It can be hard to know what to say to someone grieving the loss of a baby, but it's vital that we try. Here, we provide tips for finding the right words
In the UK, one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, and one in 250 babies are stillborn each year. And, yet, it’s an experience that is often hidden away, and is a topic that many people struggle to talk about openly.
“As a society, we are generally very uncomfortable talking about baby loss and miscarriage, likely because it feels so wrong that babies should die,” says Samantha Phillis, a midwife and counsellor.
“We also do not have a word for grieving parents in the English language, yet we have a word for losing a spouse (widow/widower) and losing our parents (orphan). This might reinforce our discomfort about acknowledging the loss of a child.”
With that in mind, it’s vital we don’t hide from this difficult reality, and that we step up to be there for loved ones whose babies have died. Here, Samantha offers tips for finding the right words.
1. Ask how the parents are feeling about the baby
“When a baby dies, many people think that asking about the baby, and how the parents are feeling, will somehow trigger the parents to be more upset,” says Samantha.
Of course, the reality is that the parents will already be thinking about the baby, and Samantha points out that trying to carry on as usual, and not talking about the baby, is the potentially more harmful route. She adds that the parents will also likely feel relieved to know that you are someone that they can come talk about their loss with, without the pressure of maintaining small talk.
2. Use their baby’s name
“Many parents whose baby has died have very few memories with their baby, but the one thing they will have is the name they have chosen for them,” Samantha explains. “Saying their baby’s name reinforces the acknowledgement that their baby was real and remains an important member of their family, and their family’s story.”
You shouldn’t try to look past the loss – it doesn’t make it any smaller or any less painful, and only further isolates the parents with their grief.
3. Provide practical support
When it comes to offering practical support, the key thing is to take the lead. Comments like, ‘Let me know if you need something’ are well-meaning, but offering to help with specifics means that you’re taking the load of asking off the person who needs the help.
“Offer to make meals or co-ordinate a dinner rota (takethemameal.com is a handy website). Offer to take some laundry or do a shop,” Samantha suggests. “If there are other children around, offer to do the school run, or take the children out for the day. Also, be aware of siblings and, depending on their ages, be somebody the baby’s siblings can come to as they can sometimes feel overwhelmed with grief, but not have the language to express it.”
4. Provide a safe space
“Parents will be experiencing many different feelings in the early days after a baby dies,” Samantha says. “They will likely feel extreme sadness, anger, guilt, and fear. If a baby has died during pregnancy, the parents may feel very apprehensive and worried about the birth. By acknowledging those feelings and reminding parents there are professionals who can reassure and offer advice, you can help validate and support those feelings.”
5. You will not always know what to say
“And that is OK,” Samantha says. “Losing a baby is devastating and forever changes the fabric of a family. Sometimes there are no words that need to be said. You don’t need to ‘fix’ the situation, and nothing can be fixed.”
Sometimes, struggling to find the right words is the thing that holds us back from saying anything at all, and so letting go of that pressure and leading with compassion and authenticity allows us to still be there, even when we’re lost for words.
“Acknowledging to parents that ‘I don’t know what to say’ is supportive in its own right,” Samantha adds.
6. Take care of your own mental health
As is always the case when being there for others, it’s also important to take note of your own wellbeing.
“If you are close enough to a family that you are supporting them with their grief, you are likely grieving the loss of the baby yourself,” Samantha says. “Find your support network, and speak to friends who aren’t connected to the family who can provide a shoulder for you to cry on. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true that you cannot pour from an empty cup.”
To speak to a counsellor about grief, use the search box below. Or, visit Counselling Directory for more infromation.