Losing someone is never easy, but sometimes the death can have a qualifier. It was quick. It was time. It was the end of a long life. When someone loses a baby, there aren’t any modifiers.
“There’s no life to live. A pregnancy is the ultimate possibility and potential, but the parents don’t get to know who that person was,” says Kellie Wicklund, therapist and director of Maternal Wellness Center in Hatboro, Pennsylvania.
But the parents still have to mourn, and the outside world doesn’t always like to see that. People get uncomfortable, and disappear or “say really stupid stuff,” says Taryn Schuelke, grief bereavement specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital. She adds that when someone loses a baby, there’s often another obstacle: The belief that if the life was short, the grieving should be as well.
Losing a baby is incredibly difficult. It can be especially so for dads who often get taught early on to not have feelings beyond happy/angry and who aren’t given the skills to manage them, says Jennifer Kaiser, maternal mental health counselor in New York City.
The fallback is to be stoic and push the feelings down and away. It’s not fair to men or their partners who end up having to carry the emotional load. It’s not that there is one way to mourn. It’s just that men can mourn.
As the friend of someone who lost a baby, you can help that happen. There’s stuff to say and do, but mostly, it’s being present over and over again and letting your friend know that there’s no rush on anything and that you’re okay with everything not being okay.
What Not to Say When Someone Loses a Baby
Talking to someone experiencing any kind of loss is difficult. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable, to slip up and slide into cliches. But when you’re expressing condolences to someone who lost a baby, do your best to avoid the below phrases:
- “The baby’s in a better place.”
- “You’re not given more than you can handle.”
- “You’re handling it so well.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “You have other kids.”
- “You can have another.”
- “The baby’s not suffering.”
In saying these phrases, people think they’re being comforting. But the words fail to acknowledge the death and end up being dismissive. Any of the lines can also be prefaced with, “At least, …,” and, as Schuelke says, if that’s the case you shouldn’t say it. Why? “It diminishes the weight, and when a baby is lost, the whole world is heavy.”
You might think the safest move is to say nothing. But outright silence is abandoning, and painful, Wicklund says. You do want to say something. There are words. You just want to keep in mind that there are no magic ones. “You don’t have to fix things,” says Jacki Silber, perinatal therapist in Redwood City, California. So what is your job? To provide support.
What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Baby
If your job is to provide support, and you don’t want to sound dismissive or cold, what are some of the best words of comfort for the loss of a child? Here are a few options:
- “Even though the baby was only with you for a short time, they were already loved.”
- “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say but I’m going to be there for you.”
- “Take all the time you need.”
- “I hate that you’re going through this. It’s unfair.”
- Any of the above conveys that you don’t come with answers or that there’s a “right” way to mourn.
Past the words, there’s stuff to do. After a death, parents aren’t focusing on practical matters, so make sure the garbage gets out and the lawn gets mowed. Send a text, telling them you’re dropping off food at a specific time and won’t be ringing the bell. Parents don’t need to worry about company but they do need good food, Silber says.
Keep checking in with your friend, offering to get a beer, take a jog (being side-by-side makes talking less threatening), or just run an errand. He doesn’t have to ever respond or take you up on it, but the constancy will provide comfort and take the onus off of him to reach out.
If you do get together, follow his lead on talking or not talking, and realize that he’ll be ready when he’s ready. Silber says that it’s not unusual for grieving to come a year afterwards, making it more important that you stick around and put zero pressure on what or how to feel.
Helping in the Long Term
Losing a baby makes parents confront a barrage of emotions. When the life was short and a relationship wasn’t built, Schuelke says it can make a guy wonder, Was I actually a dad? You can help by helping him remember the baby. Know the due date – the parents do – and set a reminder on your phone to reach out. Ask to see pictures. Send cards on the birthday, holidays, and Father’s Day. And if there was a name, use it to make that baby a person. “Parents love to hear the name of the child they lost,” Wicklund says.
But won’t this prevent them from moving on? Yes, the underlying fear is that doing any of this will constantly re-open the wound. But you don’t have that power. “A parent never forgets their child,” Wicklund says. And as Silber adds, if your friend cries, he needs to, so see it as giving him the chance.
But also realize that feelings aren’t locked in. People who mourn have days that are sad and others that have joy, Kaiser says. You don’t know and can’t assume which it is. But as a friend, you’re willing to deal with the spectrum and sit in occasional discomfort without squirming.
And if you’re not sure, ask what he needs. If that doesn’t get an answer, an always good question is, “How are you doing today?” The last word is important, as it recognizes that emotions fluctuate and that he doesn’t have to be any particular way or over anything. “It’s a way to recognize the loss and that it still might be difficult,” Kaiser says. “Acknowledging that can be huge.”