How to REALLY Help a Bereaved Parent (and What NOT to Say...)

How to REALLY Help a Bereaved Parent (and What NOT to Say...)

Shortly after Calvin’s death, I was talking to one of my friends about how to approach someone else who had also suffered the loss of a baby. She didn’t want to be rude or intrusive, but also wanted to let her friend know that she was thinking of her & her baby. That inspired me to share my own experience of what was helpful, and what was not helpful, in the weeks since Calvin had passed. I realize that my experience with grief is only my own though, and so I reached out to several online communities of bereaved mothers for their input.

In a matter of hours, 91 women responded. They filled 20 pages with over 10,800 words of insight into their own experiences of loss. These women have suffered miscarriages, stillbirth, neonatal death, failed IVF, infertility, failed adoptions, and more. Some of them shared what helped them simply survive in the darkest hours and weeks after their loss(es), what helped later on, and some shared the very deep wounds caused by the words and actions of others. 

We (the bereaved) realize that the hurtful words and actions of some people generally don’t come from a place of cruel intentions. Most people just really don’t know how to talk about death, sometimes even if they have experienced a loss of their own. Talking about the death of a baby (at any stage) is very hard for most people, and especially for those who haven’t experienced it. 

I am hoping that this is a helpful article for all of us to share with our own circle of family and friends. Raising awareness is the only way that we can start to make a change in the way that society reacts to our tragic reality. While it won’t make this journey any easier, it may improve the path for ourselves, and for the ones who will follow us. Most of the time the hurtful comments don't come from cruel intentions, just ignorance about the situation. Let's change that, by helping others know how to REALLY help us as we face the death of our baby. And what actually does not help, even if they think it does.

I hope that I have managed to create a somewhat universal list of how to help someone who is grieving - but please know that not everything here will be helpful to everyone. Adjust as appropriate in regards to the person you are trying to support.

 

TALK ABOUT THEIR BABY

Overwhelmingly, the majority of bereaved mothers said that the most helpful thing for each of them was to talk about their baby, no matter how early or far into their grief journey they were. It is our biggest fear that our child(ren) will be forgotten as time moves forward without their physical presence. The only thing we have left is the memory of our babies, and we fight to keep that memory alive. Help us by sharing in the memory of our child. Yes, these are painful memories. Yes, it is hard to talk about. Please ask us about our babies anyways. Tears may fall, but that is just another expression of our love for them.

“When I lost my first it was fairly early, but to me it was the end of my world temporarily. The most helpful for me was when people acknowledged my pain & grieved with me. We held a small “memorial” as a family where I got to express my sorrow & be surrounded by my family & very close friends.” - Chandelle H

Ask questions about their birth story, why they chose that name for their baby, ask to see photos or mementos. If the loss was too early for those things, still acknowledge their pain and grief. Ask what their hopes and plans were. Your friend might not be comfortable sharing just yet, but know that your acknowledgement of their baby’s existence is uplifting for their broken heart. When you ask, you give them the freedom to share openly when they are ready. When you use their name, you validate the baby’s life as valuable, no matter how brief. 

“Friends and family who say his name and remember him, or give me the freedom to comfortably include him in our life and conversation still.” - Alanna K

As time passes, remember their child in daily life and conversation. If the baby was named, use their name. Let your friend know that you are remembering their baby with them. Recognize the big days and anniversaries; send a birthday note each year, and mention the baby during family events and the holidays - big ones and the little ones as well. We miss our babies every day. Include their name in your list of grandchildren / nieces / nephews / etc. I love when people ask me about Calvin, or say they were thinking of him, or ask my birth story. Yes its tragic to think about, but I love him and that doesn't go away.

 “The most important for me (now that I'm 5 years out) is letting me talk about her without people getting visibly uncomfortable and not just letting her become a thing of the past...just helping me keep her memory alive as though she is a legitimate member of our family” - Laura B

 

OFFER PRACTICAL HELP

When faced with the most devastating news of our lives, the last thing we can do is properly care for ourselves and our families. We had to make a lot of really hard decisions that we never expected to be making, about our son’s funeral. Decisions or choices about our own basic care were just too much to handle. One of the best ways you can help is by taking action and doing something, which will not require decisions, effort, or obligations on the part of your grieving friends. These are some ways that you can help alleviate the stress of loss.

