It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to grieve a child, too. We spoke with parents who offered suggestions on how to support them after miscarriage, infant loss, and stillbirth.
Losing a baby in vitro, during birth, or anytime within the first year of an infant’s life can be an incredibly lonely experience for many parents. “It’s like everyone is afraid it’s contagious,” remarked one mother.
Parents experiencing loss may also feel there’s a gap of understanding from their medical team, who, as one
The discrepancy has been so great in some cases that a
The onus often falls on friends, family, and the community to provide the emotional and psychological support grieving parents need. But unless you experience such a devastating loss firsthand, it can be incredibly hard to know what to say or not say, what to do or not do.
Miscarraige, stillbirth, and infant death do not have to be isolating or stigmatizing experiences. By learning the best ways to support bereaving parents, these tragedies can become opportunities to come together and take care of one another.
Healthline spoke with parents who experienced pregnancy loss, stillbirth, neonatal death, or infant loss, and they offered their suggestions on how best to support grieving families.
Food is often the last thing grieving families want to think about, but they still have to eat, and many have surviving children they need to feed. There are a number of ways friends, family, and the community can step in for this role.
Leave food at the front door
If you are local, dropping off food can be a great way to support a family without them feeling an obligation to host you or give back. You don’t even have to ring the bell, so there is no exchange. Simply send a text that the food is there.
Set up a meal train
If you and the parent are a part of a larger group together, consider organizing with other participants to send or deliver meals. There are a number of online sites to support setting up meal trains, so all you have to do is email the list and people can then add their names.
Purchase food gift cards
While removing the preparation and choice around food can be calming for some families, for others it may cause more stress.
Another consideration is that many early losses occur before the body fully stops producing the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, which can cause the carrying parent to still feel nauseous even after the baby stops developing.
Sending food delivery gift cards leaves it up to the parents to get what they need and what their family likes.
Cook warm foods
It has been 2 years, since Raven Parris’ loss. As a doula, she is usually the one supporting parents through loss, but when she had a miscarriage herself, understandably she found it difficult to think about taking care of herself, particularly when it came to cooking.
Parris found foods that were warm upon delivery or could be easily warmed up, like soups, stews, and teas, to be particularly helpful because they removed the added stress of having to prepare them.
Parris reminds friends and family of grieving parents, “You don’t have to be their therapist or know what to say. All you have to do is listen. That is enough.”
This is important because in an effort to be helpful, many people end up saying things that may cause more harm than good.
Anissa Tanaka lost her son, Kai King Tanaka, just 5 days after his birth. She received an influx of messages and calls from her friends and family who knew they should reach out but didn’t always know what to say. Many said the wrong things.
Here are some of the comments and statements that have been the least helpful for Tanaka and many other grieving parents:
- Any statement beginning with, “At least…”
- “It was God’s plan.”
- “There was something wrong with the baby.”
- “At least you got pregnant easily.”
- “Time heals all wounds.”
- “You can always have another baby.”
- Asking how it happened, as that can often imply culpability on the parent’s part and can also be triggering for those still processing the trauma around the loss.
Instead, parents who experienced loss found that family, friends, and community helped most through their actions rather than saying the “right thing.”
Here are some suggestions for actionable steps you can take to support grieving families:
Be specific in how you can help
Grieving parents are often in a fog, and many don’t want to be a burden. Asking, “what can I do?” or “let me know how I can help” puts the responsibility of asking for help on the parents.
Instead, reach out with specific suggestions on things you can do, such as making food, caring for pets or children, or offering to call every few days even if they don’t pick up.
Help put away clothing or pack the nursery
Cassandra Woods’ daughter Daelyn was stillborn at term. The nursery was already complete, including clothes in the drawers.
Woods suggests that family or close friends offer to help put away baby clothes or take apart the nursery. Woods notes that this is such an intimate process, and having the help of a dear friend or close family member can be a “grounding presence” for the grieving parent.
Offer care services
If there are other children or animals in the grieving family, offer to watch them so that the parents have time and private space to grieve in any way they need to.
When she experienced her miscarriage, Parris did not have the means for a nanny, babysitter, or daycare for her toddler. Family and friends were pivotal in helping watch her son.
Bring soothing gifts
Woods found that gifting comfortable clothes or soothing candles or blankets felt like a warm hug when someone was unable to be physically present.
That said, please do not expect a thank-you. In fact, it may be helpful to leave an accompanying note saying that you are not expecting any thanks in return.
Don’t invite yourself over or ask the parents to come and visit you unless the parents specifically request such interactions.
