When someone you love is experiencing a loss as tragic and senseless as the death of a child, knowing what to say or how to help can be challenging. While every situation and family is different, there are many things most families appreciate during this time.
First, let them know they are not alone. This may not even require words. Giving a hug, holding a hand, sending a few words, or just sitting in silence let the family know you are there for them and remember their baby. What may seem like small or insignificant acts are often the loving gestures remembered positively in the days and months to come.
Things to Consider
Everyone grieves in their own way. The grief process affects each person differently. Even if individuals are grieving the same baby, their reactions may be very different.
Most parents will be on a roller-coaster of emotions and in various phases of grief for some time to come. These phases aren’t predictable, can last for a very short or very long time, and can be revisited. Give them permission to feel what they need to feel without judgement or advice.
Many of the emotions may be difficult for you to understand. It is ok to let them know you can’t imagine what they are feeling, but that you love them and support them.
Some parents may have had very little or no time with the baby while he/she was alive outside of the womb. However, the parental attachment begins early in pregnancy and the loss will be felt as if the child had lived for much longer.
The loss of a baby affects the entire family, including siblings. Young children may not be able to comprehend death, but they can feel the sadness in those they love. Older children may have been anticipating this baby with the same love, hopes, and dreams as the parents.
Acknowledge their loss. Allow them to express their emotions. Playing and drawing are two ways young children can express their feelings or concerns.
Offer to answer their questions. Answer them honestly but appropriately based on their developmental level.
Many siblings enjoy having a special item of their own to remember their baby brother or sister. A stuffed animal, a picture, or other special gift can be used for this purpose.
Adults often desire to shield their children from the pain of loss. However, most children are aware that something sad has happened even without being told. Including children can often be very therapeutic for the siblings and the parents. The extent of the involvement can be determined by the parents and the children themselves.
It is normal for young children to re-process the loss as they are older and have increased abilities to understand death and grief. Some adults are concerned if they are suddenly asking more questions, but this is part of their developmental process. Answer their questions and support them without or making them feel that their questions are inappropriate or untimely.
How To Help
Simple gestures are often the best and most meaningful.
- Be present
- Say “I’m sorry”
- Use the baby’s name
- Ask them to tell you about their baby, or ask to see/hold the baby if appropriate
- Ask to see pictures of the baby if they were taken
- Acknowledge them as parents. This is particularly difficult for families who do not have other living children. They are parents and should be supported accordingly.
- Remember the father. Mothers often receive the majority of the concern, but fathers grieve too and appreciate their grief being acknowledged. Fathers tend to be strong for the mother and may not feel they have permission to grieve themselves.
- Support their decisions. There are many new decisions that need to be made regarding medical care, testing, cremation or burial arrangements, memorial services, cultural or religious ceremonies, what do with baby’s things, and more. It may be appropriate to help the parents carry out these decisions, but do not judge what they have chosen. Each family must decide what is best for them in the moment.
- Avoid statements that minimize their emotions, tell them how to feel, or rely on religion (unless you are certain it is how the family is feeling). For example:
- It’s probably for the best
- God only takes the best
- It would have been worse if …
- Now you have an angel
- You’re young and can have more
- This is just like when ….
- This is how God takes care of his mistakes
- There must have been something wrong with the baby
- Your baby is lucky to be in heaven
- At least he/she didn’t suffer
- Once you can ____, it won’t seem so bad
- You’ll be a parent someday
- At least you didn’t know him/her
- If you don’t know what to say, tell them that. The honesty that this can’t be easily fixed is validating and indicates you respect the family’s emotions.
- Offer to do specific tasks for the family. When grieving, the family is not often able to identify how they could use help and will not usually have the strength to call someone who has offered to help. For example: “May I bring you dinner tomorrow evening?” Other tasks could include caring for other children, cleaning the house, washing the car, doing laundry, picking up family members at the airport, going to the store, researching funeral homes or support resources, and calling employers or extended family and friends.
- Offer to help the family with many of these same daily tasks in the weeks or months after the memorial service when most of the help has ended.
- Attend the memorial services or funeral
- Offer a keepsake or memorial item. Flowers, photos, trees, figurines, and jewelry are examples of items that can be a source of comfort, support, and remembrance.
- Remember them in the months and years to come. Call, send a card, or offer to spend time with them on milestone days. The pain does not end with the delivery or memorial services. As the parents dreamt about this baby, they also dreamt about sharing special moments as a family. Their loss includes the loss of these dreams.
- Acknowledge the baby and their loss on special dates. For example: The baby’s due date, holidays, mother’s day and father’s day, anniversary of the baby’s birth/death date, and more.
- Recognize that if/when another pregnancy occurs or baby is born healthy, it will not eliminate the grief over this baby and the new baby will not replace the baby who has passed. Any future pregnancies will bring a new level of anxiety and concern. Also recognize that not all perinatal losses are followed by future pregnancies.
- Remember their baby by including the baby’s name on a holiday card, making a donation in the baby’s memory, doing a random act of kindness to honor the baby. Use your imagination. They will appreciate the effort made on their child’s behalf.
- Don’t push them to participate in activities you think may be helpful. Being around babies, attending baby showers, participating in family celebrations, and similar activities may be too much for them for quite some time.
- Give them time to grieve. Grief is a long, complicated journey that requires significant energy and time. Parents are required to create a “new normal’ for themselves. This process often takes 1-2 years or more. They will learn to find hope and joy in life again, but it will not happen right away.
- Know that your support will be an essential tool for them as they progress through this complex process.
- Support and get to know them as the people they have become. It is impossible for them to be who they were before this experience. As difficult as this is for everyone, their loss is compounded if they lose their supports, too.
- Remember to take care of yourself. You will be grieving, too, for this baby and for the impact it is having on your loved ones. You will be more help to them if you respect your own emotions and grief process as well.
Many families like to create a memorial page for their babies. This allows them to share their story, post photographs, and relay other information important to them. We would be honored to work with you to create a special page for your baby.
Family and friends may also donate by clicking the donate button and putting the baby’s name in the comment section. Gifts can be acknowledged to parents if contact information is provided.