By Jessica Martin-Weber
This post has been made possible by the generous partnership of Tula Baby Carriers, Ameda, Inc., and Earth Mama Angel Baby.
The way we respond to someone’s grief and suffering usually is about making ourselves more comfortable even if the intent is to comfort them. The key to offering true support is empathy, and to cultivate empathy we must first listen and sit with the pain. It is only then that we can come to understand that caring isn’t about fixing but rather, comforting. There is no way to take the hurt away, we can only be there through the hurt.
October is Infant and Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month, a time set aside to educate on these issues. When that month ends, though, our awareness should continue as it does for those who carry the awareness of their loss(es) throughout the year. For those mourning loss, there is more than a month of processing their grief and while we may question our time and emotional bandwidth to be available, when someone we know and care for has journeyed the road of loss, we have an opportunity to make a difference and confirm that they and their loss matters.
Awareness is always just the first step, the second is action. To help us move our awareness into action, we are sharing what parents who have experienced loss say are the most and least helpful ways to act and respond to loss. You don’t have to have experienced similar loss to offer empathetic support and care, we’re all capable even if we’re unsure as to how.
In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, J. William Worden explains that miscarriage is seen as a socially negated loss, that for some to even view such a loss as death can bring on guilt. Devan McGuinness, Founder of perinatal loss support website, UnspokenGrief.com and a loss mother herself, on the impact that discovering a friend grieved their own loss saying it: “helped me process my grief by talking with someone who understood and I felt that my grief was more “normal” – meaning that I wasn’t overreacting in feeling such loss and sadness.”
The loss of an infant is also a taboo subject, the fear of causing pain leads to silence and often loneliness in the mourning process. Worden’s Grief Theory describes grief as a U shape. The mourning processes takes us down into deep part of the U, a place that can be lonely and it is better if we can make the journey with others. We have to resist the urge to build a shoddy rope bridge across to avoid going down through the grief. Such an action only disconnects us.
Kari Bundy, founder of the infant loss support organization, Mason’s Cause which offers empathetic grief support with other grieving parents as well as practical information such as how to plan a funeral, shares that she and her husband felt alone when their son Mason died of SIDS at 4 months old and finding practical informative support as well as the emotional space to mourn was overwhelming.
Melinda Olson, founder of BabyLossComfort.com and founder, owner of Earth Mama Angel Baby, labor and delivery nurse, mother and grandmother, has spent decades now supporting families through loss: “It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has lost a baby. Bodies can be healed, but as with all other major wounds, a scar remains. The same is true for grief. We don’t try to take that pain away, but to hold her hand through it. It’s never easy, but it’s always an honor.” Melinda offers a concise list on what to say to grieving families here.
What Helps – Remember Them
Jessica: Remember the child. Let the parents know you think of him or her. Trust me, you aren’t reminding them of their loss, it’s on their minds already anyway, but it’s nice to know someone else thinks of your child.
Leah: Don’t forget. Mark the date of loss on your calendar for years to come. What a glowing feeling it would bring me if just SOMEONE remembered my daughter’s birthday.
Kina: It really hurt that my hubby didn’t remember the due date or the date of the miscarriage. It made me feel like I was the only one who cared about my baby.
Tiffany: Speak my daughter’s name, it may bring a tear to my eye but you didn’t remind me she died. (I could never forget) but you saying her name means you remember she lived and that means the world to me. I fear the day when I’m long gone that her memory will be forgotten.
Vivian: Respect my ways of honoring and join me in them. Gifts are nice but your presence matters more.
Bridgette: I have a few friends who light a candle every year on my son’s birthday and send me a picture of their candle in his honor. It means more than I can say that others care for my son too.
Question, Wait, and Be Present – Don’t give advice, give availability
Tori: It meant the world when a friend came to sit with me/help take care of my son so I wouldn’t be alone while waiting out a miscarriage.
Anna: I really appreciated those who just listened. I needed to talk about it without any advice or words of comfort… There ARE no words of comfort.
Kara Glenn: Having friends and family check in, bring dinner, invite us over… all of these things make us feel loved, and keep us from feeling isolated.
Dykibra: My advice: ask people what they want. My mother was great and gave me the space I needed.
Dawnn: Helpful? Food. It’s the last thing I wanted to think about.
Amber: The best things was supportive hugs. Having someone call me daily to tell me they loved me.
Alyssa: The most helpful was my best friend helping with the details of planning my daughter’s funeral and understanding my anger about the investigation by the authorities. (SIDS usually requires an investigation.) She let me cry and vent whenever I needed to.
Marinas: It was helpful to hear that It’s okay to be angry right now. There’s nothing fair about your baby dying.
Samone: I lost two pregnancies at 20 weeks. What was not helpful was people saying that I was lucky because the baby would have been born with a deformity. Seriously, I just wish people had said that they were sorry.
There’s no perfect way to support through such grief but there are ways that are hurtful that a little bit of awareness can help us avoid. Loss parents shared some things that are NOT helpful to say:
Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.
It must have been God’s plan.
At least you can have children/At least you already have a child(ren).
Oh yes I know how you feel, my friend had the same thing…
Well it was probably deformed.
You’re not the only person it happens to (because somehow that means I shouldn’t be upset).
Don’t dwell on it.
Charissa pointed out: I don’t need a distraction, telling me I need to keep busy so I was distracted made me feel like it was wrong for me to be sad.
Kara Glenn, mom and Tula Baby Carriers team member talked with me about the loss of her son, Oliver, her daughter’s twin, at 4 months old. You can read her powerful and moving story more in depth here (including loss after infertility). A true empath, Kara shared the conflicting range of emotions she experiences in grieving one child while being present with another. She’s very understanding of the struggle others face when trying to offer comfort.
“I do know that people mean well. The death of a baby is a hard thing for people to talk about. It makes people say awkward things. I really try my best to shake it off when something rubs me the wrong way. I just don’t have the emotional capacity right now to focus on it.”
Still, she says, there are some statements that make it harder.
“When they say: ‘At least you have Avery.’ I know they mean well, but by saying that, it makes me feel that I’m not already thankful and grateful that I have my sweet baby girl. Like it’s not possible to both grieve and mourn the death of my precious four-month-old boy, and love his twin sister with every ounce of my being. Another comment that can be hurtful is when people say, ‘I don’t know how you are functioning, I’d be a mess.’ This automatically makes me feel guilty for functioning… for just surviving. Believe me, I don’t know how I’m doing it either. To assume that someone isn’t struggling just because you see them doing something normal like grocery shopping is just plain insensitive and hurtful. There are days when putting one foot in front of the other is the hardest thing in the world. On those days, you likely won’t see me. On those days, the groceries can wait.”
Whether you’ve experienced pregnancy or infant loss personally or want to be able to support others grieving their child, there is no expectation that comfort be offered perfectly. Trying means a lot and doing so with sensitivity and awareness makes a difference. Journey into the deepest part of the U with others by listening and empathizing as you go and you can be a part of making a difference. You don’t have to fix it, just offer comfort through it.
Drawing from a diverse background in the performing arts and midwifery, Jessica Martin-Weber supports women and families, creating spaces for open dialogue. Writer and speaker, Jessica is the creator of TheLeakyBoob.com, co-creator of BeyondMoi.com, and creator and author of the children’s book and community of What Love Tastes Like, supporter of A Girl With A View, and co-founder of Milk: An Infant Feeding Conference. She co-parents her 6 daughters with her husband of 19 years and is currently writing her first creative non-fiction book.