I am always incredibly touched when someone contacts me to ask how best to support their friend or family member. To know that the bereaved parents are surrounded by people who not only want to help, but are trying to find the most helpful way in which to do this.
The answer I always give is that there is no right answer, because every single person is different. For every parent I have met who has lost a baby, there have always been individual differences in the ways in which they have managed their grief, and therefore ways in which they have wanted to be supported. So, for this reason, I would always say to follow their lead.
There are of course many things that I could list about what not to do or say: never start a sentence with ‘at least…’, don’t try and sugar-coat or look for the positives, don’t compare your own experiences, no matter how much you believe you can resonate – but this list would be long and likely to leave you in a situation where you feel terrified of every word you say. Bereaved parents pick up on this anxiety and it can increase the feelings of isolation and loneliness at a time when we so desperately need to feel close.
So instead, I will give advice based on my work as a psychologist. Ideas that come from theory and practice and those which we use in therapy and beyond. Because it isn’t just the words you use or actions that you take – it is the willingness you have to sit with, and lean into, the pain that is in front of you. There is no script, it is about learning how to be.
Make contact and keep making contact (unless you are told otherwise).
Send messages, cards, make phone calls, visit when the person is ready. There is nothing lonelier and more shaming than silence, so knowing that someone is thinking of you and that they exist in your mind is essential. You may caveat your messages with ‘do not feel that you have to reply, I just wanted to send you a message to say…’, which takes the pressure away from the recipient. I found it really helpful when someone sent a text before they were about to call saying ‘I’m going to call you in a minute. Don’t feel you have to answer, but I’m going to call anyway so that you can if you want to’. This gave me time to get myself ready to talk as well as the option to ignore.
Accept that you feel unsure.
‘I don’t know what to say’ is so much more helpful than clumsily trying to find the right profound and meaningful words. In all honestly, there aren’t the right words because words cannot change what has happened. ‘I love you’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘I’m here with you’ are often enough.
Sit with the pain.
This is really hard because emotional distress is palpable. But if you are able to sit with that person and your own anxiety without trying to ‘fix’ it, you allow them the space to be vulnerable. They will not feel the pressure to seem okay because your avoidance of their pain is so apparent. ‘I’m here for you and I am going to try and be strong for you as much as I can’.
Ask and listen.
‘What is their name?’, ‘Who do they look like?’, ‘Tell me about them?’ Many parents want to talk about their baby, the birth and maybe even their death. Ask the questions and allow them to talk whilst you really listen. You may cry, you may also even smile or even laugh. Ask to see photos and acknowledge that their baby matters.
Remember they may have just given birth
For those who have lost babies before, during or not long after birth, they are still going through a huge physical and hormonal recovery alongside their grief. Ask yourself what you would do for a friend who had just given birth – would you take them food? Would you help them to rest and make them tea? Acknowledge the physical as well as the emotional.
Make suggestions about what you want to do for help
‘Let me know if you need anything’ is an additional burden for a bereaved parent to bear. This statement hands over responsibility to them: they somehow need to decide what they want, when they want it and then communicate it to you (which more often than not, just won’t happen). Keep thinking, keep suggesting and keep approaching. ‘I was thinking that I might pop over with a meal tonight, is that okay with you?’ ‘I bought you this gift as it made me think of you / [baby’s name], but if it isn’t right or you don’t like it, please tell me and I can exchange it’.
Tolerate rejection and criticism.
Which leads me on to this. Sometimes, you won’t get it right and it is important that you are able to hear and manage this. If you give your friend / relative the option to say no or to say that something wasn’t helpful, you need to be able to cope if they do this. Yes, it may hurt, particularly because you will have been offering with the best intentions. But the bereaved parent has so much going on that tiptoeing around others or making them feel better is another burden too many.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they have the right to be intentionally rude. However, with grief can come anger and there is a possibility that you will at some point be at the receiving end of this. One day, I hope that you will be able to talk this through with them, but for now, know that this is a painful (and sometimes shameful) part of loss and grief.
Gently and tentatively name the elephant in the room.
Pregnant women and babies were hard for me to be around when I was newly bereaved. Seeing other people’s children was also tough for a time. And this left me with so many overwhelming feelings including guilt and shame. What made it easier was when friends named this for me so I didn’t have to say it myself. ‘I can imagine it might be hard for you to see me right now [because I’m pregnant] so I completely understand if you would rather I kept away’. ‘I have wondered if seeing [my baby / child] is hard for you right now, so I am going to come and see you on my own’.
Always be tentative and curious and never assume. And maybe that person is absolutely fine with other babies and pregnant women, because they are not their baby. But always understand that it could be completely heart-breaking.
Look outwards for your own support.
There’s a fantastic model called the ‘ring theory’ by Susan Silk that says that you should always look to the circle outside of yourself for support (dump out) and comfort inwards towards the person who is suffering (comfort in). Therefore, the bereaved parents are in the most inner circle and can look to all for support, but all circles surrounding them should look further away for their emotional needs rather than relying on the bereaved parents themselves.
It’s okay to cry with them, just don’t allow your feelings to engulf their own. Becoming the helper when you are the one most in need becomes an additional weight to carry.