How to help a friend after a stillbirth

Last year I met a new Mom, whose son had been stillborn. In addition to being heartbroken about losing her baby, the Mom shared with me that she was feeling lonelier than she’d ever felt in her life. Her husband, who was struggling with his own grief, was drinking more than usual and didn’t want to talk about the baby. Her best friend had flown across the country to help with the baby, but after the stillbirth got back on the plane saying “I don’t know how to be with you when you’re like this."

I think about this Mom a lot. Her story reminds me of two things.

First, grief can be unbearably lonely. The stigma around death, and the additional fear and discomfort that accompany stillbirths, leave many parents feeling alone with their pain. In a pandemic, without visits from neighbors and hugs from friends, grief is even lonelier.

Second, caring for someone who is grieving can be hard. Really hard. It’s uncomfortable, sad, and scary. We’re afraid to say the wrong thing, which often leads us to stay away. Not because we don’t care. We do, but no-one has taught us how to sit with someone who’s in pain. We’re taught what to do in all kinds of emergencies (think airplane crashes and earthquakes), but no-one teaches us what to do when the inevitable happens. No one teaches us what to do when someone we love, loses someone they love.

October is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, which means we all have a good opportunity to learn.

Here are 5 suggestions for how to support someone whose heart has been broken by the stillbirth of a child. Thank you to Laurel Marlantes for sharing her wisdom with me for this piece. Laurel is an Expert Contributor at Grief Coach, and the founder of Modern Mourning, an organization that provides pregnancy & infant loss support.

1. The best way you can support someone after a stillbirth is to affirm the realness of her child. It’s easy to feel that a child born still isn’t as real as a child born breathing, but for the mother, who through the process of pregnancy, the physicality of birth, and perhaps a few fleeting moments of holding and looking into the closed eyes of her baby, the child absolutely – and rightly so – is just as real.

2. Remember the baby’s birthday. Write it down, and take the time to reach out every year as the birthday approaches. Remember the baby on other key dates too, so that your grieving friend knows she’s always welcome to talk about her child with you.

3. Just listen. Know that it isn’t your job to cheer up your grieving loved one and, in fact, you couldn’t even if you tried. The truth is that human beings are capable of feeling a wide and powerful spectrum of emotions. We are equipped to feel the pain that comes with loss, and feeling sad can, in fact, help us to move through our grief. If your friend feels comfortable crying when she’s talking to you, consider it a compliment and know that you’re helping her to heal.

4. If you like crafting or sewing, perhaps you could offer to create a keepsake using an object from the baby’s nursery? Talk to your friend to see if there’s a special object or piece of clothing that she would like you to turn into a pillow or picture frame, for example. There’s no rush. This can be something you do years after the stillbirth, as a way to acknowledge the loss as the years pass by.

5. Many grieving parents find holidays especially difficult. If your friend celebrates Thanksgiving, for example, talk to her about how she might create a new tradition to honor her stillborn son or daughter. This could be a story or poem that’s read before dinner or planting a tree in the baby’s honor. As the years pass by, these traditions and acknowledgments can help parents to feel that the depth of their loss is recognized and that their baby will always be remembered.

I’m happy to say that the Mom whose story I shared at the beginning, did find the support she needed. She found a good therapist and also purchased a Grief Coach subscription, so that she could receive year-long personalized grief support via SMS. She received texts herself, to help her process the stillbirth of her son, and also added her friend to the subscription – the friend who flew home because she was afraid, and didn’t know what to do. In the end, that friend found the courage to stay present and was grateful to receive tips and suggestions as the months unfolded. She had never been taught how to support someone who was grieving, but she was willing to learn.

And in the end, that’s what it takes. A willingness to learn, listen, and sit with sadness. If we can each set aside our fears and come from a place of love when our friends are grieving, I am certain that the stigma and loneliness that accompany infant loss can be replaced with the love and understanding new parents so desperately need. By saying the baby’s name, remembering special dates, and finding new ways to acknowledge the child as the years pass by, we can each help to make sure that no-one has to grieve alone.

Next Camps may be cancelled, but grieving teens can still receive support