For bereaved parents, one of the worst fears is that their child will be forgotten, especially a child like Maeve, whose physical presence existed entirely in pregnancy and the few short hours we spent with her in the hospital. She never created memories with her personality or preferences. By talking about her, especially by saying her name, we acknowledge that she was still a real person and is part of my family.
The theme here is that you just show up.
Just be available, because your friend may not even know what she needs enough to ask for it, but she definitely needs support, and you can give her that with your physical or emotional presence.
Now I’d like to hear from you in the comments! What would you add to this list of things to say or not say? Or what have you found to be most supportive?
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.