In our society, death is an uncomfortable topic — something most of us prefer not to talk about unless absolutely necessary. When the time does come, however, we are usually able to deal with the deaths of our parents, our relatives and our friends. Depending on our religions and/or our beliefs, we adhere to rituals to help us along this seemingly uncharted journey. These rituals determine what we should do, where we should be, how we should act, and in some cases, how we should feel.
But what if the person who died is a baby? What do we do — how do we act — now? This loss defies the natural order of things and stops us in our tracks. When I was in my early twenties, an acquaintance gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. I cried — and then I did what so many others have been known to do — nothing. I wasn’t sure what was expected, or what was proper. Every way I could think of to reach out to the grieving parents felt strange and awkward — not enough. And so I did nothing.
Little did I know at the time I would soon learn first-hand how misguided my inaction was.
Almost thirty years ago, my daughter Leah was born prematurely. She fought desperately to live but just couldn’t win the fight. She died in my arms at the age of six weeks — on Mother’s Day. Never in my life had I experienced such profound loss. Intense grief seared through me, tearing my heart apart and bruising my soul.
I was one of the lucky ones. I had a loving family and friends who stuck close to me. My husband was my rock. But still — many stayed away. I held no grudges. I understood — sort of. After all, as I said, I had made the same mistake. People just don’t know what to do.
While the death of any son or daughter, at any age, is a tragedy, the death of a newborn or baby comes with some unique issues. What was expected to be the biggest event and blessing in a couple’s (or single parent’s) life has turned, often in an instant, into their worst nightmare. Instead of bringing your baby home to the newly-decorated nursery so you can begin your long-awaited lives together, you find yourself faced with decisions regarding funeral and/or burial arrangements.
So what should we do when someone we care about has lost their baby?
First and foremost — be there. Genuine concern from the doctors and nurses who cared for Leah made the unbearable bearable. A friend of mine who lost her newborn baby ten years earlier was not so fortunate. Not only did she never have the opportunity to hold her baby, she was told by doctors to “forget about her and move on.” Her story was not uncommon forty years ago.
The support and love of my parents and immediate family kept me away from that edge I was so dangerously close to. Friends who continued to call even when I could not bring myself to talk to them let me know I was in their hearts. I learned the worst thing you can do when someone is hurting is stay away. I don’t care how uncomfortable the situation might be; we need to show each other we care. Call, send a note, drop by with food, flowers, a hug. You don’t know what to say? Don’t say anything. Words are overrated anyway. Just be there.
Be sensitive. While there is no right or wrong thing to say, try to think before you speak. One woman told me the story of her neighbor who dropped by to ask if she could borrow her bassinet since “you won’t be needing it anyway.” This is a great example of what you absolutely should not say. Another comment that should never be spoken is, “At least you have other children,” or “You can always have more children.” This is not about any other children. It’s about acknowledging a life lost way too soon and being there for the heartbroken parents.
Another example of being sensitive: If you have a baby yourself, ask the grieving parents if it’s too difficult for them to be around your baby or child. Everyone is different and most people will appreciate your thoughtfulness and will answer honestly. Obviously they will not be able to (or hopefully want to) avoid young ones forever, but in those early days, when the pain is so raw, we need to be aware of how our own actions and situations might affect those who are suffering.
Ask, “What can I do for you?”
Mention the baby by name. Most people don’t do this as they don’t want to upset the parents. But the parents are thinking non-stop of their child and likely want others to acknowledge his or her existence. If the grieving mom or dad wants to talk about their lost child, let them — even encourage them, to talk as much as they want. Let them cry. Cry with them. Listening — really listening — can be a wonderful gift.
You never “get over” the loss of a child. All these years later, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Leah and what might have been. But when my mind goes back to those dark days of unbearable pain, I remember the warmth and love I received from those who cared. All grieving parents deserve this.