To get better at talking about child loss, the best thing we can do is start talking about it.
We strive to share insights based on diverse experiences without stigma or shame. This is a powerful voice.
One of the last things most people want to do is willingly put themselves in an uncomfortable situation — and I’m one of them. But I’m also, like many women who experience pregnancy, a mother who has lost a baby.
If you’re the loved one of a woman who has experienced the loss of a wanted child and you’re struggling with what to say, you’re not alone. The hard-to-accept truth of it is, there’s nothing you can do or say to relieve her pain. The only thing that could is holding her living child in her arms — everything else is a mild salve.
Here’s what my own experience has taught me about how to have these much-needed conversations.
Showing up for each other is how we get through hard things like child loss. It’s the salve. But it’s challenging, and most people don’t know how to do it well.
Acknowledge the loss
Acting as if the loss of a child never happened can be doubly heartbreaking for a mother who has experienced this. It can feel as if the people around her are invalidating her experience and denying her child’s existence.
Not saying anything can also reinforce the implicit social norm that she should suffer in silence behind closed doors.
By acknowledging the loss — by saying her baby’s name, for example — you give her permission to talk about it. And if she talks about it, she can free herself from the loneliness and isolation of grief. She can start the healing process.
Speak from the heart
When words fail us, we tend to borrow someone else’s, pulling quotes from poets, priests, and presidents. I beg you: Resist the urge to send platitudes to a grieving mama.
It is infinitely more meaningful to hear from you in your own, imperfect words. Taking the time to find them will speak more to her heart than Rumi ever could (and that’s saying a lot!).
And if you still don’t know what to say, say that, i.e.,“I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I love you.”
If you still don’t know what to do or say, don’t torment yourself by trying to guess the “right” thing. Ask her what she needs right now. Ask her how she would like to honor her experience and her child’s life.
Ask her if, and how, she wants to talk about it. Ask if and how she wants to celebrate Mother’s Day. Just by asking, you’re showing you care.
Even if it’s not your intention, some approaches can feel more hurtful than helpful.
Don’t make this a “me too” moment
As much as you want to connect, to tell her that she is not alone floating in the ether untethered, now is not the time to share your own loss experience. It’s especially not appropriate to share someone else’s.
Each loss is unique. For example, miscarriage is not the same as stillbirth, and stillbirth is not the same as a post-birth loss. And even if it’s the same type of experience, the surrounding circumstances will always be different. So it’s futile (and can be infuriating for the mother) to compare them.
There are better ways to relate.
Avoid statements like: “I know [how you feel]/[what you’re going through]. I also [had a miscarriage]/[lost someone I loved].” Or “The same thing happened to [so-and-so].”
Instead, use your experience to inform your actions. Think about what you felt when you were going through it — what you wish others would have said to or done for you — and say and do those things.
Don’t burden her with your feelings
Whatever you’re feeling, I assure you: She has felt it to the nth degree herself — she is now a blackbelt in that emotion. You may think you’re relating by sharing hard feelings, but you’re merely putting more emotional heaviness on her.
You’re putting her in the position of comforting you, and someone in the grips of grief does not have the emotional capacity to tend to other people’s feelings. It’s all they can do to carry their own.
Another form of this is projecting your feelings as a way of demonstrating your understanding. In other words, telling her what she’s feeling (which is actually what you’re feeling) as a way of relating. Don’t do that.
Avoid statements like: “Gosh, you must feel so [devastated, heartbroken, sad]” or “I feel so [devastated, heartbroken, sad] for you.”
Instead, allow her the space to reflect on her feelings. You can say something like, “What’s showing up for you today?” Or “Where are you in your grief journey?”
Don’t minimize or plaster over her grief with positivity
A loss is still a loss, regardless of whatever good we have in our lives. For example, no matter how many other children a woman may have, she will always feel the longing for the one she doesn’t. She can’t replace the lost child with another.
Practicing the power of positive thinking has its limits. Anyone who has experienced grief knows that. Grief doesn’t work logically, and it can’t be “tamed.” It moves through a natural, chaotic process.
Avoid statements like: “Well, at least… [you know you can get pregnant],” or “You’re lucky… [you have other kids],” or “Don’t worry… [you can have another one].”
Instead, you can support her where she is by allowing and validating her feelings, whatever they may be. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
Don’t make meaning of the experience for her
She is likely already doing enough of that herself — and will be for the rest of her life. Whatever meaning she takes away from the experience, she will find it in her own way and in her own time.
I especially want to call out the temptation to share religious maxims. Your faith may help you in hard times, but you can’t assume the same for her. And even if she has her own faith or shares yours, it may not be a comfort to her at this time.
Grief commonly elicits anger at God, casts doubt on beliefs, and calls trust in a higher power into question. This is all a normal part of the grief journey. And as well-intentioned as you may be, it’s not up to you to navigate it for her.
Avoid saying things like: “God only gives you what you can handle,” or “Offer your suffering up to God,” or “It’s all part of His plan.”
Instead, stay open and curious if she shares insights about the meaning she’s finding. For example, you can say something like, “Tell me more about [why that symbol is meaningful to you].”
Don’t make her into a hero
Losing a child is perhaps the most challenging thing a woman can go through in her life. She knows how hard it is. There’s no need to remind her.
Lionizing her like she’s a soldier going to war suggests it was her choice to join the ranks of countless women who have experienced child loss. She didn’t want this, and she doesn’t feel courageous.
Avoid saying things like: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” and “You’re so brave,” and “I wouldn’t be able to do it.” Avoid making judgments at all — positive or negative.
Instead, celebrate her for things like being gentle with herself, taking the time she needs to grieve, and asking for help from others.
Sometimes, the best thing you can say is nothing at all.
If she’s open to having visitors, make a date to stop by and show up fully present. Bring a box of tissues and a calming tea to share, and be prepared to sit and listen — or just sit with her. Let her know it’s OK if she doesn’t want to talk — she doesn’t need to perform for you.
Sometimes holding a hand or silently hugging is all it takes for an emotional release. Sharing the space and allowing her to experience whatever comes up provides solace that words alone can’t.
Talking about child loss can be tricky, no matter how practiced you are at it. However, bringing awareness and intention to communicating your emotions will allow you to feel more deeply and show up more authentically for those you love — including yourself.