When a friend suffers the loss of their baby to miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death, how can you let them know you care? What should you say, and what should you avoid saying? What would bring comfort, and what would not? Is a gift to acknowledge the baby appropriate, and if so, what could that be?
These are indeed tricky questions – ones that come up regularly in the Inner West Mums Facebook group. In this piece I have incorporated some of the ideas that have been shared in several recent posts – by women who have been that friend, or experienced loss themselves – which may guide you in supporting your grieving friend.
Inner West Mum Jane Lê, whose precious son Callan was born in 2016 without life, offers great insight into this heartbreaking situation: ‘There is often a genuine desire to help – but people just don’t know what to do. And that’s okay, because no one has told them. We need more education around perinatal death. We need more awareness.’ (Jane has shared her family’s story through two subsequent pieces for Inner West Mums: Remembering with Love: Jane’s Story and The Rainbow Journey: Jane’s Story.)
Time and again, when families share their stories of loss, they emphasise just how important it is to them that others acknowledge their baby – that this is the most valuable gift of all. Families want to be able to speak openly about their loss. Listen to their stories, without judgement. Call their baby by his or her name. Ask thoughtful questions. Linger over any photos. Sit quietly with them and reflect. Laugh when they laugh. Cry when they cry.
Here are some more tips:
- Phone, text, email, write a card or visit. Let your friend know you are there and thinking of them at this time. A beautiful message on a card is one of the best things you can do to show you care. Families will often store these in a memory box.
- Bears of Hope offers some helpful suggestions of phrases you might use to express your condolences or initiate a conversation. It also offers guidance on the kinds of comments to avoid using, ones that minimise the family’s loss (e.g., ‘It wasn’t meant to be’, ‘You can try again’, ‘At least you have other children’, etc.).
- Don’t forget the whole family is grieving. Be sure to acknowledge the father’s and any siblings’ loss too.
- If you wish to offer a gift, consider ones that will provide warmth and comfort. Think: a dressing-gown or slippers, a snuggly blanket, a candle, bubble bath, a selection of teas or a fruit basket.
- Not everyone responds well to cut flowers, which of course perish, or plants, which require ongoing attention.
- If you want to offer a personalised gift, it is a good idea to check with your friend first to see if such a gesture would be welcomed. Understand that some families would prefer to create memorabilia themselves. Gifts that may be treasured many years ahead include: an engraved necklace with a locket, a necklace or bracelet with the first letter of the child’s name or birth stone, a plush toy or baby blanket embroidered with the child’s name and date of birth, a memorial candle with the child’s details and a poem printed on it, a personalised Christmas ornament or a monetary donation in honour of their child to one of the charities that support grieving families. A more elaborate option is a photographer who will write the child’s name in sand at a beach and photograph it at sunrise or sunset.
- Offer practical help – running errands, picking up groceries, tidying up, walking the dog, taking the kids for outings – anything that might reduce the burden of everyday life during the early stage of grief.
- Meals are almost always welcomed at a time when no one feels like preparing food, but do check with your friend first – you don’t want to overwhelm them with items they may have already received. Remember, however, these could still be of great comfort down the track. A voucher for a meal delivery service is another great idea.
- Ask if there is anything in particular they want or need. Their response may surprise you: it could be a hug or even a distraction.
- Understand that your friend may withdraw from family or friends now and then. Do not take it personally if your friend does not wish to be around you or your own children for a while.
- If it is appropriate, direct your friend towards some of the support services for families who have experienced loss. Bears of Hope Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support gives a list of Australia-wide services on its website. Red Nose also provides bereavement resources and a 24-hour support line.
- Continue to check in, weeks and months afterwards, to show you are thinking of the family.
- Put the date of their loss in your calendar and reach out to your friend one month on, three months on, six months on and every year. The anniversary of their loss, as well as special occasions, such as birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas, are likely to be particularly sad times for the family.
Bears of Hope Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support
24-Hour Bereavement Support Line: 1300 308 307
More articles from Ginny:
Remembering with Love: Jane’s Story
The Rainbow Journey: Jane’s Story