Helping a Friend Through Infant Loss, and Beyond
We all find death a difficult subject to navigate. When it’s someone’s pet, however beloved, or an elderly relative who’s lived a good life and died peacefully, it’s just about manageable. We offer sympathy, and rely on platitudes because it’s hard to know what to say. When it’s us that have been bereaved, we do our absolute best to behave normally in public, so as not to cause any social awkwardness.
When it’s a baby who has died however, acting normally isn’t often an option for the parents. In the face of grief on that scale, people feel so inadequate and uncomfortable that they often back away. It’s quite common in this situation to be told, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”, and, “I don’t know what to say”. Because for most people, the pain of losing a baby is unimaginable. It leaves them speechless, and makes them feel that they are helpless to provide support.
In the last 4 years, I’ve lost 6 babies. I’ve also lost the 3 closest friends I’ve ever had. Friends I had known for at least a decade, in one case since childhood. Friends who, as my losses stacked up, drifted away quietly, while I was too distressed to really notice. I’ve spoken to many other mums who have been through miscarriage, as well as stillbirth and neonatal death, and the loss of close, longstanding friendships is one of the recurring themes that emerges.
When you lose a baby, you don’t expect to lose anyone else from your life as well, so you aren’t on your guard for it. You are so consumed by grief that just existing day to day in a world without your baby is a struggle, and by the time you are able to look up from that, to function again, it may be too late to salvage a friendship that at one stage in your life might have been the closest relationship you had. When you lose one baby after another, after another, you may not get the chance to look up from your grief for months or even years at a time.
I’ve never spoken about this subject to anyone, least of all the friends who I’ve lost. There doesn’t seem much point at this stage. It’s too late. I imagine that they feel it was me who changed, who distanced myself, who became brittle and resentful. And for my part, I feel deeply hurt that they didn’t try harder to keep our friendships going, that they didn’t try to help me through as I’m certain I would have tried to help them, had the roles been reversed. I will probably never say these things to them, but I am going to say them, in the hope that someone out there who’s reading this might find it useful, and that it might help them navigate the tricky path of friendship after baby loss. This was supposed to be my story, but on the back of my sixth loss very recently, this is all I can currently face writing.
So my story will have to wait.
Instead, here are my tips for helping someone through.
Keep in touch (and keep keeping in touch)
In the first few days and weeks after a loss, the parents will probably be inundated with messages, cards, gifts and flowers. Even if the baby was lost before the pregnancy was announced, those who know are likely to check in often. But after that, things can get very quiet very quickly indeed. If I reached out to somebody after I lost my first baby, James, they would invariably tell me that they had been thinking of me, but it was quite rare that anyone would actually get in touch.
Not having been on the other side of this, I find it really hard to understand. I think perhaps it’s just that people don’t know what to say, or how to act. Perhaps they think you’ll still be inundated, and don’t want to bother you. But it doesn’t seem like that from the inside. It seems like no-one is thinking about you, like this huge black hole that’s engulfed your life is invisible to others. Like the baby who you’ve lost has quickly and quietly been forgotten by everyone except you.
Having had a number of first trimester miscarriages as well as later losses, I know that this effect is amplified when few people knew you were pregnant in the first place. Things go quiet very quickly indeed in that scenario. It’s back to business as usual in as little as a few days. In fact, I have spoken to close family members this week, one week after my last first trimester miscarriage, and it hasn’t been mentioned at all. Since having my only live birth in 2017, I do in a way have to get back to business as usual, and perhaps they don’t want to risk upsetting me when I have a toddler to care for. But perhaps it’s also that they assume the pain of an early miscarriage doesn’t compare to that of a late one, and that after losing Grace a few months ago, my latest loss barely registers.
