I think I could write a whole book on the subject honestly, and maybe one day I will. But I wanted to speak specifically to those who surround the grieving mother (or birth parent). When my best friend from childhood lost her baby, I wanted so badly to help but was not sure how. Many times, this helpless feeling prevents people from doing anything at all, because they are so afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing.
When I lost my own child, I felt a desperate ache not only for my baby, but for the support of others- a support I did not receive in any great amount. While I was so beautifully supported during the birth, in the wake of it everyone outside of my home, assumed that someone else was caring for me, sending me love, supporting me. In reality- the only person by my side was my husband and he had his own grief to face in addition to my sons grief, and mine.
It is easy to be the person that sits back and lets others fill in those voids, but often times this results in isolation that is painful and unnecessary.
Yes, there are 'wrong' things you can say and do. But the worst thing is doing nothing, being absent, and leaving them to sink into their own.
Here are 8 guidelines to help you support your loved one during this time.
The only expert on grief, is the person grieving. Do not start by giving advice, or asking questions. Listen to what they are saying. If they say they need space, give them space but let them know (in specific ways listed below) where you are and how willing you are to hold space with them- repeatedly. If they don't ask for space don't assume they want it. Listen to their words and what they are asking for. Some families choose to isolate during this time. Others feel like they have to because of social stigmas. If they have shared this news of loss with you, it is likely that they trust you and need you to support them in some way.
Invite them to talk about their baby, their story, their birth. Tell them you are a safe space (if you ARE) do not judge them, and do not compare their story to your own or to anyone else's. LISTEN. Without an agenda of any kind. Listen just to hold space.
Ask Specific Questions.
If you are able and they are receptive, ask them specific questions. Don't only ask: "what can I do?" Don't only ask "how can I help" and don't only give a generic "Im here if you need me/if you need anything."
It is not their responsibility to come up with ways for you to comfort them.
Instead, or in addition to those questions you can ask:
"Would you like me to sit and listen to your story"
"Can I bring you a coffee or tea today?"
"I am going to the store. What can I pick up for you?"
"Can I drop off some groceries on your porch next Tuesday? text me a list." (giving them an advanced day is helpful as sudden drop bye can be stressful.)
"Can I take the other kids so you can rest for a bit?"
"Can I pray with you?" Please don't ask if you know they are not religious. And if you do pray with them, avoid using terms like "meant to be" or "God's will" this will only damage their faith and reserve. Use terms that invite love and peace and healing and space in without heavy expectations or rationalizing their grief.
"Can I set up a meal train for you?/Can I bring you a meal?"
"What is your favorite restaurant/Take out service, I will drop off a gift card"
"Text me next time your having a hard day and I will come over no questions asked./I will take you out for pampering no questions asked."
"I am bringing you groceries, what can I add to the list?"
"I have extra time on ____ and I would like to spend it helping you out."
"Can I come clean your kitchen for you/put away laundry/water plants/care for your pet?"
"I have a giftcard for a cleaning service. Can I gift it to you?"
You can also ask specific questions about their baby if they seem open to sharing. Most mothers I have met want to talk about their baby. Some do not.
Say their names.
If they have chosen a name for their baby, they want to hear it. If they have not, they may prefer to not talk about the experience, but again this is super personal and you need to ask what they prefer.
I personally love love love to hear my baby's name on others lips. One of the things I grieved the most was all of the times I would have heard and used their name in daily life had they survived. Saying the baby's name gives value to their name choice, brings honor to their experience, and shows that you value the child's short life and existence.
Do not worry about "bringing it up" A grieving mother is always, always thinking of her child. You can not "bring it up" it is already there. Speaking it out, only brings warmth and love to someone suffering internally- trying not to let their grief out onto others. Bringing it up gives them permission to lay some of that grief down in front of you, instead of holding it in.
If a mother or birth parent has expressed that she does not want to talk about her child, or has not chosen a name, respect their wish. In place of this, use the birth parent's name. People love hearing their own name used, especially in affirmations and the spirit of love.
"___ you are an amazing mother."
"___ I love you."
"___ your grief is valid and I see you."
What not to say...
There are things you should not say. Mostly they fall under the rule: no judgment, no projecting your own stigmas onto them, no comparing, no justifying.