Prepare freezer meals or gift cards for food delivery.You can set up a meal train, but spread the meals out over the next month or so. An abundance of food in the first few days may just go to waste, and honestly I just didn’t feel like eating at all for the first two weeks. Other moms also said they didn’t feel like eating big meals for a while either, as the shock of loss can make it hard to stomach food. Meals that are easy to prepare are best, as well as snacks that don’t take much energy to eat. I survived on cereal, soup and ice cream. Buy grocery staples, as well as disposable plates & cutlery to avoid creating dishes. Think about packaging them in freezer ready containers so your friend can save them for when she actually is ready to eat. If you bring meals over, bring them in dishes that are disposable or do not need to be returned. Let your friend know that you are dropping food off, but do not make her feel obligated to talk or invite you to stay. 

“The most helpful things coworkers have done were to cook or pick up take out for us, because even eating felt like a chore we didn’t have the energy to do, especially if we would have had to cook.” - Emily Z

If they have living children at home, make meals for them. The bereaved parents may not feel like cooking or eating themselves, but their other children still need to eat. Offer childcare if your friend is in the midst of a loss. If the parents are in the hospital, step up to help care for their other children. When the parents return home, offer to take their children out for dinner, for a play date or for an overnight to give the parents some space alone. Let the parents take the lead on explaining what happened to the baby, but maybe gift them with a children’s book about loss to read to their living children.

“My best friend took my oldest living son, took care of him, she brought me a picture of my living son and put it on my youngest son's cuddle cot.” - Julie B O

Help with household cleaning. Regular chores and maintenance suddenly become a giant hurdle to face, and often is neglected in a time of grief. Tidy and dust, vacuum, do the dishes. Clean the fridge or organize their pantry and freezer. Take out their garbage and recycling. Depending on the person and your relationship, they may not be comfortable with just anyone doing their laundry or cleaning their bathrooms. You can offer though, or you can also gift them with a cleaning service.

“I wish someone would have helped me clean, honestly my house has really gotten bad since our loss, and now it feels like such an impossible task to get back to where it was.” - Tiffini L

Another way to be a real help to the grieving family is by supporting them with financial gifts.There are many costs that arise with a death, and any amount of money is incredibly thoughtful. One or both parents is also facing time off work, so in addition to unforeseen expenses, they are also facing unexpected loss of income. Make it clear that there are no strings attached and for them to use it wherever it will help most. For some that may be gas money, food, medical or funeral costs, or maybe a date night to feel some semblance of normal. 

“I’m in an amazing local online moms group. They rallied and ended up raising a lot of $$ for us. They bought a month of meals from a local meal delivery service so we didn’t have to coordinate people dropping off food or see anyone, and then gave the rest of the money to us with instructions to do whatever we wanted with it. No expectations and completely useful. I burst into tears when I found out and then saw how much it was.” Cori A

Other ways to be a practical help:

  • If their partner is away for work or school while they start having a miscarriage or early labour, keep your friend company until their partner can return. Help them pack for the hospital and go with them. 

  • If your friend is staying in the hospital with their terminally ill baby, or for her own recovery, offer to take shifts staying with them so that they are never alone. 

  • A self-care package (tea, a new mug, dry shampoo, a candle) a friend gave me was so meaningful, I hadn't thought about caring for myself much less pampering. Another care package idea would be a collection of things to help halt their milk coming in, and to alleviate the pain of engorgement.

  • Ask if they would like help returning or packing up their baby items (this is one you should not make assumptions on, and please ask before taking action on).

  • Walk the dog or clean the cat litter boxes.

  • Mow their lawn or shovel snow, depending on the season.

 

JUST BE THERE

In the first couple weeks after Calvin’s death, we invited a few close friends into our home to share in our grief. I sat in my corner on the couch and relived those awful days in detail, over and over. We wept openly, together. I told the story of his death and birth repeatedly, not because they asked but because I needed to. We cried because we needed to. The most valuable gift that these friends gave to us is that they didn’t try to stop the tears or offer paltry advice. They listened to us, they cried with us, and they acknowledged our feelings without judgement.