In fact, what few people seem to know is that a growing body of research indicates that levels of maternal grief after losing a baby in pregnancy have less to do with the gestational age of the baby, and more to do with what’s known as the ‘assignment of personhood’. If the mother (and I say mother in this instance only because the research has been carried out on mothers) has assigned a person to her baby, then she has created a relationship with them, and will feel the grief at losing them all the more acutely. Feeling a baby kick, seeing it move on a scan, hearing its heartbeat, and being able to see and hold the baby are all factors which make the assignment of personhood much more likely, but it’s still perfectly possible for someone losing a baby at 8 weeks to grieve as acutely as someone losing a baby much later, if they have for some reason assigned personhood to a greater degree.
My point is basically that we should never underestimate the pain of an early loss. If you’re thinking about someone who has experienced baby loss at any stage, let them know. They might not get back to you. They might not be capable of keeping on top of their messages. They may not even be at a point in their grief where they can face reading them, let alone replying. Don’t worry if that’s the case, and definitely don’t be offended if you don’t hear back. Just keep letting them know that you’re thinking of them and that you’re there if needed, whatever stage they lost their baby at.
You will probably have stuff going on in your own life that you would ordinarily share with them, but now might not be the best time to expect your friend to be there for you. Take your cues from them, because they might like to keep hold of a bit of normality by talking about what’s going on with you, but equally they might not. If they seem very distant and like they aren’t there for you, even if it’s been months and it was ‘only’ an early loss, just give it time. They will come back to you if you show them that you’re there for them. This is most likely true even if the circumstances are difficult, for instance if you’re pregnant, or had a similar due date. Which leads me to my second tip…
Don’t expect too much, too soon
A breezy text about what’s going on in your life might be a welcome diversion, but take your cues from your friend. A text moaning about something trivial, however normal that might have been before their loss, might now seem a bit insensitive. It might have been months but that doesn’t mean that things are any less raw for your friend. It can seem like the rest of the world forgets lost babies very quickly, so do everything you can not to add to that impression.
This is particularly the case if you are pregnant, have or had a similar due date, or have a small baby yourself. I personally don’t at all mind hearing about pregnancy or young babies, unless their due date is or was close to my lost baby’s. I find that difficult, because it’s impossible not to feel like you will always think, “Oh, so my baby should be starting to crawl/walk/go to nursery/school/do their GCSEs/graduating from university”. Knowing someone with a baby the same age yours should have been can feel like a life sentence of painful reminders, in that respect, however delighted you are that that baby is alive and well, and passing all those milestones. I would always rather maintain a friendship with that baby’s Mum than lose a valued friend, but it might take me a few months to adjust to the situation.
Moaning about the discomforts of pregnancy can also seem insensitive. I know how uncomfortable it can be to be pregnant, and that it can be annoying not to be able to do some things that you would normally. But someone who’s been through baby loss might not be the most appropriate audience for a whinge. They would put up with night cramps, swollen feet, and agonising pelvic pain for eternity, if it meant having their baby back. Equally, being a new parent is so hard. Moaning about the sleep deprivation to someone who would give anything to be going through it, hurts beyond belief.
Don’t feel like you’re not close enough
If you’re a friend but not a close friend, you might feel that any contact from you would be an imposition. This is very unlikely to be the case, so keep in touch. It might be hard to know if that’s appropriate or not, especially if you’re not hearing back, but sending a text at least every few weeks just to check in and tell your friend that you’re thinking of them can’t do any harm. This is probably easiest to navigate where a loss is earlier, or if the pregnancy wasn’t common knowledge (for instance due to previous losses). If a friend has told you, without any imperative to do so (for example the need to take time off work if it’s a colleague, or a need to change important plans), then it’s a good indicator that they would appreciate your support.
Some people seem to worry that getting in touch when they’re not close will seem like they’re trying to muscle in, are looking for gossip, or have some kind of ghoulish interest in what’s happened. I think this is unlikely to be how any contact would be perceived, but if this is worrying you, just avoid direct questions that might seem like nosiness. Instead of saying, “How are things?”, try saying, “I hope you’re doing OK”, for example. Again, just making sure you’re saying something is key.
