Elizabeth Petrucelli brings a wealth of experience and compassion to hurting women and families. She does great work in Colorado and beyond to advocate for women who have lost a child through miscarriage. Today, she's sharing some practical ways we can support our friends and family if they lose a baby. We're grateful for her wisdom.
I remember the day like it was yesterday. I stood in my kitchen that warm April afternoon. The sun glistening through the window casting shadows on the table. And for a moment, in the stillness, I felt her presence leave my body. It felt like a whisper yet not as clear. But I knew…my baby was gone.
I had just turned eight weeks pregnant that day. I called a friend to tell her, "It's over, the baby's gone." She asked me how I knew and all I could muster was, "I just know." She said she was sorry and didn't say much more. She just listened as I shared all I knew how.
The next day, it was confirmed via ultrasound. My baby no longer had a heartbeat. As much as I wanted to deliver her naturally, at home, when night fell, I began to panic over my womb that was now carrying death. My friend stopped by to relieve some of my anxiety. She brought chocolate covered strawberries; my favorite. She knew it. I knew how special this one act of kindness was.
You see, she is allergic to strawberries but she made them for me anyway. She knows I don't make them for myself but enjoy every bite of hers. She chose the plumpest and most fresh strawberries for me. I didn't want to eat. I felt nauseous but knowing how special this was, I ate them. And it brought me the slightest bit of joy during an intense time of grief.
Miscarriage is defined as the death of a baby before 20 weeks gestation. After 20 weeks gestation, the term is stillbirth. Early miscarriage (first trimester miscarriage) is very common and happens in 40-50% of all known pregnancies. Even though miscarriage is extremely common women are silent about it. We, as women, typically don't know about our friends and family who have suffered through miscarriage until we are experiencing a miscarriage ourselves. Then we wonder, why didn't I know? Why was she silent?
Some women share their pregnancies right away, yet others don't share until they reach a "safe" point in their gestation. Having to tell someone that the baby died can be more difficult than the experience was. I know for me, telling my six year old son that his sibling had died was horrific. Saying the words literally brought vomit to my mouth but he needed to know. I was so thankful that I had the support of my friends and family during this difficult time.
It doesn't matter how far along you were when your baby dies. It still hurts. You could have peed on the stick yesterday and saw "pregnant" on the digital readout but the next day see, "not pregnant" and the mourning begins. Once the pregnant sign is seen, life changes begin. Even a woman who loses her uterus will grieve the children she will never bear. So you see, it doesn’t matter how early the loss. It hurts deeply.
What can you do for your friend or family member when you hear their baby(ies) died?
Don't be silent. Silence can be extremely painful. They will remember your silence. There is a difference between active silence and silence that is to ignore. Ignoring silence means avoidance, rejection, minimization, rushing through the event, fear, and silence because "this is so uncomfortable." Families feel supported in silence when there is active listening, attentiveness, and presence (a shoulder to lean on). Don't just fill silence with jabber. It's okay to just sit with the family in silence, but do not ignore their pain.
Grief has no timeline. They will never forget. Don't put time limits on how long you think they should grieve. Don't disappear because you think you will "make them cry," or "make them remember." They want to remember and they will cry anyway. They will find comfort in you remembering.
The grief felt from losing a baby is not smaller because the baby is smaller. The empty place felt from a baby's death is never going to be filled. It's a pain that will never completely heal or be relieved by subsequent pregnancies. - Melinda Olsen, Earth Mama Angel Baby
The list below gives you many ideas on what to say and how to help. Keep in mind there is no one right thing to say or do.
What to Say
"I don't know what to say."
"Who can I call for you?" (Be prepared to actually make those phone calls).
"Be patient with yourself. Grief has no timeline."
"Don't feel guilty because you laughed today."
"Can I take your baby's siblings to the park? I know you don't feel like laughing or playing right now."
"I am going to the store, can I bring anything back for you?"
"Talk to me. I am here to listen."
"I am out running errands, is there anything you need?"
"How are you doing today?"
"You don't have to answer the phone or call me back, I just wanted to check in on you."
"How about I take your baby's siblings to school, or grandma's, or ____?"
"I would love to attend a support group with you or go to church with you."
What Not to Say
"You can have another baby."
"At least you know you can get pregnant."
"It was God's way of protecting you from ____."
"It was God's will."
"Heaven needed another angel."
"Your baby is better in Heaven."
"Time heals all wounds."
"I know just how you feel." (Unless you have personally experienced pregnancy loss).
"It could have been worse."
"Now you have an angel/saint in Heaven."
