If someone you know is grieving after pregnancy loss, here’s a guide what to say and what not to say to show your support!
What to say to someone after a Pregnancy Loss?
Most of us have unknowingly, said the wrong thing to people in the throes of their grief, unaware we could have said it differently. When it comes to a pregnancy loss in particular, there is a unique dread that we struggle with confronting the actual reality of it, let alone know how and when to respond to the grieving parents.
Here is a quick guide on what to say and what not to say when you visit your grieving friend, and the timeliness in sending a text or card or speaking to them on the phone or in person.
- When to respond to someone’s loss
- Keep Condolences Simple
- How to listen to a grieving parent talk about their baby?
- Why do we fear this unexpected loss of miscarriage so much?
- Multiple births and loss
- How to check in with the parents after their pregnancy loss?
- How long does grieving take?
- How to remember their baby after the loss?
- When to invite bereaved parents to future events?
- What is pregnancy loss and perinatal loss?
- How to seek professional help after a loss?
My client’s dreams of a little sibling for her 4-year-old daughter were shattered when at 5 weeks pregnant, she experienced a bleed while visiting her family overseas.
She knew in that moment of unexpected cramping and blood loss that this baby was literally draining out of her. Getting the right medical help in a foreign country was difficult. Even more difficult was the lack of support from her mother who didn’t understand why she was grieving a speck of a baby in her eyes, at all.
And in hindsight, said all the wrong things to support her daughter.
Losing a pregnancy or baby is a deeply raw and traumatic experience for the woman and her partner. It is useful to know how best to offer comfort and support to your friend or relative going through their deep sorrow. Read on for gentle recommendations in what to say to someone who lost a baby.
When to respond to someone’s loss?
As soon as you know is the short answer.
Delaying it because you are uncomfortable or unsure what to say is more about you.
Send a text, card, send flowers, ring them and leave a voicemail if they don’t pick up. Respond as soon as you know. A few days later, send another message or connect with other friends or family to gauge next steps.
Why is this so important?
Every grieving parent will remember who offered condolences and who didn’t.
Each condolence is a remembering of that child. And it holds weight…
It’s fair to say that most of us find it difficult to respond to someone’s loss. However, ignoring/ side-stepping it is not the answer. Sadly, it is more a reflection on our deep discomfort in how to adequately hold someone in their deep loss (what does deep loss look like anyway?).
- Remind yourself that if it were you in that situation, what would be helpful? This is the art of empathy – the shoe on the other foot!
- What might lessen the ache in your heart, lessen the dread every time you saw a neighbour or a parent at your child’s school coming to ask you about your new baby, that wasn’t?
Keep Condolences Simple
- Keep it simple when expressing your sentiments of condolences to your friend or relative after the loss of their baby. It might sound trite to say, ‘We’re thinking of you and your baby’. However, that is the essence of your message, so say it how it is.
- A common phrase to avoid is, ‘Sorry for your loss!’ Sadly, this message is a poor excuse of the right condolence in this regard. It suffers from global overuse and is trotted out as a default excuse that does not convey enough meaning to mean anything!
- Better to say something else or add more sincerity to it. As in – ‘I am / We are so sorry for your terrible loss. How can I / we help you in any way?
- Do not allude to, ‘you must be feeling terrible!’ or similar you must be … statements. You – really have no idea how they are feeling!
- Adding rationalisations or explanations are not necessary. They weaken the message of support and further suggest to the grieving parent there was a reason for their baby’s loss. No parent wants to hear that at the time. It is for them to arrive at that possibility further down the track.
- Offers of help and offers to listen to the grieving parents are other practical ways of showing support.
How to check in with the parents after their pregnancy loss?
- First step is, be brave and call them after hearing about their pregnancy or baby loss!
- Continue to keep in touch with them by offering your support, whatever that looks like, for as long as possible for both parties.
Know that during the first weeks and months of a baby loss, people and support are there.
- Around the 6 months mark, both can start to taper off.
- All the best advice states that this is the time when grieving parents really need help.
- Not to move forward, which is an empty statement at the best of times, but more to imagine and see that life is still doable even with a huge hole in their heart and actively grieving.
- This period of grief can last up to 2 years or so.
Yes, the outward grief will lessen, but the hole on the inside does not.
Men and women tend to grieve differently and there is no right and wrong in how they grieve.
How to listen to a grieving parent talk about their baby?
This is where supporters feel most challenged and vulnerable listening to a grieving parent’s story about their loss.
How to listen is challenging because in our society we actively shy away from the uncomfortable topic of death. Especially young life cut short!
