So I bring you my top 10 list of what you need to know when someone’s baby dies:
1. Always be kind.
I get that many hurtful words are said with the intent to be kind — and I’ll talk about that in a minute. But first — check your posture: Are you doing everything you can to empathize? Even if you cannot relate, do you assume this person is doing the absolute best they can under the circumstance? Before you do or say anything — first, be kind.
2. This loss is not a lesson.
(And read that again and again if you need to.) A parent may at some point in life after loss discover something about themselves or the world as a direct consequence of this loss. But that does not make this loss a lesson. God nor the universe puts the death of a child on someone so they can learn something. It’s tragic. Period. So if you are either trying to find the lesson in someone else’s loss — or want to teach them a lesson — full stop. No.
3. This is not God’s will.
Not everything that happens on this earth is God’s will. (Why would God create a life just to turn around and say, never mind?) Things happen on this earth all the time that are not God’s will. (And if that were not the case, why does the Bible say to pray for his will to be done?) Whether we agree theologically or not — the thing is, YOU don’t ever have the right to tell someone their loss was God’s will. Not. Ever.
4. Say something (hopefully supportive).
You do not need to tiptoe around the loss in order to avoid reminding them about it and making them sad. They have not (nor will they ever) forget. While you don’t get to demand that they pour out all their feelings out to you — you should still acknowledge that they have feelings. As they should. If you don’t know what to say, a simple, “I’m deeply sad for your family,” will do.
5. Say their child’s name.
If the greatest fear of a parent is to lose a child — the second greatest fear is that once their child is gone, they will be forgotten. You do not bring distress when you mention a child’s name who has passed away. You bring a gift. The gift of remembrance. Say the name. Remember their baby.
6. Remember with them.
If you are close with the person, make an effort on special dates to express that you remember their baby and are thinking of them. Holidays, due dates, Mother’s Day/Father’s Day, birthdays — all of these days are incredibly lonely and can be distressing for a loss family. Put an alert in your phone to send them a simple message or card to let them know you’re thinking about them and their baby.
7. Keep the cliches in check.
In my upcoming book, I have almost an entire chapter dedicated to why platitudes hurt. Here’s the cliff’s notes version: platitudes offer quick and easy comfort … to the comforter. And they almost always distress the bereaved. A quick saying makes light of a loss, even when unintended, and indicates that there is a reason or explanation that is acceptable for why the baby died. And if there’s a reason, a parent shouldn’t have to hurt so much. And if they don’t have to hurt so much, you don’t either. But there is no reason good enough. And most certainly, you do not get to tell them the reason you think their baby died. Again, keep it to a “I’m so sorry …”
8. Don’t judge their reaction.
Popular opinion says, the further along a pregnancy, the more a woman and her partner are emotionally impacted. But that is not what science says. The impact of a loss transcends gestational age and is a reflection of many more factors such as the physical nature of the loss, if the loss was traumatic, the parent’s relationship to this baby and pregnancy, and more.
As in — the way a couple experiences a loss and responds is profoundly unique. And their response, whether intensely private or public, is not up for debate. Honor the response and wishes of the grieving couple. And do not imply they are grieving too much, too little, too short, or too long. Let them grieve however they need to.
9. Your pain does not invalidate their pain.
If you’ve ever been tempted to say (or think), “You think this hurts? Try _________.” Um. Not helpful. This is not the pain Olympics. You can both be deeply hurting over different, even seemingly contradictory things. And likewise, their pain does not invalidate yours.
10. Don’t be the peeping Tom of grief.
I know that when a celebrity grieves, it impacts many of us. But there is a difference between grieving as a community — and infringing on personal space out of curiosity (or worse.) If someone is a celebrity — recognize that they don’t owe you anything. Sharing their talents with the world does not mean their private affairs get to be fodder for your entertainment. And if they are not a celebrity, privacy and respect are equally due. You can be appropriately concerned … and be respectful. Don’t ask intrusive questions. Don’t demand a deep emotional conversation. Listen to what they want to say? Yes. Expect all the nitty-gritty they are not ready to share? Heck no.
I know I promised 10 things, but here’s a bonus: if someone has had a baby die — show up.
Go to the funeral. Bring them a meal. Send a card with money for medical expenses — or just for something nice. Send condolences. Respect their privacy, yes. But if you know of a need, or can communicate with someone coordinating their care, be a person who shows tangible love and support whenever possible.
I know my tone is maybe just a little more direct. But I would like to emphasize that the onus is on all of us to learn to support the grieving better — not for the bereaved to learn to grieve better.
This piece originally appeared at The Lewis Note, published with permission.