This morning shortly before 6:00 am, I heard Matt rumbling around in the kitchen downstairs. I quickly sent him a frustrated text telling him to “shh” because I was worried he would wake Mark. Mark has not been sleeping well the last few weeks, and this mommy was tired.
Matt’s response was not what I expected though. He had just read that a dear friend of ours lost their baby yesterday, very late in pregnancy, and shared the news with me. His response jolted me awake. My heart quickly changed to shock and then a strong desire to go wake up Mark and just hold him.
Although the circumstances that surround her loss are different than mine, I imagine the indescribably intense pain that comes from losing a child is very similar. My heart aches for her, because I remember how paralyzing that type of loss can be for those who experience it. I remember cringing at each baby’s cry that I heard while still at the hospital. I remember leaving the hospital empty armed and broken hearted. I remember the numb feeling I would get each morning for weeks afterwards realizing that I was living a nightmare.
I remember, and that is why my heart shatters all over again when I think about what she is going through.
Over the course of the last two years, I have had many people ask what they can do for someone they know who has experienced the loss of a child. Now seems like the right time to share my thoughts. I hope that this list can provide some guidance for those who may know someone who has experienced the loss of a child.
- Let them know you are thinking of them. Matt and I read every single card, email, and text that was sent to us when Isabelle died. We may not have responded immediately, but know that we read each one. We saved all of the cards in her box and even look at them again as a source of encouragement on difficult days.
- Use the child’s name. Hearing and seeing the child’s name is an acknowledgement that the child existed and was important to you. Parents who lose a child fear that the child will be forgotten. It is difficult knowing that the name won’t be spoken while playing with friends or by a teacher because the child never got to experience those moments. If the loss comes up in conversation, or if you are writing a card, use the child’s name.
- Food is good. Many think it seems cliché to bring food when someone experiences a loss, but it really does help, particularly when the mother is also recovering from childbirth. Find out if someone is heading up a food train and jump on board. If you can’t find that information, consider waiting a week or two and then bring something that you have frozen and that can be used at a later time. Reach out to family members and/or neighbors that may be in close contact with the family to find out when would be an appropriate time to drop it off. Consider having a neighbor leave a cooler outside the door for them if the family doesn’t feel like they are ready to see people yet. If all else fails, buy an inexpensive cooler yourself, and simply let them know there is a meal in it by their front door. Don’t show up unless you have set up a drop off time or are simply leaving the food by the door. If you do go inside to see the family, don’t stay long. I would also recommend using disposable foil serving dishes and providing paper plates and plastic cutlery. Not good at cooking? Gift cards are great. Matt and I received several gift cards and were incredibly thankful for them. We used them in the months after Isabelle passed away. They were very appreciated on difficult days when we just didn’t have the energy to cook.
- Ask if there are any essentials that you can pick up for them. You could also just pick up some essentials you think they may need. Examples of this may include things such as paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, and paper plates. Purchase the items and simply leave them at the door with a note letting them know you are thinking about them. When we first got home from the hospital, a friend (and experienced mom) had left a basket full of postpartum essentials for me. When dealing with grief, it is easy to forget to take care of yourself after childbirth. Things like a robe, creams, etc. were greatly appreciated.
- Offer to host a relative. If the family has a lot of family coming into town, offer a bed if you have the room.
- Offer to babysit. If they don’t need help initially, ask again in a few weeks or months. Try saying something like this: “I picked you up a gift card to (restaurant) for you today and was wondering if you wanted me to watch the kids this weekend while you guys grabbed a bite to eat. If you don’t feel like going out, I can drop off the gift card for you to use another time or even pick up some takeout for you.”
- Do not ask for details about the loss. The parents will share information when they are ready. Fight all urges to ask them for information that will be incredibly painful for them to share. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid talking about the child and call him/her by name, it simply means that you should not ask about the circumstances surrounding their death. As time goes on, and the family begins to work through their grief, they will share details if they want. Follow their cues when they get to this point and be sure to let them know you are willing to listen if they want to talk.