Do not tell them everything happens for a reason. Do not tell them God needed their baby for something else. Do not tell them it will heal with time. Do not tell them to move forward, get over it, toughen up. Do not say "at least..." do not say you can try again. Do not make light of their grief and do not try to understand it. Even if you have lost a child, each person carries and experiences grief differently.
Do not expect them to make you comfortable, do not require them to be hosts if you visit.
Do not ignore it. Do not ignore their loss, their pain, or their child. Say something, do something. More than once.
Moving forward, recognize how they refer to their family. In my opinion carrying a child for any length of time, makes you a mother or a parent. Greif is just love with no where to go. Learning to parent a child you can not see or hold is one of the most challenging journeys and it needs support just as any motherhood or parenthood journey does.
If they have other children, do not make this a consolation in the way you speak. Do not say "she has 2 children" if the loss is her third. If the birth parent does, you should also count this loss as a child and a number. Listen to how she refers to her baby, her grief, her family, and follow her lead. (again, every mother handles this differently. Some do not wish to include the loss in a number.)
Advocate for her.
People don't think before they speak. Sometimes they say things that are insensitive or downright rude. If you are there when this happens, address it immediately. Don't leave the mother to fend for herself.
Once, we were at a car dealership and the salesman would not STOP talking about how we needed to give my son a sibling, about how selfish we were for waiting so long. He was in jest. But it was unkind and it hurt so much. I cried in the backseat during the test drive and made my husband leave afterwords.
If someone would have addressed him, I would have felt so supported and seen.
Things like this happen all the time. Hurtful words, well meaning badly phrased sentiments. Stand up for them, hold space for them, and at the very least help them get to a safe space when they feel shaken by words like this, or shaken by their grief from a trigger you can't see.
Don't forget about the Dads/Partners/Children.
Dads grieve too. Partners grieve. Children grieve. Anyone around this loss will benefit from extra support.
I recommend offering this support individually. Do not compare one persons grief to the others. Do not assume. Just be there and don't forget others affected by this loss.
Loss greatly increases the risk of developing a post birth mental health disorder (postpartum depression, anxiety, and more. Check out my resource page)
Meal trains, cleaning services, pampering services like nails, massage, etc, gift cards, photography services to memorialize their baby. If a baby is stillborn (born after the stage considered viable by drs) the costs of preparing the funeral can be devastating.
Salt caves are amazing places to heal and grieve- gift cards to these.
A gift to honor their pregnancy and their baby's life. An angel baby ornament. A forget me not pressed flower necklace. Bath salts, lotion, a grief kit. A beautiful piece of wool art to symbolize their pregnancy or angel baby (like those by Radishwoolworks on instagram and Etsy)
A weighted bear made from their baby's clothes, or a bear made to the same weight of their child at time of birth/time of loss. A pillow they can hug with their baby's name embroidered on it. Tea, healing herbs.
Muffins, flowers, etc.
The thought means more than the gift, but a gift can be so touching to recieve.
For specific gift sites and ideas pease contact me to help.
Time is irrelevant.
Is a mother expected to love their child less as they grow up? no. Tis the same for mothers who's babies will never grow up.
Remember first that every mother who looses a child during pregnancy must go through a postpartum period. They will bleed. They will cry. They may still produce milk. These things can be so painful and triggering to deal with after a loss. Provide her with the care her body needs, and the time it needs to heal physically.
Second, realize this. A mother who has lost a child lives outside of time. That child is forever frozen at the age they left, and so the mother will linger there and return there for all the years of her life. Time does not heal grief. Time only builds skills. Skills to hide, run, and overpower grief. Skills to avoid triggers. Skills to love without breaking every time. A grief build up or meltdown can feel as potent ten years later as it did the day of the loss. Grief wears so many masks, and often the mask of anger. Do not take offense at a grief that lashes out. Do not be pushed away by a grief that self isolates.
Do not take back your support when you think her grief has lifted. Offer it whenever you can. She will always be a bereaved mother. She will always need extra love and care. Grief is forever.
A photo during my personal maternity session, pregnant with the child I lost. My son is wrapped here in a blanket I spent hours making for that baby. Her name was Elsie.