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The Right Words

Updated: Apr 2, 2018

"I didn't know what to say, so I just... didn't say anything. I didn't want to remind them of their heartache, after all. What do you even say when someone you love loses a child?"

In the face of a loved one's perinatal loss, many people--often those who have not themselves experienced this kind of loss--find themselves saying or thinking these words. They obviously feel so heartbroken for their loved one, but they can't find the right words, so they end up saying nothing at all.

We get it. Words fail us when we try to describe our grief. It makes sense that they'd fail you too. And we don't blame you for being at a loss for words, or for wanting so badly to say the right thing (or at least not the wrong thing) that you don't say anything.

But, it is so. damn. hard. to face loss alone. We need all the love we can get, even if we can't reciprocate in those relationships at the time. Even just showing up, without saying a word, can work wonders.

I've definitely screwed this up, especially before my own loss. I've said stupid things, I've thought stupid things, and I've shied away from being present.

But, I've also learned a lot. And I wanted to share a little of that with you, the person desperately seeking for the right thing to say or do, in the hopes that this might help point you in the right direction.

I'm so sorry.

If you can't come up with anything to say, start here. While this doesn't really mitigate any of the grief, it is helpful to know that you care. It's common for people to avoid families facing perinatal loss for many reasons. Saying this is a way to turn towards your loved one in their grief, rather than away from them. It also acknowledges the loss, which is so important, since there are multiple institutions that probably won't (for example: early miscarriages don't always go in a pregnant person's medical records; stillborn children or those who died within a short time after birth often can't be counted when filing taxes; babies lost before ~20 weeks do not receive a birth or death certificate). For us, though, our baby is real, no matter how long they lived, whether they were born alive or if they died in utero, and our grief is real, too.

I don't know what to say.

Sometimes being honest is the best thing. There are no words that come close to adequately soothing the pain of perinatal loss. You can say this, and then--here's the big one--follow it up with, "but I will listen if you want to talk." And then do that. Listen intently. Let them cry, or get angry, or say things they're afraid to say. You don't have to share any wisdom or solve the problem. Just let them speak without judgment.

You're not alone.

This is especially helpful if you or someone you're very close with has experienced perinatal loss. This kind of loss is often isolating because we don't really talk about it that much. One in four pregnancies ends in loss, but I could count on my fingers the number of people who had told me about their losses before my own. Try not to tell someone else's story for them, but if you have another loved one who has experienced a similar loss, you might offer to connect the two of them.

Would you like to tell me about your baby?

This one requires some commitment, and a willingness to hear and see things that might be painful or upsetting. However, talking about the things they hoped for, loved, cherished, or remember about their baby can be a healing experience for loss parents. Gently ask about the baby's name, how big they were, pregnancy and, if applicable, neonatal milestones, birth stories, who they looked like (or who the parents hoped they would look like), hopes and dreams they had for their baby, special songs or written passages they connect with their baby, and anything else you can think of. Ask to see pictures or ultrasound photos, if they would like to share. Respect that the parents may not want to share any of these things--these are very sacred parts of their memories of their baby, and they may hold them tight so as to maintain a special bond.

I'm thinking about you and [baby's name].

This is a great one once some time has passed since the parents' loss. It's great if you can share things that reminded you of the family, or that you're thinking of them on special days (birthdays, due dates, loss dates, etc.). You can also light a candle, bake a cake on birthdays or due dates, or visit the cemetery where the baby is buried (if applicable) and shoot a quick text letting them know you're remembering them.

Of course, these are just a few examples. There are so many beautiful things you can say and do for a family enduring loss. The main thing is to say something. It's okay if you screw up or put your foot in your mouth--show up anyway. Apologize when you say something unintentionally hurtful (and you will). If you can't come up with anything to say, it's okay to just check in and listen. Doughnuts are also a good "I don't know what to say, but I'm here, and I care" gift.

Your turn: How did others respond after your loss? What did they say that you want others to know?

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