Losing a baby is an experience no parent wants to go through, yet many have to face. A neonatal loss, miscarriage or stillbirth often leaves friends and family not knowing what to say or how to react, and this can make such a grief-filled time even harder.
This article aims to provide helpful suggestions for friends and family so they can best support their loved ones during this time. It was compiled with suggestions from women who are members of the Stillbirth & Neonatal Loss Essential Baby forum.
As well as the following advice, try to keep in mind that all the 'firsts' after the loss of their baby will be hard - such as the couple's first Christmas, first anniversary, first Mother's and Father's days, the next babies born to other people, and their next pregnancy - so be sensitive about these times. Your friend is facing a life-long loss, so continuing to be sensitive and aware of these occasions will help you be the support your friend needs during these times.
Send a card at the time of the birth/death and use the baby's name. The parents may like to keep these cards and gifts in a memory box.
"Despite requesting we did not want cards at DD's memorial, a couple of people did give them. I cherish them to this day and wish in hindsight I had not asked for gestures like this not to be given. The main thing is, the cards we were given were true heartfelt expressions - they say more than simply "I am sorry for your loss" - so if you are going to give a card, perhaps write from your heart without over-expressing (very hard to balance but you can't go wrong if you are genuine)."
Send a small gift if it feels right.
(Plants are a nice gesture but it goes without saying a very hardy plant must be chosen that require little maintenance.)
"Some of my favourite gifts at the time were a plant that flowers at the same time of year, a (Willow Tree) angel ornament, butterfly mementos, a special photo frame, a small teddy bear, a special piece of jewellery (in my case it was an angel charm with a pink stone). Anything that is given with thought will be generally well received and most probably treasured."
"My two best friends bought me a beautiful locket to wear. They had Gabriel's name engraved on the back and I put a photo in it. I love wearing my baby around my neck, close to my heart. It was the best idea and something I will have forever. We also found a website that makes personalised teddy bears. Both of my boys have chosen a bear, his jumper and what they want written on it. It's a bit on the costly side, but they can't wait till their "Gabe bears" come in the mail."
Listen often and provide opportunities for the bereaved parents to vent, cry or express emotion as often as they need - and don't dismiss them, even if some time has passed.
"Just telling the person that you are there really helps. Let the person talk as much as they like about the baby. I had a few people change the subject on me and it really hurt and made me feel worse."
Remember the dad and any other children
"With everyone so wrapped up with supporting the parents, I think the kids often get overlooked. My son's kinder teacher came to the funeral/wake, for us, and for him. At the wake, she played cricket with him outside for over an hour. It was lovely that someone paid him extra attention."
Offer to babysit
"Sometimes parents want time out (alone) without other children,so maybe offer to babysit for a night/day. My family did this for us and it helped a lot."
Allow a long time for your friend to grieve
"Expect that they may take many months for them to seem more like the person you knew again. Remember they are forever changed, whether they like it/realise it or not, and be guided by their individual time frame to healing, not your perceived one. Partners within the relationship don't always heal at the same time either - when they're both as low as they may ever get, it's even more difficult for one to pull the other one out of the muck. While it's not a supporters 'responsibility' to rescue them from this stage of grief, a very sympathetic ear may do wonders to get them through another day or hour."
If you're ok with it, and you feel the parents would be too, ask to see photos of their baby.
"For me, when my family and friends did this with Samuel, it let me know that my family and friends considered Samuel to be a part of our family."
"Provide food in the early days and weeks. Don't offer, just do it. Nothing fussy, just simple soups or things that can be frozen. Make them hearty, nurturing foods. My husband and I only ate because a friend cooked big soups for us - and we only ate it because we felt obliged. If we didn't have that, we may not have eaten much, if at all."
Suggest a support group
"EB has been the most open and supportive place for me. SIDS & Kids was also excellent (phone support), I couldn't face going to any of the meetings as I didn't want to hurt more by hearing others' pain (apparently this is quite common). Once I was ready to step out and give more, EB appeared in an internet search I was doing - I would recommend the boards here, as it can be quite cathartic just to write and share that way."
Make a note of the date and remember them with a card or message in subsequent years, especially the estimated due date (EDD) or first year.
"I can't stress enough that once the initial shockwave dissipates and people go back to their normal daily lives, the parents included, it's very easy to forget anniversaries (of EDDs and/or birthday, as well as anniversary of passing). There's nothing more heart-warming than to receive a card or call - even an sms - on ALL these days. Every year, not just the first or second. It's like asking a parent to choose when they want their living child's birthdays to stop being celebrated. Those anniversaries will forever be there, every year, so it would be a lovely gesture to have them remembered every year."
Be especially sensitive about subsequent pregnancies (theirs and others).
"From experience, when another baby is born after a loss people seem to think we're over the death of the other child. They need to know that for me the later pregnancy was the hardest and longest nine months of my life, and our baby is to us the most special thing on earth."
Expect that they may take many months to seem more like that person you once knew again
Thank you to the above members for sharing their advice and experience with loss. To discuss stillbirth and neonatal loss or miscarriage talk to these Essential Baby members and others in the EB forums.