Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Of course, this remembrance is more for those who have not experienced this loss than for those who have. Those who have gone through a miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of an infant live with that remembrance far more often than once a year. I know that my own pain is still fresh, but I can’t imagine a time when I will see a child the age that Elliott would be and not wonder about my son.
For those of you for whom this day carries a little less sting, let me offer a few ideas on how to help your friends who have experienced this loss.
1. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Certainly not all parents who experience a miscarriage share that information. And some people aren’t particularly chatty about the death of a child. But if a parent brings it up, please don’t ignore that. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out conversation, but at least acknowledge that they mentioned their child. Saying something simple like, “I’m so sorry,” shows that you heard what they said and that you care about them and the humanity of the baby that they lost.
2. Don’t forget the father. The loss of a pregnancy or infant has a more obvious effect on the mother of the child, but it is important not to neglect the feelings of the baby’s father. This baby shared his DNA. He had hopes and dreams for his child. Fathers experience loss when a pregnancy ends in miscarriage or stillbirth or if an infant dies. When you are offering condolences, be sure to include both parents. Both lost a child, both experience grief as a result.
3. Don’t forget any surviving siblings. If the parents already have children, please don’t forget to include them in your condolences. And not in the, “Well, at least you already have children” way that made me want to rip that guy’s face off a mere DAY after Elliott had died. Death is hard for children no matter what, but losing a baby is something else completely. We expect older people to die, but the death of an infant reminds us, and especially young children, of the fragility of life. Recognize that they grieve as well, and they need your sympathies at least as much as the parents.
4. Use the language that the parents use. When I’m talking about Elliott, I will almost always say that he died, not that we lost him. Some parents prefer language that is less direct. Listen to how the parents refer to their loss and use that in your own mentions. This isn’t about right or wrong language, but about showing that you are listening to the parents and honoring the way that they speak about their child.
5. Keep religion out of it. At least until you know how the parents are using faith as a means of comfort. Using the loss of a child as a means to proselytize is manipulative and intensely inappropriate. But sometimes even well meaning statements about a child being in heaven or leaning on God during a difficult time can be hard for parents to embrace. There was a time after Elliott’s death that I felt abandoned by God, and any religious talk was just painful for me. “Shoulding” parents who are going through this darkness is bad, and when it’s related to their faith, it can be damaging on multiple levels. Allow the parents to show how faith weaves into their grief narrative.
6. Understand that it’s not something to “get over.” This is actually one point that might be good for everyone to remember. Just because there was little time spent as a parent to this little one, it doesn’t mean that the loss isn’t real and doesn’t last. There’s no expiration date on grief. It will crop up at expected times like the anniversary of the death or a due date, but it may also happen out of the blue. There is no shame in sadness at the loss of a child.
7. Listen to the people in your life. Ultimately, everything that I’m saying here is largely based on my experience. For me, sharing pictures of my son was incredibly cathartic – this may not be the same for someone else. Your friends may have different needs. The best thing that you can do to help a parent who has experienced the loss of their child is to ask them how you can help them. They will know what they need.
The hashtag for today is #BreakTheSilence. Those of us who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or death of an infant can help by sharing our stories. Those who have not can help as well by creating a safe space for those stories to be shared. Grief is often hard for us to understand, and the loss of one so young can be a grief that is frightening to sit with. But when we listen, when we include, when we love, we make the grief less frightening for everyone.