Losing a wanted child through miscarriage, stillbirth or medically based termination is devastating and traumatic. If someone close to you is going through this, you’re probably wondering what the hell you can possibly say or do to show you care — and whether doing either will actually just make things worse. The question is particularly relevant on October 15, National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.
For many people, the default position might be avoidance, which is a natural response to their own discomfort. “Sometimes we avoid mentioning the loss as though ignoring it makes it not be so,” says child and family psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe. “But it is a huge, gaping hole in this parent’s life.”
Infertility and loss advocate Justine Froelker, who has gone through infertility and has also lost three babies, agrees. “Don’t avoid the topic or not bring it up because you don’t want to remind us of our sadness,” she says. “You can remind us; we live in it and with it every day. Ask us how we are from a place of love.”
Here are more ways you can help someone cope with the loss of a baby.
Provide practical help
When parents are grieving, they often don’t have the energy to take care of everyday things like making meals, doing chores and looking after other children or pets. By dropping off meals or paying for a house cleaner, babysitting or dog-walking, you can provide the practical help that will make this time a little easier, says Bina Bird, licensed marriage and family therapist.
Don’t look for a silver lining
Or a light at the end of the tunnel or a reason to be thankful. “Even loved ones with the best of intentions can sometimes say things that are not helpful to a grieving parent,” says Jaime Filler, licensed marriage and family therapist. “Trying to cheer up a grieving parent by sharing success stories of other parents that have had successful births after a loss can make a parent experiencing loss feel frustrated and incompetent.”
Avoid saying things like, “everything happens for a reason,” or “God needed an angel.” And don’t start sentences with “At least…” or “but…” because it’s not going to help. “Sympathy only makes us feel more alone,” explains Froelker. “Instead, choose to practice empathy and say something as simple as, ‘This sucks.'”
Take your cues from the parent
Sometimes a grieving parent will want to talk about their loss, and sometimes they won’t. And this can change from one day to the next. It is important to let the grieving parent take the lead. “Simply asking, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ can be a good way to test the waters,” advises Filler. “If you don’t get an encouraging response, you can tell your loved one that you are there to listen anytime they feel like talking about it.”
Don’t try to make it better
Someone you love is experiencing a loss of life, and it doesn’t need to be made better. “It needs to be understood as horrific and awful and devastating,” says Lapointe. “It is OK to sit in that alongside the parents who are struggling.”
“Ask us what we need, and be OK when we say we aren’t sure,” says Froelker. “Take that as permission to just be with us.”
Listen — for as long as they need you to
Sometimes, what a grieving parent needs is someone who is really listening to what they’re saying. “Allow them to feel however they feel about it in the moment (hopeless, angry, numb, sad, afraid, etc.),” urges Mallika Bush, marriage and family therapist. “Listen to their story of what happened as many times as they need to tell it.”
Celebrate the life that was — or almost was
Grieving parents’ feelings on whether or not an unborn baby was “alive” may vary, but for many, that baby existed — even if only in embryonic form. And that alone is something that can be celebrated. “Refer to the baby by name if there was a name given,” says Lapointe. “Talk about the hopes and dreams that were attached to that child. If the child lived, even for a short period of time, tell stories about him or her.”
Keep showing up
There’s often a lot of support immediately following the loss of a baby, but people eventually move on with their lives. Meanwhile, the loved one is still working through their grief — and may feel isolated. “Keep reaching out to your loved one who is suffering,” says Bush. “Make plans to see them for at least six months following the loss.”
The parent will never forget their baby’s due date, birthday or death anniversary. Reach out to them on those difficult days. “A card, some flowers, going on a walk with them or even just a text of love can help your loved one not feel so alone in the pain and solitude of remembering the loss,” says Bush.
Above all, remember that your loved one won’t expect you to take their grief away. What you can do is keep them company, help them normalize their feelings and be a consistent, supportive, caring presence.
For more information and advice, Mommies Enduring Neonatal Death (M.E.N.D.) has a list of infant loss organizations offering miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss support.
A version of this story was originally published in February 2018.