Since then, I have often been asked what to do when someone else’s baby dies. It’s a horribly heartbreaking situation, and those who haven’t experienced it personally feel at a loss for how to help. The following are some of my suggestions based on my experience. Always use your best judgment to decide what is best for the bereaved family you want to help.
Attend the funeral or memorial service if possible.
Even if you don’t know the family incredibly well, your presence will mean the world to the grieving parents. The sheer number of people who turned out astonished us and helped us feel loved and supported in our time of grief.
Yes, you will likely cry. So will they. It’s part of what happens at funerals. No one will judge you for crying. We knew it was going to be an issue and had boxes of tissues in all of the pews in the chapel we had Rebecca’s service in. We were sitting in the front row, completely oblivious to what was going on behind us, but a good friend said that during the song we played near the end, the boxes of tissues were moving fast and furious between people in the pews.
Even if you don’t know what to say to the family, shake their hands or give them hugs and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” That will say it all. One woman in the receiving line that spontaneously formed after the memorial service for Rebecca couldn’t even get that out. She was completely choked up, but she gave me a huge hug and moved on. She has a daughter who was born only three months before my daughter. I understood what she was processing and why she couldn’t say more. Silence can be the right choice at times.
Donate to the charity of choice if you are able.
Unless you have a huge moral opposition to the charity of the family’s choice, your gift will mean a lot to them. My then husband and I chose to set up a scholarship fund in memory of our daughter. We truly appreciate all the donations that went toward it. It has been a gift that keeps on giving as many years we hear from the actual scholarship recipients in the annual financial update on the scholarship. That annual letter never fails to bring me to tears (in a good way).
We also had people send flowers to our home immediately after the death. This is a tradition in our culture for many, but not everyone appreciates it. Unless you know the family wants cut flowers, it might actually cause issues for them. To me, cut flowers are just dying in front of me. I didn’t want to deal with another aspect of death at that point. I also am allergic to many varieties of flowers, so many of the flowers we received were problematic. We lived in a smallish home, and there wasn’t much of a place to put them on display where they wouldn’t bother me. I finally put the worst offender on the front porch. While it was generously given as a way of sending sympathy, it was making me miserable!
If the family does not ask for charitable donations, offer to create a charity gift fund and follow through with it.
Perhaps the family often visits a local park where you can donate funds and have a plaque or tile put up in memory of their baby. Other locations have tree planting memorial programs. Perhaps they belong to a church where there is a memory wall that you can donate to. Whatever you offer to do, make it something that would provide a meaningful gift to the family and their community.
Offer to set up a care calendar for food donations.
Our daughter died before the wonders of the internet. We were overwhelmed with food being brought to our home. We truly appreciated the food, and the spicy Indian food our next-door neighbors made for me will forever be in my mind as one of my best meals ever after months of pregnancy-induced heartburn preventing me from eating such things. However, there was just too much. We didn’t have an additional freezer to put things in. It would have been great to have a calendar set up so we could have spread out food and visits from friends over the next month or two.
Be specific in your offers of help.
I have found throughout my life that when people say to me, “Call me if you need anything” that I almost never do. However, in times of intense stress including after Rebecca died, I responded incredibly well to specific offers. One friend and his wife offered to do the music for the service and then did the music for our subsequent twins’ baptisms as part of their compassion and their healing. They brought us hymnals to look at, and once we had selected the music, they took over everything from there. We didn’t have to worry about anything. It was a wonderful gift to us.
Another friend was a Type A organizer amongst our social group. When she called and asked to help, it felt perfect to let her to take over plans for the reception after the memorial. She did a fabulous job, and when anyone else asked about it or about giving us more food, I would just send them to her. Even though I love organizing events, I was so grateful not to have to plan that.
Other specific things you can suggest include offering to drive to the doctor’s office for postpartum visits and to be there to hold a hand. Returning to the doctor’s office near the hospital (if they used one) might be difficult. If you are going to the store and live near them, call on your way out the door and say, “Hey, I’m headed to the grocery store. Can I pick you up anything?” Trips to pick up other supplies at big box stores might also be appreciated.
If you are a close friend, be aware that the parents may need to do things like return to the mortuary to pick up ashes, go to the coroner’s office to pick up autopsy results, or spend hours on the phone wrangling with insurance over bills for the child who died. If you can help with those in any way, please offer. I did all of the above by myself not realizing that I could have asked a friend to come with me and help support me.
We did not have any other living children at that point, but other families may need help with transportation and playdates for their living children especially while the mother is recovering from the birth. Even though she is not staying up countless hours at night taking care of a newborn, her body will still need to heal from the birth. Offer to help with the other children just as you would have done if their baby had lived.
Respect the family’s grief.
The family is dealing with their own emotional turmoil at this time. Do not put your problems on them. One friend was experiencing a miscarriage at the time of Rebecca’s memorial service. She walked in the door to the chapel with her personal box of tissues under her arm and a very red nose plus tears running down her face. That was ok. She was mourning her own loss (as well as two previous ones), and I knew it. She had managed to come to the memorial service despite her pain, and I was grateful for her presence. However, another friend showed up on my doorstep and literally fell apart in my arms, bawling about her own issues that weren’t related to my daughter’s death. That was very much not ok. The last thing I needed to do was console her. I was the grieving mother, not her therapist.
Provide the family with a safe space to talk about their grief and their loss. Don’t change the subject when they talk about their child or their struggles in the postpartum days. Show them you care by listening. It’s an amazing gift for you to give to them.