Tanaka notes that grieving parents who prefer privacy and space can’t win when people ask for contact because you either have to shoulder the “energetic and emotional” drain of hosting them or feel guilty for having to say “no.” It is better to not even ask so the parents don’t feel obligated.
Be understanding if texts and phone calls go unanswered. One parent found it helpful when a good family friend would always end their voicemails with “please don’t call me back,” so there was no sense of obligation.
Recognize that when friends and family of grieving parents have babies of their own, it can be difficult for parents who have experienced loss. They may respond unexpectedly or keep their distance altogether. Try not to take it personally. Grieving families often need space to heal.
Honor the sensitivity of the first year
Tanaka reminds friends and family that the entire first year after one’s loss also means living through all the “firsts” without their baby. Milestones such as birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries can be particularly tender. Friends and family can help by anticipating these dates and approaching each time of year sensitively.
That said, grief has no timeline. Parents may find the fifth year anniversary of their baby’s loss more impactful than the second or third. As the community surrounding bereaving parents, we can help by not expecting people to be “done” grieving. Living with grief can be a lifelong journey, and the best support comes without expectations.
Offer to organize ceremonies of remembrance
Some parents come from religious or cultural backgrounds that have ceremonies to honor those who pass. For example, in the Jewish faith, family and friends practice “sitting shiva,” when mourners grieve for 7 days.
Household tasks and food are left to the community. A 1993 expert article confirmed the therapeutic benefits to this practice. But if parents do not come from a culture or faith that provides such guidelines or practices, friends, family, and the community can be pivotal in organizing something similar.
Say their name
Just because actions may be more impactful than words, doesn’t mean bereaving parents don’t want to talk about their baby. Tanaka vulnerably requests that people say her baby’s name and give her a forum to share her memories
Reentry to daily life after such a profound loss can be challenging to say the least. Here are some of the best ways co-workers, school communities, and neighbors can help ease the burden.
Consider meeting one-on-one with teachers before older children return to class
Woods found having a private meeting with her daughter’s teachers and her daughter to be a grounding step for her kindergartner returning to school.
Offer counseling services for grieving children
Many teachers do not have the training to provide grief counseling and support for children, plus they are still responsible for an entire classroom. Yet, some families cannot afford the cost of therapy or grief counseling.
Schools can bridge that gap by offering time with school counselors or social-emotional specialists who can help children understand and process their grief.
Give employees paid bereavement time
The majority of families Healthline spoke with agree that a few weeks of paid bereavement should be the minimum. One parent’s employer only offered 2 days paid bereavement. Many employers don’t offer any time at all.
Grief is not something that follows a set timeline. It can be a lifelong, nonlinear experience. Paid time off is essential because bills and financial responsibilities do not stop when we experience loss.
Acknowledge the impact of the loss on both the birthing parent and nonbirthing parent
Be sensitive with marketing
Be aware that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are not always a celebration for those who have faced pregnancy loss or infant loss — not to mention those experiencing infertility.
Some companies have taken a proactive approach toward sensitive marketing. For example, YogaWorks, a digital yoga and mindful movement studio, gave newsletter recipients the choice to opt out of Mother’s and Father’s Day email promotions in 2022.
President Maya Magenis explains the thinking behind the choice, “There are so many ways to lose a parent or lose parenting, and we felt it was important to be sensitive and provide students with the option to customize the messaging they received from us.”
On the other hand, without forethought, some targeted marketing campaigns can be harmful.
Recently, a woman shared on Twitter her suspicions that the pharmacy chain Walgreens might have shared her personal information with the formula company Enfamil.
The post went viral, and described an insensitive marketing campaign based on assumption. She was sent a package of free formula and a bottle in the mail after purchasing a pregnancy test at the store, even despite having no fallopian tubes.
In her post, the recipient of the formula was very vocal about the potential impact receiving such a package could have on people experiencing infertility, abuse, and of course, loss. Though Walgreens denies the claims they shared her information, other companies can learn from this by adjusting targeted marketing and free samples.
When all is said and done, remember that being available to listen, soothe, help, and recognize the impact of infant loss is sometimes the best thing you can do. Allow the grieving family time to heal, and offer support with no expectations in return.
As Tanaka emphasized, “each parent of child loss — whether that loss is from stillbirth, miscarriage, or neonatal death — is grieving differently, and should be honored differently.”
Something we can all borrow from the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva is that visitors, known as “callers,” do not initiate any conversations with the mourners. Instead, they let the mourners lead the conversations. This gives the bereaving people space to create the right environment they need to grieve.
After all, our role as the friends, family, and community of bereaving parents is not to take the grief away but to be their support system — their village — while they go through it.
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