Friends of Loss,
You have a really hard role. You are needed in a way that you’ve never been needed before. It’s also in a way that can test the limits of friendship, on both sides of the spectrum. Your friends are now Parents of Loss, their lives will be forever altered. Life as they know it will now be looked at as before loss and after loss. One Mother of Loss says, "the loss of a child changes our entire being. Our relationships will change. We are learning to adjust to and live in our 'new normal' which means everything in the after will be different."
They will be shattered for a little while, then broken for a long time. They are going through something that is so deep and painful it's hard to precisely articulate. They can't ask you for help because they don't want to be a burden and in some ways, they may be in denial that they need it. Other times they can't tell you what they need because they just don't know what that is right now. They are trying to learn how to do life now after tragedy.
This is probably the hardest one to write in this series, simply because this is the widest population of people within the Parents of Loss' life and in no way do the contributors to this post want to direct these do's and don'ts towards people in our own lives. We are drawing from our experiences but in no way targeting any one person or thing.
With that said, we would like to take this moment to thank you.
If you are a Friend of Loss reading this, the huge impact your selflessness and support has left in our hearts is forever. True friends exist in our lives so that when the day comes that you have to endure any kind of deep pain or hardship, you have people to lift you up and support you at times when you can't do it for yourself. Thank you to those people in our lives that did this for us, showing us how to really be a friend, and are continuing to do this for us every day, no matter how much time has passed. Thank you for every meal, every bottle of wine, every special gift to help memorialize our child, every squeeze of the hand, every hug, every call and text, every card, every time you asked, every time you said their name, every time you check in just because, every time you remember the milestone days in which our hearts are the most tender, every time you say I am here, every time you get mad with us, every time you cry with us, every time you make plans with us, every time you love us, every time you let us go to that place because we need to no matter how many times you've heard it before. For all of these things and more, thank you.
Parents of Loss are learning to have grace with ourselves and with others, so regardless if you say the right thing or the wrong thing, at least you said something at all and that's what is important. Any act of support is appreciated to the nth degree, but there are some things that unless you are in their shoes, you wouldn't think of. None of us truly did until being in this place. So this is a resource so that you can know the best things and stray from what you may not know is hurtful. All of us acknowledge and own up to the fact that we lived in a blissfully ignorant state of life before loss and we did not know the majority of these things.
Below are three sections: the most helpful things to say, things to take into consideration, and things you can do on behalf of your friends, the Parents of Loss.
I. Never tell the Parents of Loss any variation of:1.) "Everything happens for a reason." or "In time you will see that this was God's plan. He works in mysterious ways."
Simply put, no matter what your belief system is, to a Parent of Loss this was absolutely not God's plan, nor did there have to be a rhyme or reason to why this had to happen. Throughout the grief process, they may find a way to cope by finding reason but that's not your job to imply there is such. The way I've chosen to look at it is this:
Sometimes bad things happen. They just do. That's called acts of nature beyond God's control.
Loss is like a huge boulder crashing into a body of water. From the impact comes large waves and then ripples in the water miles away from the impact site. Once it happens, life as you know it is irrevocably changed. At first, you are drowning in the waves from impact. The farther out you can swim out from the waves, the more peripheral your sight becomes to see the ripples that God provides. Trying to keep your head above water within the waves are a dead end down a path you were heading (pain and confusion), the ripples can be new opportunities you wouldn't have had otherwise (redemption and grace), they can be blessings that stem from the devastation (joy and healing).
Instead try: This is not fair, nothing about this is fair. God did not take (baby's name) from you, he is mourning with you. I am so angry and heart broken with you.
If the person is not religious, then justify their feelings in a way that makes them feel like their anger and pain is okay to feel.
The key thing is to acknowledge their feelings, to justify them, not offer an excuse as to why it happened.
2.) "Hold your husband/wife close, grief can really tear a couple apart."