“Most helpful was having my loved ones around me to support and most importantly listen to my cries, my feeling of helplessness, and just to let me express every thought, feeling, and emotion without being judged.” - Loreen R

If you have been invited in to share in the raw grief, now is not the time to try and patch our broken hearts. Let us cry without filling the quietness with empty words. Let us talk without offering advice. Let us express our emotions without being scared of the intensity we are about to show you. Validate our feelings, banish our guilt, and let the tears flow. It’s okay to say that you don’t know what to say. 

“Best thing someone said to me: "I know," after I said "they're going to bury my baby," as they shovelled dirt over my sons casket. It was validating. She was present with me in the moment, and that was all that mattered. She didn't sugar coat it. She didn't tell me things were going to get better. She didn't try to make me feel better. She was simply there with me in my sorrow.” - Lauren D

Allow us to feel our feelings. We may be angry and want to yell at the world. Yell with us. We may have no more tears left for the moment and just want to laugh and feel normal. Laugh with us. Roll with us on the waves of grief and emotion, and don’t hold expectations of how we should act or feel. Just be there with us, and thank us for sharing it with you. Don't be upset if they're not upset. It's so great that you are prepared to sit and cry and be angry with me. But, some days that's just not where I'm at. We recently went for supper with some friends of ours who had also lost a baby. I think all four of us expected it to be a rather depressing evening...but we smiled, we laughed, we had a really good time. That's okay too.

I've had some great people beside me through these past couple years. My best friends' mom said, ‘You can cry or laugh or neither. Grief comes out in all sorts of emotions and ways.’” - Trudy H

 

“One of the most helpful things I was gifted with was a friend when we sat down for coffee afterwards saying, right off the very top of our conversation ‘I’m here and we can talk about it as much or as little as you want’… For whatever reason that struck me as so perfect because it made me feel free to either say everything I needed or wanted to say, or just talk about nothing to distract myself but still have the comfort of her company without the pressure of reliving the previous few days... I honestly still say that to anyone who is grieving any loss to this day.” - Lindsey V

Even if you can’t be there physically, you can be there for us in other ways. If we post something on social media about our child or our grief, “like” it or better yet, leave a comment. Read the articles that we share, and share them with your circle. Thank us for sharing with you. Let us know you are supporting us. If you don’t know exactly what to say, even leaving a heart lets us know that you care. It is important to us that we not be ignored, that our babies are not forgotten.

 

REACH OUT, CONTINUALLY

In the first few days, we were flooded with phone calls, emails, and messages across every social platform. We were also completely in shock and dazed by our unexpected new journey. While all of the messages were treasured and meaningful, it was also just too overwhelming to reply to them all. We numbly went through the motions and the decision-making process in those first few days, and by the time the chaos of suddenly planning a funeral was winding down, so were the messages. When we started to really feel our grief, we began to feel alone.

The messages of support that really stood out to us were those that came in the following weeks and months, after the initial shock had worn off. Fellow bereaved mothers have said they treasure the messages that come years after their loss. Time moves on and people carry on with their lives…but we forever have a gaping hole in our hearts. Reach out to let us know that you were thinking of us, of our baby, or just to send some love.

“Another helpful thing: checking in on us a week, two weeks, a month, etc after our stillbirth to make sure we're still doing ok and check if we need anything at that point” - K R

The best kinds of messages are the ones that have no obligations attached. No expectation of getting together, or going out, or even to reply. Let your friend know that you wanted to share something with them, but its okay for them to not reply. As much as I love the messages I receive, sometimes I don’t read them for days on end because I am just trying to work up the energy to process & write out a thoughtful reply. It’s hard. But I feel rude if I don’t reply, so give your friend the option not to.

            “Helpful [to have people] continuing to reach out, with a disclaimer that I didn’t have to respond.” - Cori A

And if your friend doesn’t reply, keep reaching out. Keep messaging them, keep inviting them to go for coffee or for a walk, keep including them. Even if we are not up for it at the time, we need to still be included.

