How to: Support A Friend After Infant Loss
October is pregnancy and infant loss awareness month. Most people are surprised to learn that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 pregnancies (20-25%) end in miscarriage. Miscarriages occur most often in the first trimester and are usually due to genetic abnormalities. Although many people aren’t aware of how common they can be, the frequency of first trimester miscarriages has been seared in our collective subconscious, as the cultural norm is typically to wait until the second trimester to share the news of a pregnancy (in case you have a miscarriage; the rationale is that you won’t have to tell anyone). Unfortunately, this can lead to women feeling isolated, shame-filled, and lonely while grieving a devastating loss. Still, the decision to share a pregnancy is very personal, and each mom must decide for herself when it feels right to share. If you have suffered a pregnancy loss, please visit nationalshare.org for more resources. It’s never too early and never too late to get support.
INFANT LOSS: A GRIEF THAT IS ALL TOO OFTEN AVOIDED AS A TABOO SUBJECT IN SOCIETY. MANY CALL IT A “SILENT SORROW.”
Infant loss happens much less frequently than miscarriage, and you may or may not know anyone who has lost an infant. My friend, Renee Boyd, lost her daughter, Sydney, at 38 weeks and is bravely sharing her story with us here, in hopes that it gives some background and practical advice for you to support a friend or acquaintance who has lost a baby.
I met Renee through church when we were both living in San Diego, and once I moved, we stayed in touch (mostly through social media. I knew she was expecting her first daughter and had seen some photos of her baby shower. I was shocked and heartbroken to see her next post, indicating that she lost her daughter at 33 weeks. I have really admired how Renee and her husband post on social media, especially every year on her birthday, to keep Sydney’s memory alive. Their attitude of openness and their willingness to welcome in the community as they remember their daughter has made the subject a little less taboo for me personally, and it has also helped to lift the veil of a grieving mother. We both hope Sydney’s story helps you to understand more of what a grieving mother goes through, while also providing practical advice on how to support your friends/coworkers/acquaintances who have suffered this tremendous loss.
Three years ago, I became all too familiar with the devastation of losing a baby. Almost eight months into pregnancy bliss, my husband and I were busy preparing Sydney's nursery, washing and folding her clothes, cleaning toys, and counting down the days until we got to hold her in our arms. We were completely blindsided when we tragically lost our healthy daughter to an umbilical cord accident (a knot in her umbilical cord that we were told was a ‘freak accident’). Learning that there was no heartbeat was only the beginning of our nightmare. I was wheeled to a Labor and Delivery room to begin the induction process that would end up taking 48 hours before I delivered Sydney.
WHAT MEANT THE MOST
Several close friends came by the hospital—one dropped off food, one brought a care package with toiletries and snacks, one came by to give us hugs, and another sat in the waiting room and prayed for us. One friend went shopping for a preemie outfit, so that we would have something to dress Sydney in for pictures (this meant so much!). She also went to our house to get some of our clothes (since we didn't have anything with us when we went to the hospital). She also moved all the baby stuff into the nursery and closed the door, so that we wouldn't have to see it when we came home. It took me 3 months to open the nursery door after we returned home.
We were in such a state of shock and survival at the hospital, we didn't really want to see or talk to anyone. These were very close friends, and what they did meant a lot, but they were all respectful and didn't stay long. We were more up for visitors once we got home and I was through the delivery.
When I finally delivered Sydney, the room was painfully silent. We had a few hours to hold her and soak in her beauty before we had to hand her off to a nurse and say goodbye on this side of heaven. We left the hospital with only a teddy bear in our arms and returned home in a state of complete shock and unbearable heartache.
OVERWHELMED BY SUPPORT
Our family, friends and even both of our workplaces were very supportive. We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and kindness, especially that first month. Our kitchen looked like a memorial—full of cards, flowers, and gifts. Our friends set up a meal train, and we were slowly able to start seeing them when they delivered meals. Friends would send texts to check in with me for the first few months, but it started to taper off after 3 months. That first Mother’s Day and Sydney's first heavenly birthday, we also received a lot of support. But as time goes on, it becomes quiet and people move on.
It was especially difficult when I returned to work (10 weeks later), because many coworkers didn't know what happened and thought I was on maternity leave. I did e-mail my boss ahead of time, asking that our news be shared with as many people as possible prior to my return, but not everyone heard. I was asked daily, "How is your baby? How was maternity leave?!" I had to come up with my short replies, so that I wouldn't start crying in the middle of work. Other people were very awkward and said nothing.
If you know someone who has lost a baby, it can be difficult to know what to do or say, which is understandable. Loving and supporting them may be easier than you think. Below are simple and practical ways to support a friend after their loss.
You may be at a loss for what to say, but there is no shortage of ways you can show your love and support through your actions. Consider dropping off a meal, delivering groceries, bringing them a coffee, sending them flowers or a card, offering to help with laundry or running errands, or maybe just be willing to lay there and cry with them. Often people will say, “let me know if you need anything,” but it is unlikely that a grieving couple will reach out, because they don’t know always know what they need in that moment. Even the simplest life tasks (like remembering to eat) can be a struggle, as they are experiencing unbearable pain and grief. You can text that you will be dropping off a frozen lasagna (in disposable containers, of course) on their doorstep, and ask them to let you know if they are up for a quick hello. Or tell them that you will be at Target this afternoon and you were wondering what was on their list. If you don’t know the person very well, a card is a simple and respectful way to acknowledge their loss.