All of us heard this line a few dozen times. For me specifically, it came within the first few days of losing Hudson. I remember that night as Max and I had quiet time to grieve on our own, he looked at me and said, "I can't understand why this would break a couple. If anything, this holds me to you stronger than ever." The Parents of Loss have just lost their child, it is horrible to put it in their heads that they could lose their partner too.
I sat with one Mother of Loss who had heard this phrase several times and it really got into her head and heart, driving a self-admitted wedge in her relationship with her husband. After losing her first baby to stillbirth and a second baby to miscarriage, she thought her husband couldn't possibly love her because of the person she had become due to grief and the guilt she felt, because it was her fault he had to go through this pain (which in no way is that the case). When she asked him if he regretted choosing her, he scooped her off the floor and told her that whether they can ever have a baby or not, they are in this together, forever, that she is his wife and he loves her beyond measure. Re-writing her story has me in tears and I cannot stress this enough, do not put those kinds of thoughts in the heads of those grieving loss. They need to cling to one another and grieve together, while also learning how to grieve separately because that is inevitable, but always coming back to one another, keeping open about where they are in their grief.
Instead try: Be gentle with yourself and with your spouse. I am praying for you as you learn how to grieve together. Your relationship amazes me.
3.) "I can't believe how strong you've been! I wouldn't know how to function if I were you," or "I can't believe you are already ______________ [fill in the blank... back at work, back at the gym, up and moving around, having a life whatsoever]?"
No matter how upbeat and cheerleader the tone, while this seems harmless it is interpreted as a backhanded compliment. For those emerging from the darkness of loss, it makes us feel like we are grieving inappropriately and should be in a constant state of mourning.
Here's the thing: at a certain point, Parents of Loss are trying to get back to a tiny inkling of normalcy in any way. They may be a total mess on the inside but what good does that do to act the way they feel all the time? Doing that has the potential to create a deep spiral of depression. When they feel ready to do it, they have to lift up and get out to do things. You have no idea how hard that is. Phrases like this will make them immediately regret leaving the house, their safe place of comfort.
Instead try: I am really inspired by the strength you have shown. I admire your grace in this time of grief. You are continuously in my thoughts and prayers. Celebrate that they are standing in front of you in the grocery store, at the office, at Walgreens, at yoga, wherever.
4.) “I had a miscarriage, I know exactly how you feel/what you are going through.” OR starting a sentence with "my sister/cousin/aunt/niece/friend had a miscarriage too...."
**This is in no way to diminish or discount the grief that can come along with a miscarriage, or an "our pain is greater than yours" shaming platform, please know that.**
Losing a life you created at any stage is very hard, not fair, and not something anyone can prepare themselves for but it is important to recognize that it is not all the same. The majority of these women contributing their voices to this post have had miscarriages - some before and some after their stillbirth loss, some both - and those women can say that the emotional and physical anguish of grief from their stillbirth is beyond compare.
One Mother of Loss shares her story. "I found out I had lost my first baby at 12 weeks. We loved this baby, this little life. We were attached to the idea of being parents and wondering who this child would be. Then there was no heartbeat and our hopes were gone. I had a D&C a week later which was scary and painful. I was sad and lonely as I watched other friends continue on with their pregnancies and I was starting over. Then we got pregnant again a few months after the miscarriage. We got past the first trimester, we found out she was a girl, then came the 20 week sonogram and were told we had a perfect and healthy baby. I felt her every move and her hiccups. We had baby showers so our little girl had a closet full of clothes and everything we needed to take care of her. We built the crib together, painted the walls, her nursery was ready and waiting. At 39w2d I learned she didn't have a heartbeat. I hadn't felt her at all during the day and thought it was strange. I went straight to the hospital and an ultrasound confirmed my deepest fear - she was gone. We had her name, we knew what pediatrician she would go to, we had her daycare center chosen, I had ordered her Easter basket. She already had a place in our family, we were just waiting for her to arrive and begin the life we had already started to build, and then she was gone. I have never felt so broken and alone. My miscarriage pain was great, but the loss of this child I knew in my womb and had already imagined a life with was tremendous. After laboring for 17 hours, I gave birth to my first baby but she didn't cry, she didn't open her eyes, she was gone. The two types of loss are so different, they just are."
