“I’m at a loss for words.” There are so many experiences and emotions for which our vocabulary seems limited. Yet, for many, there is a special relief in defining confusing feelings and new identities. Such is the case for so many parents who have suffered the unfathomable loss of their children and who seek comfort and community in other parents who have experienced the same.
The novelist Jay Neugeboren once noted, “A wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. There is no word for a parent who loses a child.” How can heartbreak so widely experienced escape definition?
We’ve been reflecting a lot on this line as we head into Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. The lack of proper terminology for bereaved parents to define and own their experiences is perhaps just one of the reasons that there is a culture of silence around pregnancy and infant loss.
In 1988, October was formally declared a month to recognize the unique grief of parents experiencing the sudden loss of their children in pregnancy and infancy. To help normalize thoughtful discussion around these experiences, our team member Sierra sat down with us to share her story as a bereaved parent, along with her tips for supporting other parents grieving such loss.
ASK SIERRA: Advice on How to Support Bereaved Parents
- Start the conversation with “How are you really doing?” to create a safe space to serve the other person in whatever capacity they need. The best approach here really depends on what kind of relationship you have with this person and the trust level that is safely expressed between the two of you. It also depends on the person’s readiness — do they want to process this with you? Have they openly invited others into the journey? On the flip side, it can be isolating for others to avoid the conversation entirely.
- Check in consistently. Just because this week I’m feeling okay, doesn’t mean that next week I will be. Consistent check-ins helped me really feel cared for, especially when I could be brutally honest with the person about how I was and what I needed.
- Follow their lead and meet them where they’re at. What’s helpful for one person, like the term “rainbow baby,” can be triggering for another.
- Make it easy for the person to accept and receive, like “I’ll have dinner delivered to you, does Thai tomorrow night work?” Offer to watch their kids for a night off, buy groceries or meal prep for them, for a week, stop by to tidy their house and do a few loads of laundry.
- Validate the loss and grief the person is experiencing without superficial comfort or explanations. Acknowledge when you don’t know what to say or do – simply offer your support. Something as simple as “Wow. This is hard. This sucks. I don’t even know what I can say, but I’m in your corner” can go a long way.
- Offer a friend, “Wow, this must be so disorienting for you to experience.” The most helpful word in all of our loss journey was, “disorienting”. I had a missed miscarriage, and the whole thing left me feeling like I had gotten t-boned by a freight train. Trying to even wrap my head around what was and had happened was a challenge. When my therapist introduced the phrase of “disorientation,” I felt, “YES, that’s what it is!”
- Offer platitudes like “Everything happens for a reason” or “At least you weren’t very far along.”
- Use grief hierarchy or language that introduces comparison or any statement that starts with “at least.” Each person has their own timeline and deserves as much time and space as they want to walk out their own process.
- Make it difficult for the other person to accept and receive a favor, like “Let me know if you need anything!”
How to Honor & Celebrate the Life of a Lost Pregnancy
- If the parents have chosen to name their child, use their name!
- Note important dates and reach out. For me, it’s May 23, the day we found out there was no heartbeat, and the beginning of January, the due date. Chances are, your loved one has these dates and seasons etched in their being. Even a text acknowledging, “Hi friend, I know this time of year can be tender for you,” is so meaningful.
- Consider simple & intentional physical gifts that can serve as mementos, like artwork, breastmilk jewelry, a Christmas ornament, a book, or a stuffed animal.
- Engage on their terms. Are they hosting a fundraiser for research? Help lead a team to generate as many donations as possible!
Sierra's Recommended Resources for Grieving Parents
- Organizations like Return to Zero: HOPE have great resources for bereaved parents, medical professionals and caregivers, and family and friends.
- Loss Affirmation Cards, which feature inspiring first-person statements designed to empower and calm you.
- Therapy, therapy, therapy.
We hope to help break this culture of silence through education and awareness. On October 15th, join us in lighting candles for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day at 7pm local time to honor all babies gone too soon.