Supporting the Parent
The other day an old friend called to tell me that her niece had just found out that her baby had died in-utero at 34 weeks gestation. As I listened to her story my heart sank and I cried for this new mother who has unfortunately joined the ranks of mothers like me. I also remembered my own pain when it was new and raw.
My friend was distraught and told me that she did not know what to say to her niece. My advice to her was to tell her niece exactly that: “I do not know what to say. I am sorry.” My second piece of advice was to offer to listen. Just listen. “I am here if you want to talk. I will listen.”
In my own experience, the best support that I received was from the friends who recognized that there was no fixing this situation, and offered to listen. As a mother who had just lost her baby, I needed to tell my story. I needed to talk about my pregnancy. I needed to talk about the delivery of my twins and about the time we spent in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. I needed to talk about the hope that I had when Ian had a good day and about the depths of my sadness and fear when he had a bad one. I needed to tell the story of the night he died in my arms and how when it was time to go, I tucked him back into his cot and left the hospital with only one of my twins. All of these stories needed to be told and retold. Almost two years later, sometimes, I still need to tell them. There is comfort in the telling of these stories.
To the friend or family member reading this, seeking information on how to support a bereaved parent, I would like to say thank you. Thank you for caring. Now I would like to share what I found helpful.
1. Know that there is no remedy for this situation. There are no words that can take away our pain. There are no children that can replace the child that we lost. Even if we have surviving children from this pregnancy or a prior pregnancy, they can not replace the deceased child. Yes, we are grateful for our living children, but we must grieve the loss of our dead child and all that accompanies that loss. The only fix would be to erase history and we know that is impossible. As a parent of a dead child, we must learn to live with this loss. We have to incorporate it into our life. As I have heard so many times, we must find our “new normal”.
2. Listen. Just listen. As I have mentioned above, listening was the best support that I received.
3. Do not try to compare our loss to something you have experienced. If you have lost a parent, sibling, spouse, friend or pet – however painful that may have been for you, it is not the same as losing a child. Grief is incomparable. It is different for everyone. I am even reluctant to tell a bereaved mom that I understand what she is feeling. I can feel compassion for her, I can empathize and sympathize, but I can not completely understand her feelings. Everyone experiences grief differently. Support is needed; comparing is not. 4. Be careful about offering platitudes. It is of little use to us if you chalk this tragedy up as “God’s Will” or “Not meant to be.” This is not helpful. In crisis, we often try to rationalize. We do this in an attempt to bring order to this often messy and confusing world. Rationalizing a baby’s death does not ease the pain. Often well meaning friends and family think that they can ease out pain by offering platitudes. The parent will often interpret these comments as cold and unsympathetic, belittling their grief and discrediting the child’s life. My son died because his kidneys did not work well enough to sustain life. Biologically, there is a reason for his death. However, theoretically, there is no reason as far as I am concerned. For me and many other parents like myself, there will never be a reason why some children die while others live. Please remember that reasoning and rationalizing, while the parent herself may talk of and question such things, is not often welcomed from others. Deep down in our hearts there is no reason for the death of an innocent child.
5. Encourage the friend or family member that you are supporting to be open and honest with their needs. It is often hard to speak up and say what it is exactly that you need, especially when you are so vulnerable. Maybe they need physical help like meals, housecleaning or someone to take the kids for the afternoon. Maybe they need some emotional support. Maybe they need to be left alone for a while or maybe they need to just cry. This is okay. From my own experience, I felt that I was a very hard person to be around. Mostly because I feared that if I was too honest, I would upset or depress the person that was trying to help me.
6. Please know that it is normal for people to question their faith or belief system after tragedy. Many events that happen in our life either change or are assimilated into our schema, our worldview. As for myself, I have a different worldview than before my son died. One parent may find their faith a great comfort while another will have a completely different experience.
In closing, I would like to thank you again for taking the time to seek information on how to support a friend or family member who has just lost a baby or babies. This parent really needs a friend who can commit to the long haul. Grief is ugly. It is intense and frightening. It can also be liberating when we are not afraid of it. It is a great gift when you can stand by someone as they face their grief. When my twins were in the NICU, so many people were offering help. For the most part the physical needs of me, my husband and our older children were met. Emotionally I was in a terrible place. I remember telling a friend that I would really need support after we left the hospital. I told her that I would need to talk. Whether I left the hospital with two babies or one, I would need to tell my story. This friend has been there for me. She is still there for me. I will remind you again that the greatest support you can give is to listen.
Amber Webb McIntyre is the mother to four children. Her last two, identical twins, Colin and Ian, were born at 30 weeks gestation due to Twin to Twin Transfusion. Ian passed away from complications due to kidney failure at two months old.