5.) One of the most common pains are not what people say, it’s what they don’t say - people that do nothing or say nothing at all. It is important to note that it is better to acknowledge the loss and maybe not have the right thing to say, than not acknowledging it at all. As I stated in yesterday's post: your silence is defeaning. And yes, we notice it.
The best thing to say if you are afraid or don't know what is right is, "I have no words, this is a tremendous loss and I am mourning (baby's name) with you. My heart is heavy, I am here for you."
A Mother of Loss advises that "if you are paralyzed to say something right away and think too much time has passed, you are wrong. The cards, texts, and phone calls much later after everyone has gone back to their normal lives are almost more powerful. It tells you that someone still cares and is thinking of you all this time later. The grief is still there, I promise...even if it has been months or years."
My own mother told me just this week, a friend asked her how she can help her family friend who just had a stillborn baby. My mom told her be the friend that checks in on the date of loss each month, that is a monthly milestone they will struggle through. The lady asked my mom how long she should do that for? My mom told her, forever. That lady said "yes, that will be what I do. That will be my role." You see, everyone else's life goes on but the Parents of Loss are stuck in their grief. To have someone remember their child or that they are in pain, no matter how much time has gone by, is one of the most thoughtful things the Friends of Loss can do. It helps those Parents of Loss get by.
II. Important Things to Consider as a Friend to the Parents of Loss:1.) As time passes, a Parent of Loss can be very self-conscious about transferring or projecting their grief onto someone else. We don't want to do that to you and bring you down, unless we are invited to discuss it. We need you to ask us about it. If we want to talk, it will allow us that chance to do it. If we don't want to talk, we won't. But it hurts us more when you don't acknowledge it at all. Please ask us how we are doing, not just within the first month, not just within the first few months, but well after too.
2.) It is important to know that grief is never ending and time is not a magic potion of healing. It can get worse with time. One Mother of Loss says that she is "now almost two years out and it still can come on in waves of emotion where it is crippling to try to get through the day."
For Parents of Loss, there are now sad milestones and memories, like the day they found out they were pregnant, the day they gave birth and if it isn't the same day, the day they lost their baby, the due date, and holidays. They need to experience every season of their loss and then maybe the second go round they will know more of what to expect, or maybe each year brings a different kind of pain, I don't know yet. Losing a child is a "forever" kind of thing. Even if they were totally fine and "normal" at a dinner party last night, the next day could be a different story. I am now 5 months out and I still have days I revert back to intense grief where I don't want to get out of bed, I don't want to put clothes on, I don't want to be a functioning member of society. I just want to stay tucked away to the confines of my grief, alone, cuddling my dog. Then other days I am completely fine until I have a trigger, some days there are no triggers of large emotion at all, but I still cry. I have cried every single one of the last 157 days and I don't see that stopping any time soon.
So if 4 months, 7 months, 18 months out, they are having a hard time, that's pretty normal for grief. They will appreciate your support and for not restricting them to a timeframe.
3) Now to address another very difficult situation for both the Parents of Loss and the Friends of Loss who happen fall into this category. Pregnancy...
3a.) If you are pregnant during the time of the loss, or become pregnant while they are heavy in their grief, please be sensitive and gentle with the Parents of Loss. This is such a tough situation because you don't know how to help or what to do. They were just like you yesterday and then today, everything changed. No matter how close you were to the Parents of Loss beforehand, know that things may change for a little while. It may be really difficult for them to be around you because both pregnant women and babies can be a very common trigger to the waves of grief for someone of this type of loss. They are not only mourning the life they lost, but the life in their mind that they had built of going through motherhood and raising their baby with you. It is incredibly difficult on many levels.