Read on to discover how ‘normal’ our reactions are to our friend’s grief…
- Not wanting to call them. Struggling to send a text message…
- Notice any temptation to stop the parent from talking, just in case…
- To talk about other things in order to avoid even asking how they are feeling…
- Notice you are avoiding eye contact with them. Or becoming suddenly busy in making tea for them or other household and distracting tasks.
- Wanting to avoid them…
However, if you can push through your discomfort, you might discover how much of a gift it is to hear your friend speak so honestly and deeply, and to notice your own heart respond, as opposed to your head.
Your job is to simply listen.
To not offer platitudes or explanations of why this could have happened. To listen is to listen with loving kindness and to notice your breathing as you really begin to listen.
Notice where you feel challenged and allow yourself to feel sad and grief-stricken yourself as you listen. Smile and laugh if it seems fitting. Pain and pleasure often sit side by side. That is how to listen.
Why do we fear this unexpected loss of miscarriage so much?
- A baby is the beginning of new life for the baby and the expectant family they are born into and the greater community they would have become a part of. When a baby dies, the expected order of life and death is upended and mortifying for everyone.
- A part of us dies too that that could have been us!
- There is a reverberation of disbelief that affects us all and it is important to talk about it and act with the greatest degree of compassionate and practical care possible to everyone concerned.
We struggle with accepting it and sometimes think, if we ignore it, or somehow think it didn’t happen we can set it aside, and – not risk being contaminated by someone’s pain, if we seek to become involved as a supporter. Irrational – but there it is. Just like grief!
- Pain is scary and our human mind will do almost anything to pretend the pain does not exist!
- Grief and loss of something so wanted and precious conflicts the very essence of our looking toward the future when it has been snarled so cruelly by death.
- If you are pregnant yourself, or have suffered a miscarriage, or are struggling through IVF; then wanting to avoid someone else’s pain is understandable. Therefore it is important to show support in the way you can. A card or flowers or donation to their charity of choice would be an appreciated response.
Multiple births and loss
When Melissa was 32 weeks, one of her twin boys died inutero, although she didn’t know it at the time. At 34 weeks she realised there was less movement and an ultrasound revealed one single heartbeat. A few days later, she was induced and went into labour to deliver the live twin and the dead one. It took her several years of art therapy and counselling to accept that she had done nothing wrong to cause the end result. Every year, her small family celebrates the twins birthday with joy, sadness and appreciation.
Consider saying, ‘thinking of you and your babies at this time’. ‘How can I support you at this time?’
How long does grieving take?
There is no absolute time frame.
A grieving mother and father will grieve differently. It is true to say that men may recover more quickly from their loss. And no surprise that a woman who grew her baby in her belly and birthed it at some point, is going to feel a much deeper degree of bereavement and longevity of that grief and loss.
Grief is a process that includes shock, denial, anger, sorrow, resentment, shame & guilt and acceptance – all the dark emotions of the black soul at its bleakest! There is no linear process of grief. Feelings can be triggered by a photo of the baby, someone else’s baby, the name of the baby, anything at all…
It is a state of deep sorrow where the loss of your baby is never forgotten, only the grief is somewhat diminished as daily life gradually starts up again.
Active bereavement may take up to 2-5 years or more. It is more a concern if daily life continues to be disrupted after a period of time. In which case, seeking professional support would be recommended.
It will also depend on other things, both internal to the individuals and their external circumstances.
In brief – these are some of the factors that will complicate grief and /or prolong it
- other grief events s/he have experienced (cumulative grief)
- individual coping styles
- any past or present mental health experiences
- familial support
- other children
- other stresses
How to remember their baby after the loss?
This is the crux of losing a baby, no matter at what stage it happened, or how old or young the baby was!
Grieving parents want to talk about their baby, their loss, their feelings and feel safe and heard in the process.
Ideally, to remember their baby with others that care about them and can grieve their loss too.
This is not morbid as such. Instead, a deeply ingrained need to talk about what happened.
To remember their baby as (s)he was developing and growing bigger.
Remembering how she felt about becoming a mother, her dreams and thoughts and now this horrific and unexpected reality. The father’s reality of suddenly being dispossessed of his future child!
All of that needs to be talked about. Not just with each other or a therapist / counsellor or other professionals. But to their friends and family, if those persons can hold the space to hear them!
Often, people put a deadline on how long parents should grieve for- and this may cause discomfort to those people.
However, this is a vital part of bereavement. It is a remembering of the future they had for their baby and over time, the gradual dimming of those plans and a timely acceptance and letting go. However long it takes…
Inviting bereaved parents to future events
This can be an awkward stage yet is best approached as directly as possible.
Bereaved parents are already experiencing isolation and loneliness from their usual networks, so any further exclusion can seem slightly cruel.
- Particularly children’s birthdays!