WORDS OF COMFORT
It is best to say less and just listen; more than saying the right thing, it’s about being the right thing—which is present, empathetic, and willing to sit with them in their pain. In a well-intentioned but misguided effort to comfort people after a loss, people will offer clichés, like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and, “God needed another angel,” or, “They were too perfect for this world.” Others will try to be hopeful by offering some variation of, “Don’t worry, you’ll have more kids.” Unfortunately, these comments can be hurtful and dismissive, and rather than offering comfort, they can minimize their loss. Instead, tell them things like, “I am heartbroken for you.” Or, “I am deeply sorry,” or, "I can’t even imagine what you are going through.” The best offerings are the most honest; if you aren’t sure what to say, then tell them, “I don’t know what to say, but I care, and I am here.” Just love them and listen to them. Be sensitive and offer empathy.
A quick check-in text saying, "How are you holding up?" or, “"How are you feeling today?" is an easy way to let her know she is on your mind. It doesn’t even have to require a response. Consider texting her, "Thinking of you,” or, "Love you." Or, “I left a latte at your door.”
SEND A THOUGHTFUL MEMORIAL GIFT
Give them a gift to remember their child (scroll to the end to see gift ideas). Renee said, “We were given the most thoughtful gifts that display our daughter’s name and items we can put up in our house to remember her. These gifts touched our hearts.”
“Friends whom I hadn't spoken to in years, even as far back as middle school, reached out. The ones who sent personalized gifts that I'm not close to had experienced infant loss themselves, so they wrote about their experiences and said they would be there for me if I needed it.”
“We were also sent a hope box from Hope Mommies, a faith-based non-profit in Texas that was a box full of goodies: lotions, bath balls, books on infant loss & heaven, a Bible, and info on Hope Mommies. It introduced me to this group of women who have all lost babies. They have online support groups, blogs, books, etc. I ended up going on a weekend retreat with them and have been part of some online Bible studies/support groups. Meeting other moms who have experienced loss has been one of my greatest support systems through this journey.”
GIVE THEM GRACE
Initially, they may need space as they process what just happened. They may be in a state of shock and not want to talk or have visitors. Be patient with them. There will come a time in the weeks or months ahead when they will need you—especially after all the cards, texts and phone calls stop. Grieving a child is a lifelong journey and the pain of that loss never goes away. Their hearts will begin to heal with time, but they will never stop loving, missing, or thinking of their child. They will never be the same person, and that is okay. Give them grace in this area and realize they will grieve longer than you expect them to, and maybe in different ways.
COMMUNICATE OPENLY, BUT ON THEIR TERMS
Since everyone deals with grief differently, they may want to talk about their loss, or it might be too difficult for them. Ask them if they want to talk about it. This answer could look different during different stages of their grief. There could be trauma involved, and topics like pregnancy or delivery could be a trigger for them. Keep this in mind and be sensitive.
SAY THEIR BABY’S NAME
Acknowledge that their child existed. Say their name. Don’t be afraid that you will upset them. They didn’t forget that their baby died and never will. Many people are afraid of hurting them more if they talk about the baby, but that is not the case for most. If parents talk about their baby, then they are open to your talking to them about their baby. By saying their name, you show them that you remember that they lived.
REMEMBER IMPORTANT DATES
Birthdays, due dates, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day are all significant days for a parent after their loss. These days and the days leading up to them can be very difficult. Remembering special dates, like their child’s birthday, will mean the world to them and costs you nothing. Save the date on your calendar or set a reminder on your phone so you will remember to text, call or send them a card that week. They already feel like the world is moving on, but you can comfort them with the knowledge that their child will not be forgotten.
More on Sydney’s Birth Story:
It was the weekend, and we were busy preparing for Sydney's arrival. My husband, Brady, and my mom were painting the nursery pink, and I was cleaning baby toys. I hadn't felt movement that morning, which was strange, because Sydney was a very active baby. By mid-day, I still hadn't felt her move, and my mom encouraged us to get it checked out. Brady and I naively went to the hospital, completely clueless that anything could be wrong. We were blindsided when the nurse couldn't find a heartbeat and went to get the doctor. It was then that we knew something was very wrong. The doctor confirmed that there was no heartbeat, and we sat in a small white room weeping.
Shortly after learning that Sydney had died, I was wheeled to a room in Labor & Delivery and the nurses began my induction. Since this was my first baby and I was not 40 weeks pregnant, my body was not ready to deliver, and the induction process took much longer than normal. It took nearly 48 hours, but I'm thankful that it gave me time to somewhat process what was happening and prepare my heart for holding Sydney.
While in labor, we were faced with some gut-wrenching decisions that no parent should have to make: Where did we want to bury Sydney, or did we want her cremated? Meanwhile, we could hear the cries of other babies being born just rooms away. It wasn't until I delivered Sydney that they were able to confirm the cause of death, which was a knot in her umbilical cord. She was perfectly healthy; it was just a freak accident. We were given a death certificate instead of a birth certificate.
We were at the hospital for a total of 4 days. My body went through the normal healing process from a full delivery. My milk came in and I had to try to stop milk production for days with frozen cabbage leaves.
The hospital staff was incredible—compassionate and caring. They did everything they could to make me comfortable. They had a photographer come from Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Unfortunately, my biggest regret is not taking enough photos. By the time the photographer arrived, Sydney's appearance started to change, and I can barely look at those photos. I cherish the few photos I took on my cell phone when she was still warm from my body and looked like she was sleeping.
Ideas for Gifts to give in memory of a Lost Baby
Thank you so much for taking the time to read a part of Renee and Sydney’s story. We hope it is helpful if you know someone who experiences infant loss. Renee has done a wonderful job keeping Sydney’s memory alive by having a small beach memorial every year and sharing photos on social media, which allows us all to remember her sweet life. I cannot even begin to imagine how devastating, heartbreaking, or soul-crushing it would be to experience the loss of a little one. Renee is my hero, and I am so grateful she has let us in on a very dark time in her life and allowed light to radiate through her story and give hope to other parents.
Thank you to Rebekah Daly and Shannon Covey for editing