“It was also helpful to have friends still invite us to do things, like go out to eat. It’s so easy to feel like no one wants to be around you when you’re grieving so deeply, that even just being invited makes us still feel loved.” - Emily Z

Send a short message saying you are thinking of them, that you love them, say that you’re heartbroken for them, or send cards or flowers in the mail. Say, “I’m sorry about your son/daughter” (be more specific than “your loss”). Tell your friend that she is a wonderful mother, especially if she has no other living children. Send them a note at Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and meaningful anniversaries in their child’s life & death. Ask them if they want to take their mind off of things for awhile, or if they are looking for an outlet to talk about everything. Your act of loving them by reaching out will help to soothe their heartache. It feels frustrating to say something that feels as useless as “I’m sorry,” but really that is all that there is to say. Trust me, it means much more to us than you think it does. 

Even though I felt it overwhelming to deal with all the messages that we received in the first days, I treasure all the notes of love and support. I’ve printed them out to save in our son’s memory box. So even if you don’t think your words matter, send a supportive note anyways. Your love for us matters.

 

GIFT MEMORIAL ITEMS

Now that our baby is gone, I cling to any physical reminder or symbol of him. For Calvin, it is the stars. His nursery theme was going to be stars, and so now the stars have become our symbol for him. After his death, some of our friends registered a star in the Little Dipper in his name. We were also gifted a map of the night sky from the day he was delivered. People now gift us with star items, message me when they see the Little Dipper, or are looking at the stars and thinking of us. I treasure that.

 “Most helpful for me was when friends gave me objects with my son's name on them. I felt like they were memorializing him instead of hoping I would forget and "get over it" one day.” - Maggie P

            For those of us missing our children, any memento is meaningful. If you want to support your friend and acknowledge their baby in a tangible way, these are some ideas: 

  • A memorial tree or a house plant. 

  • Star name registry. 

  • Donations to an organization that supports bereaved families in the baby’s honour. 

  • Gifts like jewellery, a sign, or anything personalized with the baby’s name and birth statistics, or their symbol for their child. 

  • Something to display their memorial items, like a shadowbox or a nice shelf.

  • Christmas ornaments with their name or a message of love. 

  • A weighted teddy bear that matches the baby’s birth weight.

  • A journal for them to write to their baby.

  • Pictures or messages when you are reminded of them & their baby.

“When my much longed for twin babies died due to premature birth my aunt made blue and pink ribbons for everyone to wear at their funeral. Then my family started bringing the ribbons with them on holidays and sending me pictures. It's been 6 months since I've lost my beautiful children but they've been to New York, Washington, Disney World, Paris and Old Trafford. It makes my heart burst with pride when people remember my beautiful children.” - Nina F

 

 

BE THE GO-TO / BUFFER PERSON

            There are a lot of logistics and coordination that needs to happen when a loss occurs. Important decisions need to be made, and information needs to be communicated. Typically this role will naturally fall to someone close to the couple, so don’t insert yourself just to feel important. It is okay to ask if they need anyone to do these things. These are some specific ways that you can help your grieving friend (remember, do not make any decisions for them).

            Some hospitals may provide information about funeral homes, photographers, grief counsellors, and support groups, but if that isn’t available then do the research yourself, and give your friend the list of resources. They may also ask you to help make some of those hard phone calls. It is very hard to get out the words, “Hi, I am calling because I need to organize my son’s funeral…”. I still wanted to make all of those decisions myself, but it was helpful to have people that could initiate everything.

“It was so helpful being given a list of grief counsellors, funeral homes, photographers, etc. The phone calls were hard, don’t get me wrong, but at least I didn’t have to do the research, and the people who answered were all ones that were fairly used to dealing with this type of situation.” - Katie B

If you have experienced loss of your own, you can help by telling your friend what to expect next and what questions to ask. Help connect them with local and online support groups. As devastating as it is for everyone involved, some of us also find comfort in hearing the stories of others who have similar experiences. It helps to know that we are not alone. If you haven’t experienced loss, but know someone else who has, reach out to him or her and connect them with your grieving friend, or get a message of support to pass along.