One Mother of Loss said, "if there was someone in my life that was pregnant with me at any stage throughout the duration of my pregnancy, I had a really hard time seeing those babies for a while. I thought I would have an emotional breakdown. It's not that I wanted their baby, I wanted MY baby. It's not that I wanted them to go through what I did, I just didn't understand why I had to go through this and lose my son, all the while, they have theirs. Eventually that changed but for a while it was too difficult to see."
Another Mother of Loss shared, "there were five of us that were close friends from college. We all were pregnant at the same time, though different stages. Our babies would have all been the same age. After our stillbirth, I went into 'survival mode' for a few weeks and I told myself that I was not going to let what happened to us effect the love I had for my friends and their children. Then my grief set in. I'm embarrassed that I had these feelings but it wasn't something I could shut off. I can't just flip the switch to not feel the pain in my heart when I look at them mothering their children, and I don't understand why I can't be too. I look at their little ones and my heart breaks every time I see them because my son should be there playing with their kids too. He should be trick or treating with them. I should be doing Stroller Strides and talking Mothers Day Out with them. My baby should be here and he's not. They can't understand my pain and why I've become withdrawn, I can't relate to their life right now."
Though it may be hard for us to see you, please don't back away from us altogether. We still need you, more than ever, but we may need you from a distance. Text with us and if we ask you about your pregnancy or your newborn, share - delicately - but if we don't ask, don't tell, it means we aren't ready yet.
Parents of Loss, especially the Mothers, are so worried about how their emotions will come out sometimes. They may avoid social gatherings where pregnant people or babies may be, further isolating themselves from the rest of the world. If you are pregnant or have a newborn and there is a social gathering, maybe check in to see if the Parents of Loss are attending and if they are okay being around you. If they are having a hard time with that trigger still, one of the kindest things you can do for them is choose to sit one out so that the Parent of Loss can go, giving them that chance to be around people again. They need that social interaction without the fear of a trigger.
3b.) If you and the Parent(s) of Loss have a mutual friend that happens to be pregnant, regardless if you know they are aware or unaware of it, please have the foresight to tell the Parent of Loss before they are about to be in a social situation where the pregnancy could be revealed/announced or if it is visible. We cannot stress this enough: do not let them be blindsided at a gathering if someone is pregnant and they are not aware, that feels so so so horrible. Prepare them with just a simple, "I'm not sure if you know this yet, but just in case I wanted to let you know that Suzy Q and Johnny are expecting. I know that may be hard for you right now, but I wanted you to know before you see them."
This gives them the option to bow out if they cannot handle it, or prepare themselves emotionally/mentally to deal with it before they have to see them, not try to process in the moment. Processing in the moment can either react in a way that is painfully embarrassing to the Parent of Loss, or if they hold it together, it can result in a bad emotional crash after. Regardless of those things, it is just a kind thing to do so they are not caught off guard with news that may hurt them deeply, given their raw emotional state.
3c.) If you are a friend who becomes pregnant while your Friend of Loss is fighting their battle with grief, please be gentle with how you approach it with them. We totally get it. You are afraid to tell them because let's be honest, there is just no good way to do it. First and foremost, thank you for wanting to be sensitive to the Parents of Loss' feelings but make no mistake, you need to tell them. They will be much more hurt in the long run from you keeping it from them, especially the longer time goes on. Before you announce it publicly, it is good to let them know in some way.
If you feel like you can't tell them face to face or over the phone, you can email them, text them or even send them a Thinking of You card or a letter letting them know that you are expecting. Tell them you didn't want to leave them out of this time in your life but you know they may need some time to process this news and be okay with it. So whenever they are ready, you are there. That way you are putting the ball in their court and not forcing them to respond if they aren't quite ready yet. You are letting them come to terms with it, while being considerate and gentle with their feelings. When they are ready, they will let you know.