If you are friends with them, continue to go out with them socially as you did before the birth.
Invite your bereaved friends to social events, even if they turn you down. Continue offering periodically. When they feel up to it, they will be glad you are still offering. We lost a few friends after the death of our daughter, and that hurt deeply. I know this post-loss rejection is a common event as I have heard this from other bereaved families as well. People feel awkward when a baby has died and don’t know what to do. Some chose to shut the bereaved family out of their lives rather than facing their fears and issues.
At the same time, respect limits set by the grieving family. If they tell you, “We think it will be a few months before we are ready to go out again,” then wait two months and ask again. Also understand that many bereaved parents have difficulties seeing young children. After the first few days, I was ok with seeing children who were not born near Rebecca’s birthdate. However, girls with the same name as her or babies who were the same age as her remained triggers for quite a while. We had some friends who had a healthy baby boy five days after our daughter was born and died. They were incredibly respectful to us about how the baby (and his baptism and birthdays) might affect us. The wife talked honestly and openly with me, and through our mutual tears, we were able to find a way to make it all work out for both of us so that they didn’t worry about hurting us and at the same time didn’t feel like they were excluding us.
Mourning doesn’t end after any set period of time.
After the first month, the sympathy cards stopped coming. That seemed to be the point at which society expected us to move on. However, that entire first year was very rough for us, and I’m sure it is for many other families as well. Continue to send them e-mails or cards letting them know that you are thinking of them. Call and check on them. If they aren’t feeling up to going out, offer to come to their place with the clear expectation that they should not cook or clean for you.
Continue to send them cards and e-mails as time passes. In this digital age, program your calendar to remind you each year on their child’s birthday and/or deathday to send them a note saying you are thinking of them.
Also know that other holidays may be rough for them, especially Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and child-focused holidays such as Easter, Halloween, and Christmas or Hanukkah. Respect that they may be having a rough time around the holidays and might need some extra support at that time.
Honor their tears. They will continue to cry over their loss of their child. No calendar will dictate when that will end. Even as I have typed this blog entry, my tears have flown and a mound of tissues has accumulated next to my keyboard. It is far healthier for the tears to flow than for the emotions to be stuffed and stored inside of us to fester and cause harm.
Honor their child as a human being.
For a parent who has lost a child, it is a blessing to hear their child’s name spoken out loud. They know that s/he has not been forgotten. If they have pictures of their child, be sure to look at them and say anything positive you can.
Offer to help them frame the photos or set up a display in their home to honor their child if that is something they would like. I have some of Rebecca’s belongings in a shadow box, a project I did on mostly my own. I also made a scrapbook of notes and cards I received after her death, a cathartic activity for me. However, if one of the parents is not crafty and you are, this might be something you could help with.
Things to Avoid
There are no universal truths when it comes to infant loss, but the following points are pretty close to it. In my discussions with other bereaved parents, mainly mothers, these are issues that many of us faced and resent.
Don’t impart your religious beliefs on them.
You may believe this is part of God’s plan, but they may not. Even if they were previously religious, many families lose their faith after the death of a child. Others’ faith grows stronger. Follow the lead of the family. If you are meeting in a religious Bible study with them, that is a different story. However, when you are offering your condolences, do not talk about their guardian angel or God’s mysterious ways. Simply say, “My heart hurts for you” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” Nothing more is needed.
Don’t compare this loss to another.
Someone once said that in losing a parent or a grandparent, you lose your past, but in losing a child, you lose your future. While losing a grandparent or a pet is terrible, it has little in common with losing a child. Losing a child is unlike any other loss someone experiences in life. Don’t compare them. Unless you have lost a child yourself, please don’t say you understand, because you actually don’t. I have suffered an early miscarriage, and even that didn’t come close to the experience of holding my dead baby in my arms. Just tell the bereaved family that you are sorry for their loss and that you will be there to help them however you can.
Don’t speculate about future children.
First of all, no baby replaces another. If you have children of your own, you already know that. Every child is unique and individual. The child these parents lost will never be replaced. If this child was a twin or other multiple, don’t presume that having other surviving babies will help in some way. They are still grieving for the child they lost.
Don’t speculate about when they are going to get pregnant again. It won’t help them to have to answer nosy questions. The family may not be able to have other children for health or financial reasons. This may not have been a planned pregnancy. It may have been an IVF pregnancy using limited funds to finance it. The mother may have had an emergency hysterectomy after the birth that you aren’t aware of. The couple’s relationship may be falling apart. Don’t presume that they will be able to or even want to have another child.
Secondary infertility is an unfortunately common problem. The couple may have difficulty conceiving again. They may also choose to postpone conception until a time when they feel they have fully mourned and healed from the loss of their baby. If and when they announce a subsequent pregnancy, then you may say congratulations. Until then, their family planning is their business, and you should refrain from inserting yourself into it.
Don’t pretend like their child never existed or deny their parenthood.
Finally, even if they have no other children, this baby’s parents are still parents. They have a baby they love dearly. That child is dead, but the child is still theirs. Do not imply that they are not parents. Do not imply that the child does not count. Their child is their beloved child now until their deaths, and in the beliefs of some, even beyond.
One of the most awful things someone said to me was years later after I had given birth to three more living children. Someone with three children asked me, “Isn’t three the most perfect number of children?” The other people we were with had looks of horror on their faces, knowing full well what the person had said despite knowing about Rebecca’s death. In a rare moment of actually being able to come up with the perfect response on the spot, I told her, “I wouldn’t know. I have four children.”
© 2013 Green Heart Guidance