- Or after work events
- Fitness activities that the person normally participates in
- Local community groups you are both a part of
Speak to your friends, seek advice from the right people and think it best to invite them anyway, giving them the choice to come or not. Sometimes, repeated refusals over a period of time may put off future invitations, and best to persevere anyway.
How to navigate your friend’s loss moving forward
For grieving parents, their life has temporarily stopped or gone into a deep pause, as they know it, while they process and navigate this dark and confusing passage. Pressing the start button may take a while. Meanwhile, if they already have a child, the parenting of that child or children must still continue, albeit conflicted. Here is a short list of helpful tasks:
- A roster of friends and family for childcare and school drop-offs and pick-ups is a good start
- A meal roster is another – check their meal preferences
- A small grocery shop – check their food preferences
- Laundry or cleaning if they allow it
- Walking the dog
- Grief counselling reminders if they are seeing a professional person
- A short visit to check their wellbeing and talk about their baby loss
- Someone to mow lawns or do other work around the home
- Talking with other friends and family to update how you can help
- This is important. Giving selflessly is not taught well in our society and their can be underlying expectations that your help is unappreciated, so it’s very helpful to talk about your feelings to a therapist or understanding friend or friends
One day, they will say yes, knowing they are still welcome and thought about among their circle of friends and family.
What is pregnancy loss and perinatal loss
Pregnancy loss can occur as a miscarriage, also called a spontaneous abortion, medically induced abortion, stillbirth or as a catch-all, pregnancy loss, and typically happens within the first trimester or 3 months.
A perinatal loss is one that happens within baby’s first year of life.
But first, the statistics and definitions of losing a baby from miscarriage to stillbirth, neonatal death or within the first year (perinatal death).
Every year, around 110,000 Australian women have a miscarriage. 2,200 more endure the pain of stillbirth, 600 lose their baby in the first 28 days after birth and many more face the grief of termination for medical reasons.
What is a miscarriage?
In Australia, if doctors are unsure how far along a woman’s pregnancy is and the baby or fetus weighs less than 400 gm, it is considered a miscarriage.
What is the meaning of a miscarriage?
The Oxford definition is:
- the spontaneous or unplanned expulsion of a foetus from the womb before it is able to survive independently. “his wife had a miscarriage”
- an unsuccessful outcome of something planned. “the miscarriage of the project”
When do most miscarriages occur in Australia?
Miscarriages happen in about 1 in 5 confirmed pregnancies, usually in the first 12 weeks and are caused by congenital anomalies in the baby’s DNA. As part of standard practice, the small foetuses are examined to determine cause of death. This can be helpful for parents wanting to conceive again. Many women miscarry before they even know they are pregnant.
There are different types of miscarriages that occur for different reasons.
- Incomplete miscarriage – some pregnancy tissue (the developing baby, placenta and pregnancy membranes) is passed out from the uterus (the organ that contains and nurtures the developing baby) and the rest remains in the uterus.
- Induced miscarriage – (also called – planned abortion or termination) is a planned, voluntary termination of a pregnancy. Sometimes an induced miscarriage is necessary due to medical conditions of the woman or the baby. An induced miscarriage may be a medical process or a surgical procedure.
- Missed miscarriage – the developing baby has died and all the pregnancy tissue remains in the uterus.
- Spontaneous miscarriage – (also called – spontaneous abortion) the unplanned complete loss from the uterus of the pregnancy tissue in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
- Threatened miscarriage – vaginal bleeding that occurs over several days or weeks. It is difficult to predict at this time if the pregnancy may end or continue.
What is a stillbirth?
A stillbirth baby is one who has reached 28 weeks or more and dies inutero (inside the womb or uterus).
What percentage of babies are stillborn in Australia?
7.7 stillbirths per 1,000 births (2,273 deaths)AIHW 29 Nov 2022
What is a neonatal death?
A neonatal death is a baby that either dies during the labour and birth or within the first 28 days of life.
In Australia, all causes of stillbirth (32%) and neonatal deaths (36%) were as a result of congenital anomaly (chromosomal abnormalities) of the babies DNA.
Seeking professional help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Palliative Care Advice Service
- Your local community health centre, hospital or palliative care service
- A trained bereavement counsellor
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement – bereavement counselling and support services Tel. 1800 642 066
- Lifeline – crisis support and suicide prevention services Tel. 13 11 14 (24 hours, 7 days)
- Tel. 1300 651 251 – for counselling, crisis intervention, information and referral (24 hours, 7 days)
- Griefline provide a national toll-free helpline 8 am to 8 pm Monday to Friday (AEST) Tel. 1300 845 745.
There is also a free Book a Call service allowing help-seekers the option to schedule a Grief Support Call from a specially trained Griefline telephone support person.
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