My dear friends had their baby last night, almost full term. The baby was born alive but then, after a few hours, they lost her. They were still holding her when they called me this afternoon. My instinct is to jump on a plane, hug her, cry with them both. But their family is with her now—maybe I should wait. I realize this is different for everyone, but maybe there are some universal comforts. What can I do?
Your friends are lucky to have you by her side, even from a distance. They need your voice, your love, and your patience. But it's a trial ahead. We hope the following ideas may help you navigate their needs a little better.
in the hospital: pictures of the baby
[Julia] If no one else has mentioned the option, you may want to help them decide if they want to have professional pictures taken. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is a volunteer organization of professional photographers who will go to the hospital and take respectful, beautiful pictures for free. If they are comfortable with the idea, it could be a wonderful memory for the family to have. Deal with this quickly to have it organized for when your friends are getting ready to let go of their baby’s body. Some parents can't look at pictures afterwards, and some can't get enough of them. But you don’t know how you’ll react, and it’s best to have at least some, in case your heart needs them tucked away.
in the hospital: an autopsy
[Julia] It’s upsetting for many to think about giving their baby's body to the doctors for these tests, but if they don't know what happened, it might be a good idea to request one. There are two reasons. One is that for some people not knowing is very hard in itself. Two is that if and when they begin thinking of trying again, not knowing can make that much harder to contemplate.
in the hospital: be proactive in helping her to end lactation
[Julia] Very soon, the mother's milk will come in. It will suck eternal sucktitude. Share our article on ending lactation with her partner or family so they can get her supplies—or do this yourself, overnighting them to her. The hospitals are hit-and-miss in supporting mothers who have lost babies, both in terms of emotional or therapeutic support and in ending lactation. I’m nearly sure the article on our site is about the most comprehensive thing you can find on it anywhere on the internet.
immediately after loss: do make casseroles, don't send flowers
[Niobe] Don't send cut flowers. It depressed me terribly to watch all the bouquets people had sent after the twins' deaths slowing withering and dying. While I didn't really read them, I was glad to receive cards and notes. They seemed like physical proof that someone cared, but didn't require anything in return.
[Janis] If either of them are avid readers, send books—but make sure they will mesh with the parents' views and beliefs, not yours. If your friends are not religious, don't send them a book about their baby being with Jesus. Use common sense. We have a reading list here as a starting point. I did like Swallowed by a Snake and a few others. Again, ask them. I devoured books in the beginning but I have heard other parents say they wanted to read about something other than loss. Like a good, epic novel, or magazines.
[Tash] Immediately after their loss, ask them what they need. Check into things like grocery delivery and making sure the kids (if they have them) have rides to school and activities, and maybe see if they'd like a housecleaner for a few weeks—because they won't feel like doing much of anything.
[Janis] Food is always useful but make sure you ask what they’d appreciate most. This could be a freezer meal, a gift certificate at a favourite restaurant, or a load of groceries. But again, ask. I loathed going out on errands like these on the early days, especially to places where we frequent and where I’d been seen pregnant, where someone might ask me, ‘So where's the baby?’ The goal is to do whatever will help keep their life somewhat functioning with minimal effort on their part.
[Bon] I second Janis’s point that just keeping the fridge stocked with a few decent, healthy options or whatever they like to snack on, so that they don't have to worry about heading out to the grocery store and dealing with people. Even frozen lasagnas that don't require any clean-up might be welcome—we came home childless, as your friend has, but were so emotionally depleted in the early days that cooking was about the last thing I could think about. I didn't need a freezer full of food, but when people brought little things over—the mother of a childhood friend whom I hadn't seen in twenty years dropped off a loaf of homemade bread—I was touched.
[Janis] Ask them how they'd like to deal with email, social media accounts, or website subscriptions. They may appreciate help to delete unwanted messages, unsubscribe from lists or automated parenting websites, adjust their privacy settings, or change a Facebook timeline to remove regular updates from their newsfeed, for the time being.
give them opportunities to speak plainly
[Janis] In the beginning, I only wanted to write. I did not want to see people because I wanted the freedom to cry at will, without having to worry about people feeling awkward. So I wrote and they read. I find the loneliest time is some weeks after, when you are still in shock, still reeling, and everyone has slowly, somewhat turned their backs and get on with their normal life.
[Tash] There's this awful lull about 8 weeks in where everything dries up—the cards and flowers and food and notices of donations stop coming, people stop asking how you're doing. That’s when you can really help her by talking, or visiting, or helping cook, or simply asking how they're doing—how they're really doing.
