No Grief is too Small: Supporting Parents of Pregnancy & Infant Loss
Over 110,000 Australian women suffer a miscarriage each year. 2,200 more endure stillbirth. 600 lose their baby in the first 28 days after birth. Many more suffer medical terminations, and more still lose their baby within the first year. An explanation is sometimes provided. In many cases it is not.
Being a new parent can be scary and overwhelming, but what happens when you lose your baby? How do you find the strength to go on? In the most basic sense, people grieve the loss of an important relationship when they experience miscarriage, stillbirth, termination or death in the first year of life, regardless of the cause. Mothers (and Fathers) suffer a great deal more than we realise, and chances are you know of parents who are in this position. It is never, ever fair!
This year is particularly hard for me as parents very close to my heart lost their seemingly health baby girl just weeks following her first birthday. There was nothing about this, or any other loss that is fair and trying to find a silver lining or an 'at least' scenario in the loss of such a tiny perfect soul is futile. The entire thing is simply SHIT!
Through supporting women in pregnancy and postpartum, I have listened to mothers who have lost and grieved. I have listened to their needs, and hopefully learned how to support them a little bit better. It is hard to know what to say, but I have learned that saying nothing, as if nothing ever happened, does not help when dealing with grief.
Here are some ways to help support parents who have lost their baby.
How do you know what to say, to not say, or how to say it?
It is okay to acknowledge you do not know what to say, because there is simply nothing you can say to make this better. Remind them that you are there for them, and it is okay for them tell you if they need you to do or say something differently.
Parents do not need to be told their baby is in a "better place". On almost every occasion (except in a rare instance of child abuse), there is no better or more loved place for a baby than in the arms of their mother or father. Surrounded by their siblings and smothered by love. Words like this rubs salt into the wound.
The statement that "miscarriages are common, you can try again" doesn't help either. Nor does @at least it happened early. Obviously something was wrong and nature was doing her thing. It'll be fine next time".
Although often true, it is no less hurtful to hear comments along this line. Even if a pregnancy didn't reach full term, that doesn't make the pain of loss any less for the parent who desperately loved the baby they were waiting to meet. This is not a toy they can replace at the store and it is okay to allow them to grieve their loss.
How can you help make space for parents to grieve and to breathe?
There is no one right way to grieve. Allow people space to move through their pain, be forgiving of behaviours or words that may not be their norm. Be ready to assist them when they need you.
Simply stating, "I'm here for you, just ask" may not help at this time as they probably don't know what they need yet, especially in the early stages.
If you can think of an idea for how you can help, don't wait, just do it. Do you have time to cook a few meals to bring over? Can you take the other kids to give them a break? Can you meet up for coffee or a peaceful walk? Can you shop for them? Can you pick up the phone and ask "How are you doing this week?"
If you can't manage to do all of these things, that's all right. If you simply strive to be there for your loved ones when you can, that's more than enough. Be present as a helper in this time of grief. At this point in time, it is important to provide support, as this is not the time to take your worries to them.
Remind them that, no matter how hard they may be finding it, they can confide in you without saying, 'I'm doing fine,' or, 'I'm alright.' Just because they might appear to be ok doesn't mean they are. So it's important for you to ask about how they really feel, and be open and prepared for whatever answer you get.
Typically, this universal type of grief goes completely unacknowledged and goes unheard because people are at a loss for what to say, or they feel uncomfortable bringing it up in conversation. Acting as if nothing happened and the baby did not exist is the most damaging and painful thing for the parent left behind. Parents who feel this now they must grieve alone and in silence.
Honour and support their journey from day to day at their pace
While still being there for them and not dragging up painful memories every time you talk is important, and tricky if they are not able to manage this or feel ready to take steps away from their immediate grief. Ask again if you are uncertain. Let them be your guide if you are uncertain.
There is no definite time on how long someone should grieve. You cannot determine how long they will grieve. The period of mourning is going to last a lot longer than the weeks or months we normally think of. Grief is always going to be a presence. It is ok to check in on a friend every so often. Though if they seem like they are alright, it does not necessarily mean that they do not occasionally need a kind word and an attentive ear.
Give permission to grieve, but also guidance of who to turn to if you are worried they are not coping.
The baby's birthday, or what would have been, is a good time to check in. Special events usually occur in the first year and the years following. Mothers' and Fathers' Day commemorates their passing. The joy that should be associated with Christmas, Easter, and even their own birthdays will now be tainted with bitterness. Over time, it will hopefully become a bitter-sweet feeling, but those early years are often about surviving and trying to not burden others with their grief, especially if the occasion is globally shared, as is the case with Mother's Day or Christmas.
Check in as these days approach. Don't wait for them to come to you. As the day approaches, ask them how they're doing. What they'd like to do. They may need emotional or practical support during this time. It is especially important for those who have other young children to create joyful memories for them. Just as important to find their own joy in these moments too. The need to step away and grieve as needed is also essential and perfectly normal.
Perhaps you can ask if they need help in the practical planning. Facing the shops and decorations and intense marketing can be hard, and support through this can make an overwhelming experience manageable. It may be some years before they realise, but you simply standing by in these times may create some fond memories in the future, Ones of true friendship. Not at all what this time could be for them, but still so valued and appreciated.
Finally, don't forget that some people may manage their grief in a different way, focusing their energy on their children, work, and the celebration of new milestones as they come up in life. This does not mean they are in denial about their grief. Checking in with your old friend might be beneficial but if they seem genuinely happy, you can let them be. You don't need to spend a lot of time trying to tug on their heartstrings if they're coping well. The important thing is that people handle grief in their own way - it doesn't matter if they don't do it in the same way you do.
Letting go of your own grief as it may come up
Final thoughts on oneself. Due to your supportive nature, you may find yourself grieving, as well. Perhaps for the baby you also loved, or were looking forward to meeting, but also for the friend or sister that you love who is hurting so much. Seeing people you love in such intense pain is HARD. You may have experienced your own loss in the past and this grief may stir up feelings and have them feeling as raw as the day of your own loss.
There is no shame in openly sharing your pain with this person, letting them know that you feel such loss for them. At the same time, important to be a little strong for them too. Finding your own person a little further removed from this relationship to lean on is important. Bottling these feelings up is not fair nor healthy for you. Remember to respect your feelings and honour your needs as well. If the burden is feeling too heavy, there is no shame for you to to turn to some professional support, or honour your need for a little space too.
With that disclaimer in mind, I want to reiterate that I am not trained in mental health work or psychology. I am simply a woman supporting women in a time of their life that should be amazing and special and exhausting and overwhelming for all the right reasons. But sometimes it is not. And no parent wishes for sleep depravation and overwhelm from their crying baby than the parent who suffers both from the silence that could have been.
After years of supporting these Mothers alongside their journey of loss and Motherhood, speaking with them about their needs, I have noticed a common thread of well meant words and offers that fall short at best, and add to the hurt at worst. Of course nothing is ever shared to hurt, simply a grasp at words to try to help those we love in a situation that is impossible.
I am not certain that what I share is advised by mental health workers in perinatal grief. I can only say that this is what I have learned along the way by listening to Mothers who have lost, and what they need. Every single parents journey and loss is real. It deserves to be heard and respected. How they grieve may vary differently. That too deserves respect. Stepping in the best you can will be appreciated. But you too deserve your own respect in what you can manage. Together as a community of women, we can only do our best to stand strong in love and support for the most vulnerable parents in our community. And if you or the people you love are not managing, it is never a bad idea to seek the professional support of perinatal grief workers.
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