"You should be over this by now! It's been ____ weeks/months/years."
"God never gives us more than we can handle."
“What can I do for you?” Instead say, “Can I do ___ for you? Or “I am going to bring over a meal” not “Can I bring over a meal?”
Things You Can Do
● Listen – They may want to talk over and over again about the pregnancy and the death experience. Be the person they can go to and vent with and repeat their story.
● Bring tissues.
● Give them a hug.
● Don't offer a reason for the loss. They may never know.
● Encourage the family to have pictures taken with their baby, (even tiny babies).
● Ask and hold the baby.
● Be their shoulder to cry on. If they don't want to talk, they may just want someone to lean on while they cry. Let them cry. Crying is just one way to express grief.
● Cry with them. You don't have to be stoic. Crying helps validate that this is a sad time and an experience worth grieving. They will not be angry with you for crying.
● Be there – For the birth that is. If you would have most likely been there for the birth anyway, be sure to let them know you would still like to be there to support them. At the very least, the family may prefer you wait in the waiting room. For very early losses, the mother should always have someone with her until the bleeding is under control or stops (typically once the baby and placenta have expelled). If she needs to go to the emergency room, you can be a consistent presence while she says goodbye to her baby.
● Set up a meal train/calendar of people who will bring them meals. Soups can be hearty and healthy. Bringing veggie trays, fruit trays, sandwich trays, or just setting out some healthy food can be extremely helpful. It is a reminder that the family needs to eat, which is often put on hold while mourning.
● Bring household items such as milk, eggs, butter, toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates, aluminum foil, toothpaste, etc.
● Mow the lawn, take out the trash, bring in the trash cans, etc.
● Pick up around the house (do laundry, mow the lawn, empty and load the dishwasher, make the beds, etc). Do not break down the baby's nursery or remove any items for the baby.
● Bring something for them to remember their baby by. For any birth, people give gifts. This is no different although the gifts might be slightly different. The family may want an outfit, so ask. Families are often encouraged to dress their baby just like they would at a live birth.
● Bring a teddy bear that is at least 14 inches but less than 24 inches is best as well. Mothers often have a desire and urge to hold a baby, even after the loss of the smallest of babies. Mom can hold the bear while she grieves or as she leaves the hospital. You can also find out the baby's weight and make a bear of the same weight.
● Other mementos might be anything with the baby's name or birthstone on it, such as jewelry. For older babies, any of the traditional keepsakes will also work such as something to preserve a lock of hair, handprints/footprints, moulds, and books or special boxes to keep pictures in.
● Umbilical cord and breastmilk keepsakes – There are several companies that can create these keepsakes for families even with the tiny cord of a very early baby. Breastmilk may come in after a later loss such as 14-20 weeks.
● Offer to make phone calls for them.
● Send a card. There is actually a line of cards for pregnancy and infant loss by Hallmark and other card makers.
● Be comfortable in their tears.
● Attend the funeral/memorial service.
● Send a daily message but do not expect a response. "How are you today?" "Thinking of you." "Hope things are going okay.”
● Understand that the next year will be a "year of firsts." Going into their home without their baby will be a "first," returning to work will be a "first," going to the same grocery store will be a "first," and any holiday will be a "first" holiday without their baby. There will be many "firsts."
● Call their baby by name if they named their baby.
● Remember the baby's birthday/angel date/death date. Send a card, make a phone call, send a text. It can be as simple as "Remembering your baby's (can insert baby's name) birth today."
● Remember the baby's due date – If their baby died before their due date, this will be a particularly difficult day. Let them know you are thinking of them and you are there.
● Be supportive in the weeks and months to come.
● Recognize them on International Bereaved Mother's Day (First Sunday of May)
● Attend memorial events – Be there for the funeral or any memorial events and find local walks and other annual remembrance events to help them share their baby.
My favorite quote that goes along with this perfectly is, "A person's a person, no matter how small." – Dr. Seuss. The above gives you many tools and opportunities to be there for your friend of family member. While I hope you never have to use them, if you do, I hope you find them helpful.
Elizabeth Petrucelli, SBD, CCCE is the author of All That is Seen and Unseen; A Journey Through a First Trimester Miscarriage. Her upcoming book, "It's Not Just a Heavy Period; The Miscarriage Handbook," is the ultimate resource for women experiencing miscarriage. She is a childbirth educator, birth & bereavement doula and owner of Dragonflies for Ruby; an organization dedicated to serving families through the loss of their baby. She is an advocate who is raising awareness for first trimester loss and lives in Parker, CO with her husband and two living sons.