- Consider making a donation in memory of the child. Choose an organization that is important to the family. If you have no idea what to choose, I would recommend Molly Bears. It is a Non Profit that makes teddy bears matching the birth weight of the baby who passed away. Only the parents can actually order a bear, but anyone can make a donation. We love the 9 pound 14 ounce bear that was made for us by Molly Bears when Isabelle passed away.
- Don’t forget about their loss in the future. I really appreciated getting cards from people months after the loss. It was nice to know that people were still thinking about us. Grief is cruel. The world continues to march on around you, yet your heart still aches for the child who will not get to experience that world. Mark the date of the loss on you calendar, and send them something in the following years on that day. Release a balloon in their memory, attend church, or make a donation. Do something to acknowledge the anniversary of that day. Matt’s brother, his wife, and their kids make a birthday cake for Isabelle every year. Not only is this a great lesson to their children, it means the world to us. This summer, when they were visiting, my young niece and I were standing outside waiting on the others to come downstairs. She looked at me very seriously, and told me that she knew Isabelle was in heaven with God. I almost cried because it was such a beautiful moment. Clearly her parents have handled telling her about her cousin very well. Additionally, consider other days that may be difficult for them as well such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and other holidays. Mother’s Day was very difficult for me the first year. I was a mother but had no children on earth. It meant a lot to me when people wished me a Happy Mother’s Day and acknowledged my motherhood.
- Always include the child. If you are the grandparent, aunt, or uncle, do not forget to include the child when sharing how many grandchildren, nieces or nephews you have, particularly in the presence of the parent who lost the child.
- Listen. If your friend or family member wants to talk and opens up to you, don’t offer advice unless prompted to do so. Simply listen. A grieving parent may be angered by someone attempting to give advice if that person has not experienced the same type of loss. Sometimes a parent simply needs to talk through what happened to help him/her move forward. It is fine to offer a few encouraging words of support but only offer advice if prompted. It is also good to look for warning signs that a person is not dealing with their grief. If their grief seems to get worse over time or you notice symptoms that worry you, it may be time to seek professional help.
- Pray. All too often we tell someone we are going to pray for them and never actually follow through. Grieving parents really need our prayers. There were mornings I wasn’t sure if I was going to have the strength to get out of bed, but I did. I didn’t think I could leave the house, but I did. I didn’t think I could find the strength to go back to work, but I did. That isn’t a coincidence. It is the blanket of prayers that covered me during those early months that provided the strength and encouragement to move forward. I can’t tell you how many times I would have a difficult day, and then receive a text stating that, “My neighbor’s bible study is all praying for you” or “My colleague lost a child many years ago and wants you to know that she is praying for you each morning.” Prayer is a powerful tool.
- Be creative. We received an incredibly thoughtful gift from a group of close friends from my hometown. They wrote us a card sharing how each person would be praying for us that year. For example, one couple said they would be attending an extra Mass each month in her memory. Another friend offered up a rosary each month for us. Another friend chose to fast on the 25th of each month for a year. (Isabelle was born on the 25th.) They shared that a group of them, along with people we had never met, gathered in prayer for us one evening. It was such a thoughtful gift and brought much comfort knowing that we were being prayed for in the months following our loss.
Please note that these are just suggestions based on my own personal experience with child loss. Everyone is different in how they deal with grief. Some may want to be surrounded by people, while others may need some time to process what happened before they are ready to talk. I remember a good friend, who was a tremendous support when Isabelle passed away, telling me that she “followed my cues” in those first few weeks. I think that is good advice when supporting someone who has lost a child.
To all of you who have shown me such tremendous support the last two years, thank you. Your kind words, gestures, and prayers have been a source of strength on the grieving journey. I ask that you now also lift up my dear friend, her husband, and their kids in prayer during such an indescribably difficult time.