[Bon] Take their cues, but don't rely on him or her to start the conversations. I have been a listener all my life, though I'm an extrovert and a pretty confident conversationalist. But the idea of inserting my need onto others, of just bringing up what was tearing me apart in conversation, was torture for me. I needed a way in. I needed to be asked, “How do you feel about (insert specific topic)?” so that I really felt that the person was interested, that I wasn't burdening them. Then I felt safe to talk, and could probably have talked for hours. But I did not know how to start.
[Niobe] Follow your friends' lead. While many grieving parents want or need to talk about their sadness or anger or to discuss their lost babies, others feel differently. I had one well-meaning friend who, unprompted, kept bringing up my twins. I didn't say anything to her because I knew she was only trying to sympathize with me, but what I wanted more than anything was for her not to remind me of my grief unless I brought it up first.
keep your own motherhood and children at a distance
[Janis] For a while it hurt to see the children of friends who were of all ages, not just babies, simply because they are alive and free from knowing death. Not too long after our loss, a friend of mine wrote to tell me about a gorgeous weekend she’d had with her children. It made me feel like a failure, like I was holding my girls captive in the house as I still did not have the strength to go out and face the world. Unless they ask, try to not talk too much about your life in all its normalness, even if your intention is to say Someday, you will be ordinary like me again.
[Niobe] There isn't really all that much that you or anyone else can do to ease your friends' grief, but you can be more aware of what you’re doing or saying that may add to it. My family and friends didn’t understand that it was acutely painful for me to see or hear any mention of other people's babies or children, or to be around someone who I knew had a baby.
use your skills or artistry to contribute rituals or tributes
[Janis] I love origami and my friends folded me a lot of paper cranes. A friend who loves to knit made me a shawl, to wrap around me in comfort. Or perhaps your friend likes music and you can put together a compilation for her, songs for summoning peace or spirit. In Swallowed by a Snake, the author described a ritual of the Cree Indians—they would go to the forest, find a tree, ask permission, and strip it of some bark. Later, the bereaved would go back occasionally to watch the tree heal, as s/he proceeds with their own grieving and healing. I had thought of asking someone to accompany in silence on long walks, and perhaps strip a bit of bark too.
[Julia] I get comfort from burning candles like this one. They don't burn for the advertised 120 hours, but they certainly last more than three days. The same site has coloured candles of the same shape and size, but they are more expensive, and I happen to like white ones. It gave me some measure of comfort to see the candle continue to burn as the darkness settled around the rest of my house, and as I came downstairs the next day, and the next. Still there.
months/year(s) after loss: help rebuild with loving experiences
[Kate] In addition to helping right away, if they want it, be present after the initial flurry of grief and trauma, during that lonely period after the most urgent shock has settled. After, of course, you've asked them what they want—which may or may not include your company right away. Don't take it personally if it takes a while for them to resume the usual banter or friendship traditions.
Then—when they're ready, and it may take a while—suggest a bit of travel, a challenging hike, a yoga retreat, a roadtrip, an adventure together, or just wine and good food. Whatever might give them a distraction, some enjoyment, or some fresh air. It might be just hanging out together, doing nothing. But only whenever they're ready. That may be months from now or longer. But even planning something in the distance might be a bit of light for them, something to look forward to.
the most important gift: more listening, less talking
[Kate] Husbands, parents and other loved ones have a vested interest in the pain going away—it distresses them, and they want their sister/daughter/wife back in happy form as soon as possible. It’s meant well and it comes from love, but “Don't dwell!” and “Don't torture yourself!" lands on the grieving mother as criticism, as though her feelings are inappropriate, abnormal, unwelcome. To lose a baby is an isolating experience. To be rushed along the path of healing makes you feel even more lonely, makes you grip more tightly to the blackness.
Even years from now she'll need someone to talk to about her baby, someone who will just hold her hand without trying to fix her or cheer her up. Through both words and actions, she needs to be shown that her feelings are normal and expected, and that she is supported.
[Julia] Run interference with the well-meaning but selfishly guilt-denying family and friends. She will be very sad for a very long time. She may sometimes be angry, and that is also nothing to be upset over or afraid of. There is nothing wrong with any of her feelings. There is also nothing wrong with a drink or five, if she needs it.
The most important thing is to not take any of your friend’s words or actions personally—for instance, if she doesn’t want to see you for a while. Her (and her partner's) grief is about their baby. Entering into their space is best done without any preconceived notions and with absolute willingness to do whatever they need. We call that abiding, and it is a selfless, non-trivial, and trying thing to do.
[Bon] Part of the gift you're giving her is just taking this seriously. You won't necessarily make anything better, but you may be able to keep it from being worse, if that makes sense. And trust me—that in itself is a great, great gift indeed.
What gave you comfort in the first few weeks and months after the loss of your baby? What did friends and family do for you that made you feel less alone and more acknowledged—and what did they do that grated on you? Knowing what you know now, how would you support a friend who also suffered a loss?