One Mother of Loss advised for friends to "avoid saying anything to the effect of: your baby will watch over our baby/future baby, he/she will be their guardian angel. It seems very sweet and harmless but let the Parents of Loss be the ones to say that, if they can get to a place of acceptance to be able to say that. To a grieving mother or father, for you to say that before they do could cause anger because they didn't choose for their child to have the role of guardian angel baby to anyone else's children. They wanted that baby with them here, in their arms - like yours is, and it is not a consolation prize to hear that their precious child, whom they wanted more than anything, will watch over the rest of their friend's living children and future children."
The takeaway for this section is that it's not that your Parents of Loss friends are not happy for you, it just intensifies their pain. We ask you to broach that subject with increased sensitivity.
III. Ways You Can Be Helpful and Things You Can Do For the Parents of Loss:1.) Several of us had friends who immediately pitched in, creating a meal calendar for people to bring food. They set a cooler outside on our porch for the deliveries so that we could have our privacy. I cannot tell you how important this is to have that privacy - this is not a drop in and visit kind of occasion.
Parents of Loss can have a really hard time wanting to leave the house. Then they finally get to a point where they can get out of the house but nowhere they would want to possibly run into someone. So can you imagine the panic of the thought of grocery shopping or trying to leave the house to pick up food from a restaurant they frequent? Having meals (of all kinds - breakfast, lunch and snacks are so helpful too) or someone to do a grocery run so that you can cook something for yourselves.
2.) If meal contributions fill up and there are more people that want to help, have them contribute whatever they would have spent on a meal towards gift cards to things the couple may like to do together to help escape grief for a bit like movies, restaurant date nights, a cooking class, spa treatments, or to a certain airline for when they are ready to maybe take a healing trip away from everything that reminds them of the life they anticipated having with that baby, but now is no more.
One Loss Mama said, "some friends gave us six free house cleanings to use however and whenever we were in need. Cleaning the house and doing laundry was the last thing we felt like doing but we needed to, so that was one less thing to worry about." Another received a fund that their coworkers contributed to for them to put towards whatever they needed - to help with funeral expenses, to put towards a healing getaway, or whatever was the greatest help to them.
My college girlfriends pitched in and gave us a gift certificate to a hotel chain that was both local and in other cities so that we could use it toward a staycation, relax for spa treatments, dinner together, or put it towards a hotel stay if we wanted to travel. Opening my email to see that brought such a burst of gratitude and it made me feel like they knew we'd need time together to try to lift our spirits and reconnect through the grief.
3) Let us preface this by saying anything and everything we received was incredibly appreciated. Let us also say that none of it is expected of you and there are several other ways to be there for the parents than what costs money. However, some people show their love through gifts so if you feel that you want to gift the Parents of Loss something to help memorialize their child, show support or to let them know you are thinking of them, there are some things that can actually be more difficult than helpful. Deliveries are so thoughtful and special, and again always appreciated because you did something on our behalf and were thinking of us. However, until I was in this position, I didn't realize what to consider, so that is why we are sharing this next section.
From all the contributions I received, this was echoed the most. Simply: Flowers die. You typically get flowers for happy occasions but when you come home from the hospital after having to say goodbye to your child who you will never see again, you don't want to be reminded of something that is typically associated with happy or celebratory occasions. When you are given beautiful flowers, which don't get us wrong - they were beautiful - soon they will start to wilt, the water begins to smell, and little plant flies start swarming. You can't bring yourself to throw them out because those are your flowers for your baby - your baby that died - so you don't want to get rid of them, it's one of the only things you have left. But you need to because they are now dead. Do you follow? I know, it's an unexpected dark rabbit hole.