Use their baby’s name
If a baby has been stillborn (i.e. has died after 24 weeks), miscarried very late in pregnancy, or has died after birth, then chances are that you will know their name. In this situation, what to do is straightforward: don’t be afraid to use the name. Hearing it is not going to cause the baby’s parents more grief than they’re already feeling.
It’s trickier, though, when the loss is earlier. If it was during the first trimester and no genetic testing was done (and that’s rare with a first miscarriage), then the gender won’t be known. Whilst that doesn’t mean that the baby doesn’t have a name, it does make it less likely. Some parents choose to give unisex names to babies lost before their gender could be identified, or choose a name based on their hunch as to the baby’s gender, but most don’t. But in my opinion, it can’t hurt to gently enquire. It might be an upsetting question, but it would show that you’re taking the loss of the baby, however early, seriously. There’s less grey area with second trimester miscarriages. An experienced professional will be able to tell with a reasonable degree of certainty whether a foetus was a boy or a girl from as early as 11 weeks, and pathology work will also often be carried out when a miscarriage occurs in the second trimester.
The birth of a baby lost before 24 weeks will not need to be registered, however, and formal funeral ceremonies are less common for miscarried babies than for those who are stillborn, so the baby’s name might not be spoken much at all. It can be a great comfort to the parents to hear it, though. A lost baby’s name can become a talisman if it’s pretty much all you have left of them. It carries the weight of the dreams you have of what they could have become. Grace died in June and was born in July, and I still feel like I can see her name whenever I close my eyes. Nobody ever uses her name, not even my husband, who finds it too painful, so for someone in my life to do so would demonstrate that they are thinking about her as I am. It would acknowledge her existence, and send a message that she mattered and continues to matter.
Don’t forget important dates
This goes back to my first tip, really. I think that people assume, if they don’t know, that recovery from baby loss (though, actually, there’s really no such thing) is linear. They assume that every week or month will be better than the last week or month. But in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. For me, there is often a weird numb period immediately following a loss, especially the later ones.
Because I have a condition which affects the placenta, this is usually while I’m still carrying the baby, and this means that it all seems very unreal. It’s comforting, in a way, to still have them with me, but at the same time it’s devastating to know they’re there, but not there. After they have been born, I feel overwhelming relief that the physically traumatic part is over, and intensely guilty because of that relief.
Then reality hits, and utter devastation sets in.
After that, and I’ve heard other bereaved parents say the same, there is a meandering, two steps forward, one step back process of coming to terms with the new reality. Some days, it can feel like you’re back to square one; like it’s just happened, and you’ve made no progress towards coming to terms with it. Sometimes these days come out of nowhere, but they more often coincide with a meaningful event, like the baby’s due date, if s/he was lost before this, or the anniversary of the loss. The run-up to these dates are also likely to cause significant levels of anxiety and grief, so be aware of them, and check in more often than you might otherwise. Acknowledging the date in some way is a nice way of showing that the baby hasn’t been forgotten by everyone except the parents.
This probably goes without saying, given everything I’ve said up until this point and, actually, I’ve probably made it all seem like a bit of a minefield. It might even seem more fraught with difficulties than it did before you started reading this. I’m sorry if that’s the case, but it is an extremely sensitive subject, and one that needs to be approached with a great deal of care.
The most important thing, what I can’t emphasise enough, is to keep in touch. Don’t let people going through this feel that they or their baby have been forgotten, perhaps especially if they’ve been through it before. Baby loss might have stripped them of their support network in the past, as is surprisingly common. So, if they reach out to you, they’re doing it for a reason, and if they don’t, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use your support.
I hope that for anyone reading this who has experienced baby loss, at least some of this makes sense. I can only write from my perspective (which is probably coloured by the experience of recurrent loss), and base my advice on what I would like, what I have found useful, and what I’ve heard others say. If there’s anything that anyone finds upsetting, apart from the obvious, I’m truly sorry. It was written with the best of intentions, and I hope that it can be of help to someone.
Beth (Mum to one little monkey, and six little stars) x
Huge thanks to Beth for sharing her experience and advice on supporting a friend through infant loss.