“I had one friend who had been through all of this before who was translating into normal terms for me and telling me what to ask about or expect next. Invaluable source of information and calm and comfort.” - Stacey G

 

“My grandma reached out to her friend’s granddaughter who had lost a child and she wrote me an amazing letter explaining that my world is new now, but I will learn to find happiness again. It was the first moment I felt like I could actually survive the excruciating pain at the time.” - Melissa M

Once funeral or memorial information is ready, help share it with family and friends, as well as where (or if) to send flowers or food. Share articles that talk about effectively supporting and interacting with grieving parents.

“It was so helpful having a “go to” person that all friends and family could go to- to help communicate funeral, where to send flowers or food, or even to send out helpful articles on how to communicate and support us- this was my sister for us. I even had a “go to” for work (my manager)- he was absolutely so amazing. He sent all communication to my coworkers, sent helpful articles on how to interact with me upon my return, and constantly was in communication with me as much as I wanted.” - Domenique R

Be the buffer person for your friend’s first trips into public, to help them field questions like “where is your baby?” or “when are you due?” (as you still look pregnant even after delivering). The first time I went to the post office I had a panic attack just imagining the conversations I might encounter…and there was no one there. I had thought I would be fine but I was far from it, and wish I had asked someone to go with me. If your friend is having a hard time telling people what happened without completely breaking down, help share the devastating news and protect your friend’s emotions. It is nearly impossible to actually say the words “my baby died” out loud - I still have a hard time saying that, even though I desperately want people to know about him. 

 

 

WHAT NOT TO SAY

There are also some incredibly harmful things that people have said or done, almost always under the assumption that they’re “helping”. If you find yourself wanting to say something, anything at all, and reach for the first platitude that comes to mind, stop right now. I know your brain is telling you that saying something is better than nothing; it is not true in this case. Of the women that responded, most of them had extremely painful stories to share of deep wounds that had been caused by well meaning friends or family. The loss of a child is an incredibly hard time for your friend, and they are in a very vulnerable state. 

I was going to write another post entirely about this subject, as most of the feedback I received from other bereaved mothers was about the incredibly thoughtless things said to them. Words that caused sharp pain, often from a place of ignorance or desperation to make the bereaved (or themselves) feel better. I was going to share these things and explain exactly why they might be hurtful, even if you think they sound helpful. But - we do not need to explain ourselves. We do not need to apologize for our grief. If something hurts our hearts, we do not need to justify why.

Some things here may not be harmful to every bereaved parent, and some may actually find some of these words comforting. But let your friend decide what is comforting to them, and follow their lead. Overall, these were some common phrases that caused pain more than not:

  • “At least…” Sometimes there isn’t a silver lining. At least it was early. A least you know you can get pregnant. At least you can adopt. At least your baby didn’t know pain. At least you have a child already. At least it wasn’t your living child that died.

  • It wasn't meant to be. Everything happens for a reason. It was God’s plan.

  • I know exactly how you feel. (Unless you are also a bereaved parent).

  • God needed your baby more. God needed another angel. Now you have an angel.

  • It’s okay, this happens.

  • You can try again. Next time you’ll get your son/daughter. Next time will be twins.

  • When the time is right, you’ll get your baby.

  • Maybe there was something wrong with the baby. Your body wasn’t ready.

  • So, what happened?

  • It was for the best.

  • Your baby is in a better place now.

  • You are so strong. I could never handle this. You will be so strong because of this.

  • God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.

  • Get over it. You need to let this go.

  • It will get easier.

  • Imagine if the baby was older, it would have been so much worse.

  • Be thankful for what you do have.

  • You’re not a real mom until…

  • Let me know if there is anything I can do. (Empty gesture - see above, DO something).

  • I can’t imagine.

  • Saying nothing. Being absent. Ignoring the baby’s life and death. Pretending it didn’t happen.

 

 

Again, I want to reiterate that not everything on this list may ring true for all bereaved parents. I hope it can be a starting point though, for those of you who know someone who you just want to help. Always, always take their lead in how they are dealing with their own situation, but never be afraid to ask if they would like to talk about their baby. That is a wonderful place to start.

Please, let me know, what helped you the most in your time of grief?

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Tatiana Vavrikova from Pexels

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