Most of us have been touched by the loss of a baby – either our own or the baby of someone close to us. It is far more common than you might think. In fact, as many as 70 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. That is a staggeringly high number, but fortunately most of those miscarriages happen before the woman even knows she is pregnant. Many of them are pregnancies that end practically before they get started.
But tragically, many women DO know they are pregnant and they lose the baby in utero, during delivery, or shortly after delivery. Dealing with this kind of loss is awkward for all of us. We are left wanting to help, but not knowing what to say. There are several things to remember when helping families working through this kind of loss.
First of all, when you talk to someone who has lost a baby, use the baby’s name. You must be conscious of the fact that for most families, it was a human being. It wasn’t a zygote, embryo, or fetus. It wasn’t tissue or just “a baby.” It was a child who probably had a name. The child was considered part of the family and who was already included in future plans, hopes, and dreams. Referring to the baby as anything less than a family member is hurtful because it discounts the pain that comes with losing someone you love.
Even if the baby was never seen, it was still human to the grieving mother, father, and other family members. Don’t suppose the pain is any less significant than if the child had been four or five years old. That kind of loss is different, but not less painful. I’ve heard people say that since the mother never even saw the baby, it must be a lot easier to cope with. You couldn’t be more wrong.
Having not seen it might, in fact, make it harder. There is so much more to imagine. What would the baby have looked like? Would she have had dark hair, been tall like me, or short like her father? Would she have had freckles like her sister? There are no comforting memories of rocking your baby or watching her sleep to cling to when grieving a miscarried child.
Mothers often feel guilt when losing a baby. They imagine all sorts of ways, some rational and some irrational, that they might have been responsible for the fact that the baby didn’t make it full-term. Data on the high number of miscarriages does little to salve these feelings of guilt. It takes time and understanding for loved ones to move past this part of grief.
If you talk to someone who lost a baby, don’t ask what happened. Retelling the story can be exhausting and extraordinarily painful. These questions, although based on good intentions, make it awkward to say, “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” If the family wants to talk about it, they will tell you what happened. Instead, say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Asking, “Would you like to talk about it?” if the setting allows for an intimate conversation such as this can also be a thoughtful way to help. If mom doesn’t want to talk about it, you are giving her the power to easily say, “No, I’d rather not.”
Above all, and for the reasons listed above, don’t use platitudes. “You’ll be fine.” “It might be easier that you miscarried than for the baby to have been born with severe problems.” “The baby is in a better place.” “Maybe it was for the best.” Such statements disrespect the severity of the loss and only make coping more difficult.
Dealing with death is hard for most of us. We want to help, but we don’t know what to say. Be reminded that there is nothing you can say that will fix it. A patient listening ear and respect for the loss being experienced is often the best you can do. Sit quietly. Hold a hand or give a hug and validate the depth of their sorrow. That will help more than any words you could use.
Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.