What To Do (And Not Do) When a Friend’s Infant Dies

(I originally wrote this post for Scary Mommy and it appeared on that site in January.) 

Earlier today I received a phone call from my youngest sister asking me what tips she can pass along to a coworker whose friend’s child was stillborn this week. Our firstborn, Isabella, was born seven months ago and only lived 29.5 hours. She was born full term after a healthy pregnancy and we had no idea we would join the ranks of parents who lose their children.

After talking with my husband and other parents whose babies died far too soon, I came up with ideas of things that help, and do not help, bereaved parents.

-          Do not say, “Let me know how I can help.” I know you mean it, but when my world is shattered, I cannot come up with what I need. The best way a friend helped me was when she said, “Do you know what you’re having for dinner tonight?” “No.” “Okay, I will be by at 6 with dinner.” We needed dinner but I could not have come up with that. If you are going to the store, ask, “Can I pick up eggs, milk, toilet paper, etc. for you while I’m at the store?” Do not ask what you can get, I won’t know. But I might if given multiple choices.

-          If you want to do something tangible and needed, bring us a meal or set up a meal schedule to keep us fed for the first several weeks. When we were in the immediate aftermath of Isabella’s death, figuring out what to eat was the furthest thing from our minds. It simply took too much energy. Friends from church, work, and Bible study formed a meal schedule and brought us meals for a month. It was a lifesaver. If we need to heat something up, make the directions incredibly simple and include notes about even seemingly obvious things. I ended up baking a casserole with the plastic wrap still on it because my brain was not working yet. So even mark, “remove before cooking” on the wrap, just in case.

-          We will especially need you each day that marks another month that she is not here with us. Isabella was born on the 9th and every 9th of the month is brutal. I cannot help but think, “She would be five months today. What would make her smile? How many diapers would I have changed? What would she look like?” One of my husband’s good friends from college sends us a bouquet of flowers every month on the 9th. Still. I look forward to that bouquet and have been known to move it around the house with me and take it to my office. The first few months various friends would bring dinner over for us on the 9th. If you can’t remember the day, put a reoccurring reminder on your phone to text me and let me know you’re thinking about me.  

-          If we are close, make sure my house is welcoming when I return from the hospital without my baby. Ask me for a key and make sure my dishes are done. While you are there, put some flowers in various rooms. Flowers help. A tidy house helps. Basic grocery items in the fridge help. A care package with post-partum panties, heavy pads, wine, comfy pants, a funny movie, chocolate, and a note remind me that I am still a mother who just gave birth, even though my daughter is no longer with me.

-          Do not forget the dad. If our husbands are friends, encourage your husband to go out with mine for a beer or for lunch. My husband grieves very differently than I do, but his heart is broken too. Sometimes he needs to talk with other guys about what is going on.

-          If you don’t know what to say, a good phrase is, “I’m sorry.” Do not tell me platitudes. It is not comforting to hear, “Everything happens for a reason” or “At least you can have more” or “God needed another angel.” I know you are trying, but just say, “I’m sorry. I’m here to listen whenever you want to talk.”

-          Never box up the nursery or take down the crib without asking first. I know you want to tangibly help and removing items from the nursery that will remind me of my daughter seems like kind gesture. I will never forget my daughter and having her clothes put away from view would not have been helpful for us. We needed to be the ones to dismantle the nursery, if we even choose to. I have a friend with a similar story who kept their son’s nursery intact until they had to move houses. Others may take you up on the offer, but give them a day or so to make sure it is what they really want. There are so many unexpected decisions to make the first few days and our final decision was often different than our knee jerk reaction.

-          It’s okay to ask me questions about my baby, the birth, and what happened. There is no reason for my daughter's story to become the elephant in the room. I know you have questions, it’s okay to ask. If I don’t know or am not at a place to share, I will tell you. It is much easier to go on and have normal conversations if you know my daughter’s story.

-          If you are pregnant, let me know in person (or via phone). I am of an age that everyone is having kids. Life goes on and I know that good friends will have kids. But if we are good friends, tell me one-on-one, not via a Facebook announcement. I am excited for you and desperately pray that you never know the pain of child loss.

-          However, if you are pregnant or have a baby, I will likely unfollow you on Facebook until the pain of seeing a burgeoning belly and baby photos does not knock the breath out of me. Our friendship will likely stay intact and may even get stronger if you acknowledge that new pregnancies are hard for me and tell me in person.

-          If you can walk beside me through the pain, I will need you. Fair warning – grieving is incredibly messy and your heart will break in the process. When you lose a child, the grief literally changes your brain. My filter is gone, my memory is less reliable, and I am a different person than I used to be. Sometimes I just need to crawl under a desk or hide from the world. Sometimes, I could use a warm body next to me while I’m breaking apart, yet again. A friend offered to throw plates with me when I became angry. I may still take her up on it because, some days, I want to break things, hear them smash, and see the destruction left behind.

-          Acknowledge the tremendous lossparticularly if we are just acquaintances. If we run into each other at the store or out jogging and I don’t know if you know, it is incredibly awkward for me. Especially when you ask in a chipper voice, “How are you?” If you know my daughter died, let me know you are sorry. If I want to talk about her, I will. If I don’t, I will move the conversation to another topic. But my guard goes down when I know that you know. 

-          Say my child’s name. I love to hear Isabella’s name. Yes, I might cry. That is pretty common these days and her name is always a joy to hear.