How to help loved ones through the difficult time of pregnancy loss
When I first met Sarah (name changed for confidentiality), she was worn out from her fertility journey. She had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for almost five years and had become socially isolated because she didn’t want people to know why she was so tired (stress), had gained weight (hormones), and had puffy eyes (crying).
We worked together to balance her health and hormones and those of her partner. She subsequently got pregnant and they were completely overjoyed. They found out in November so when she went to her family gathering over Christmas, she made her big announcement. Her family was over the moon, knowing that she had been wishing for this for so long.
One week later, Sarah’s baby passed away.
She did nothing wrong. Without explanation or reason, her baby’s life ended before it even had a chance to begin. And with her baby other things died too: a part of her, a family member, and the dream of watching her baby’s future unfold with unlimited possibilities.
Sarah would cry in my office, not wanting to share her feelings at work. She also didn’t want her family to see her pain. More than that, she didn’t want to hear their advice on how to ‘move on’. So how could Sarah’s family have supported her?
Often, as family and friends, we struggle with what to say or do when a loved one experiences pregnancy loss. Whether from miscarriage, termination, stillbirth or neonatal death, the loss of a baby can be devastating.
We don’t like to see our loved ones suffer but we feel uncertain about how to proceed. Our own complex feelings about the loss may also get in the way. In truth, no matter what we say or do, it will never be quite enough. That being said, your openness to supporting their needs will go a long way to help someone through this difficult time.
Here are a few tips for helping a loved one through pregnancy loss:
Many of us worry about what we should say. Sometimes the answer is not what we say, but that we listen.
Open up a conversation
Consider offering a space that allows the friend or loved one to tell their story if they wish. For many this can decrease their feelings of isolation. Start by sending supportive words by text, email or card. A hug can sometimes be a welcomed gesture of support. Speak also by phone or in person. You may consider starting with the following phrases:
- “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
- “I wish things would have been different.”
- “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling.”
- “I’m here for you.”
They may not want anything from you right away — and that is okay. But keep offering. What you are telling them is that you will be there for them if and when they need you.
Avoid passing judgement
There is no one right way to grieve. Loss is complex and is influenced by personal, cultural, religious, and social contexts. The way we grieve can vary tremendously — even within families — which can sometimes lead to additional stress on an already strained support network. Some of us grieve more openly by using words, tears, or anger to move through loss; others of us have a more private, contained, and introspective process of grief. All of this can be normal. It is your job as a loved one to avoid passing judgement and to avoid saying things like:
- “This happened for the best.”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “Time will heal.”
- “Mother Nature knows best.”
- “You’re young. You can have others.”
Instead, remain curious about their experiences. Be present.
What can I do for you?
Grief can sometimes lead to an inability to manage immediate tasks such as funeral arrangements or everyday routines such as housework, cooking, childcare, or dog walking. Explore if your support in these initiatives could be helpful to them. Some people find memorializing a helpful and tangible way of managing loss. Options include photographs, footprints, written notes, planting a tree or flowers, burial, scrapbooks or memorial services. You may mention these possibilities to your loved one and offer to help organize should that be their wish.
Also remember that they are not just their grief. As time goes by, your loved one may wish to normalize their life by participating in events that bring them joy or comfort. Consider joining them in a shared interest and ask if there are ways you could help them feel more comfortable being in social situations again.
You can’t do it all
Despite your best intentions, you may not be the right person for your loved one at this time. They may need solitude. They may desire support from others who have experienced the same loss — which may not be you. Grief can sometimes lead to unexpected reactions that may be directed towards you and at times may feel hurtful. All of this is normal. Respect their process and offer support separate from you. Naturopaths, social workers, pastoral care, support groups, and online resources can all offer different forms of support that may be beneficial.
Take care of yourself
You may be grieving too – from the loss of your own relationship to the baby or to a painful reminder of losses you have experienced in your past. Sometimes our own grief will push us to distance ourselves from the ones we are hoping to support. Consider reflecting on your own coping strategies and acknowledge your losses. You too may benefit from a support network of friends, naturopaths, social workers, pastoral care, support groups, and online resources. Try not to rely on your grieving loved one to comfort you as you try to understand your own potential need for healing.
Grief is not linear and can sometimes go on for a very long time. However, your loved one is not alone. For Sarah, the best support was to be given the space she needed to grieve, in her own way and in her own time. Eventually she was able to process her emotions. Now she has found a way to live with and alongside her loss.
Radford, E., Hughes, M (2015). Women’s experiences of early miscarriage: implications for nursing care. J Clin Nurs, 24(11-12), 1457-64.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (2014-2015). Bad news in the birthing room. ALARM Course Manual 21stedition. 44-64.
Sands: stillbirth and neonatal death charity (2016). For family and friends. UK: Sands.Available:https://www.sands.org.uk/sites/default/files/160806%20FAMILY%20AND%20FRIENDS%20LINKED%20v4%20-%2022.06.16.pdf
You may also enjoy reading The Secret Side of Grief: The Culture of Blame, by Megan Devine