The loss of a child is so unique and profound that it isn’t a pain that goes away. Grief is a pain that burns slowly like a piece of coal in your heart that never ceases to burn. Each day, mommas who have lost children find new things that they didn’t realize would bring their pain to the surface, almost like slow torture.
As friends and family of these parents who experience this tragic loss, how can we come alongside them and support them?
Our culture has (thankfully) become more sensitive and educated on ways to support pregnancy and child loss, but many of us still struggle with what to do. What do we say? How do we pray? Do we talk about it around them? Should I visit them since I am pregnant or stay away because I will remind them of their loss?
Many of us choose not to do or say anything at all.
In college, I was a Teacher’s Assistant for the Grief, Death, & Dying department as well as a Christian minister alongside my husband. I have held children who have died, cried with their mommas and daddies, and comforted them in the hardest times of their life. It can be overwhelming to sympathize with something so tragic, but I want to encourage you that it is needed, and there are ways you can support them.
If you know someone who has experienced the loss of a pregnancy or child, here are some ways you can support them as they mourn:
1. Remind them that they will always be their child’s momma.
Especially if this loss is of a first or only child, many mommas have the thought that they were never truly a mom in the first place. This advice also applies to a momma who may have lost a pregnancy. Remind her that even though she never got to hold her child, she will always be this child’s momma. Remind them that their role as their momma will never change, whether their child is with them physically or not.
2. The Ministry of Presence can be enough.
Sometimes, especially when we don’t know what to say, the best thing we can do is be with them. This is called the “Ministry of Presence.” Mommas can feel comforted just by someone sitting with them while they cry or have someone who will listen to how they feel or reminisce on memories of their little one. You don’t have to give advice. You don’t have to make them feel better (because you can’t)–all you have to do is sit with them as long as they want you there.
3. Validate their loss and don’t compare it with your own or other’s stories.
Everyone’s story of loss looks different and is unique. This is also true of their grief process. Especially if someone was early on in pregnancy when the loss occurred, it could be tempting to try to comfort them with phrases like, “Thankfully, you weren’t that far along” or “You can try again” or “Focus on the children you still have.” Though these sound awful as you read them, many times, we can find these phrases spilling out of our mouths because we don’t know what else to say! Alternative words of comfort can be, “I can’t imagine how you feel right now” or asking them questions about memories they had of being pregnant to acknowledge that this was a child and a loss for them. If the momma is comfortable, ask her questions about her pregnancy or little one such as “What was the little one’s name?” or “Tell me about your little one.” This allows them to gush about their relationship with their child, born or unborn, and help them to healthily discuss the personhood and the relationship they had with him or her.
4. Don’t rush their grief.
While visiting a young mom in the hospital who had just lost her 20 week old due to premature labor, I had an unpleasant interaction with one of her family members. Right after I had a moment with the momma who had lost her baby, one of her family members began asking me about my own pregnancy! I politely told the family member that it is not an appropriate time to talk about my pregnancy out of respect to the grieving mother (I had just walked into the delivery room, and the momma had just found out the baby in her belly passed overnight after her water broke prematurely). The lady responded with, “Oh, don’t worry about her. She needs to be able to talk about this stuff. She doesn’t need to be babied.”
I nearly lost it in that hospital room.
Collecting myself, I tried to keep in mind that this woman was of an older generation where talking about loss wasn’t taught and when grief was typically glossed over with a “tie-up your bootstraps and deal with it” mindset. I continued to minister to the grieving momma, listening to her as she processed her loss.
Though what the family member said may not sound like a big deal, in reality, it is very harmful to the grief process that must occur for the momma to heal in the long term. When we suppress our grief and do not move to a place of mourning a loss, these emotions build up and can manifest in other unhealthy ways in a person’s life. Grief and mourning of loss are healthy. It is necessary. We have to be able to talk about loss in a safe environment where we can process the tragedy and it not be met with someone else’s judgment or lack of comfort that causes them to rush the grieving into feeling “okay” on someone else’s timeline.
Even if it has been a year and a parent is struggling with the loss of their child, their grief should not be met with “you should be over it by now.” The grief process of losing a child or a loved one should never be rushed. It is not something you ever “get over.”
5. Check on them long after the loss happens.
Many communities come in strong right after a loss happens. This can be true of any loss. Friends and family and church members deliver casseroles, flowers, send cards, call, and post on Facebook. But what about three months later? Eight months later? On the loved one’s birth date or due date? These are all impactful days that can revive the trauma of the loss and can be very difficult for the parent. These are the times they will need support from their community again. If you need to, set a date in your calendar months ahead to check on them or tell them you are thinking about them, so you don’t forget. Mother’s and Father’s Day and major holidays are also triggering dates throughout the year.
6. Remember the daddy.
Many fathers are overlooked in situations of child loss, especially when it comes to the loss of an unborn child. Ways to support the father are to include them when saying you will pray for them, ask how they are feeling, and remind them that they will always be the father of their child. Fathers appreciate feeling included, even if they may not want to talk about the loss as verbally as the mom.