Also, another something some of us never realized, delivery places such as Tiff's Treats, Shari's Berries and Edible Arrangements are so delicious and wonderful. It is an appreciated, delicious, and thoughtful gesture. However, did you know when they are delivering to a home they will not deliver unless they know someone is there to accept it. In that first week or two especially, the Parents of Loss will have an unpredictable schedule. To avoid these delivery places continuously calling (which, they are just doing their jobs, we know that) or having a missed delivery attempt resulting in further calls to schedule another time, it may be best to wait on this until life calms down a bit or send it to a family member who can take it to them. Hudson was born and we said goodbye on a Wednesday, we were planning his funeral for that Saturday. On Friday, Tiff's Treats were trying to deliver to us but we weren't home because we were making funeral arrangements. They kept calling and calling - at a time I already didn't want to answer the phone outside of immediate family - because they were trying to deliver perishable items. When I did pick up the phone, looking back I do feel very bad for the person on the receiving end because she got a grieving person in a not so wonderful state.
4.) If you want to give the Parents of Loss something meaningful to recognize their child, some examples are:
- A memorial plant like a bush or a tree (however, something to be mindful of - this could give the couple anxiety if that is not their forever home. They may be hesitant to plant it because they don't want to have to leave it someday if they move. One solution could be to donate it to their church so they have a forever place to watch it grow. Or one Loss Momma said she also received a beautiful water rock with her tree so that if they ever moved, they had the rock to take with them.)
- A star named after their child from the Star Registry.
- A blanket personalized with the child’s name or monogram.
- A wooden block carved with the child’s name and birth information.
- A Molly Bear is made in the same weight as the child that passed away, to give the parents something to hold that feels like the child did in their arms.
- Jewelry in the child's birthstone or an engraved necklace/bracelet/cufflinks with the child's initials on it. This was especially meaningful for me because any future babies we have will share Hudson's initials - HJS - so that they will have an unbreakable bond with their big brother, unique to them only. So when I wear those initials around my neck, it is for him and it is also a symbol of promise and hope for my heart to know someday there will be babies, his siblings, in my arms as so yearned for.
Donations made in the child’s memory to a cause important to the couple is also incredibly moving and allows the couple to feel like their child is leaving a legacy, in turn those dollars go to help others. One friend took the gift they were planning to give us for our baby shower and donated it to a organization that housed children recovering from hospital stays, along with their families. It was so special to know something of Hudson’s would be going to bring other children joy.
5.) One of the most helpful things you can do is if you know someone that has been through pregnancy or infant loss, please connect them. We cannot tell you how helpful it is to email, text, call, or sit face to face with another Parent of Loss has walked the same road.
One Parent of Loss said that she was connected with a friend’s cousin immediately. “Within a week of loss we received a Hope Box from the Hope Mommies organization from my friend's cousin, along with a care package from my friend who found out from her cousin some things that would be helpful to me as I recovered like No More Milk tea, lactation pads and ice packs for the physical and emotional experience of when my milk came in, a daily devotional book from a mother who lost her child, and then eye cream for my puffy eyes from crying. It was so thoughtful and personal.”
6.) Say their name. That is one of the greatest gifts you can give us, say their name to us. One Mother of Loss instructs, "say their name often and without pause. The joy it brings the Parents of Loss to hear their child’s name or see it written is so meaningful. They need others to acknowledge the life that existed."
7.) We may have been the most prompt person before, or someone who wouldn't ever back out of plans. We may have been annoyed by others when they did that. However, loss changes you. One Mother of Loss shares for others to "understand if we back out of plans last minute. You never know when the tidal wave of grief will overtake us. Grief is exhausting. We are just trying to survive and we ask for your patience if there are times that we can't do things like we could before."
We know, this has been a lot of information, a lot to try to digest. It's a very heavy subject but even if you skimmed this over, you are a better friend because of it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this in an effort to know how to help your friend who is a Parent of Loss. They are so lucky to have you as part of their support system. Be there, be present, be understanding. Love them through this, they will feel forever indebted to you because of it.
Hudson's Mommy, Austin's Mommy, Lennon's Mommy, Greyson's Mommy, Wells' Mommy, Kollyns' Mommy and Olivia's Mommy