What can I say? Ideas on how to talk to and help a grieving friend

(topic: loss, grief, communication, helping)

Introduction

This is a post in my series of posts honoring Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. My goal is for these posts to be shareable – if you are a loss parent, I hope you find this post helpful to share with your friends to help them understand you, what you are going through, and how to help.

Please note that usually my Wednesday posts are loss related, and my Saturday posts are hobby-themed. Due to extenuating circumstances, I missed Wednesday this week, and this post (a day late), which would normally be a hobby post, is making up for Wednesday. Thanks for your patience with this little hiccup in routine!

Why Are We Talking About This?

There are several reasons why pregnancy and infant loss is incredibly important to bring into the open – such as helping the medical world realize that this needs to be studied and the rate of loss needs to be reduced – but why is it important to discuss how to talk about it?

Well, in my experience, our culture doesn’t talk about death much, and when we do it’s either joking or morbid, or it gets really, really awkward. And when talking about grief, we are smack-dab in that third category. It’s tough to talk about, which unfortunately means that our culture teaches us to respond with platitudes and sayings, none of which are really very helpful to the person grieving – and some of which are actually quite hurtful.

There are many articles out there on the hurtful things people say, and sometimes why they are so painful. In the past, I have discussed some of them myself (What Do I Say? from May 2017), while trying to address some helpful things to say instead. Today I’d like to focus on some helpful ways to approach talking to a loss mom or dad, and some other ways to help a grieving family.

What Can I Say?

First off, be sincere and think before you speak, no matter what. Usually, when someone is hurtful, it’s usually because a) they are just trying to leave the conversation, b) they are saying a phrase or saying without thinking about the deeper meaning, or c) are comparing to something, like something they’ve been through, rather than just listening.

What exactly you say is really up to you and depends on your relationship to the person you are talking to. Generally though, being open to the grieving person’s experience is extremely helpful. While you might see what they are going through physically, you have no way to know what’s in their head and how they are perceiving it. Be patient and open, and willing to listen and try to understand. If they tell you that they don’t want to talk about a particular aspect, or do want you to do something, like talk about their baby by name (rather than as a miscarriage, stillbirth, fetus, or even “the baby”), please respect their wishes and either don’t or do talk about that when in a conversation with them.

What if you are just meeting someone new? Really listen to how they are approaching topics – any topics! And listen to see what they are comfortable sharing. Don’t push for information, but rather let the conversation take a natural tack. If they bring up their loss, and it makes you uncomfortable, here are some helpful phrases you can riff on:
– “I can’t imagine what you are going through”
– “I’m so sorry to hear that”
– “What’s his/her name?” (very few people ask, and I wish more did)
– “I’m here for you”
– “Would you like to tell me about him/her?”

Some things to avoid are religious platitudes, anything that is an “at least” type statement, or any comparing of grief situations. Also, if you decide to ask questions, please be thoughtful and careful about not only how but also what you’re asking! I don’t care how nicely you ask, whether or not my uterus is healthy enough for more kids is between me, my husband, and my doctor (for instance).

I could list many things that are unhelpful, but really the key thing is to truly listen and pay attention, and think before you speak, because the most helpful things people have said just indicated they were happy to listen (and not pry) and the least helpful things were people saying religious or trite platitudes that felt diminishing or demeaning, or questions that were truly invasive.

Is There Anything I Can DO??

Yes! There’s plenty you can do. The better you know the person, the more you can do. Some things to think about:

  • Tomorrow, October 15th, is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, and at 7pm (through 8pm) people are lighting candles in memory, each in their own time zone. This means there’s a constant wave of light flowing around the world, time zone by time zone, in memory of all the little ones not in the arms of their parents. Light a candle! If you know a family well, sending them a picture of your candle, letting them know you were thinking of their baby, is a very sweet thing to do.
  • Let them know you’re thinking of them. Whatever means you usually use is great (text, call, email, social media, card, skywriting 😊), or a handwritten card/note is always nice.
  • Use their baby’s name, especially if they do. Many families (me included) really like to know that you haven’t forgotten the baby.
  • If they have pictures of the baby, and it seems appropriate, ask to see them! Not everyone is comfortable sharing, and not everyone has pictures, but many who do would love to share. Think about it: most parents show pictures of their kids all the time. Well, I want to, too – but I only have about 50 and that number is never going to change, so I don’t have new cute ones to share. But I’d love to show you Charlie again and again, any time you ask!
  • If their grief is fresh, ask if they need help with concrete things around the house. The more specific you can be, the better. “Can I come vacuum for you?” is more helpful than “Do you need anything?” because especially early in grief, making decisions, and seeing what you need help with, is very hard. If they seem hesitant because they think it’s a burden on you, then you can insist. If they are saying no for other reasons, though, please respect their boundaries.
  • If the grief is fresh, bringing meals can also be helpful. Make sure you’re aware of allergies. Foods that can be frozen are also helpful, in case they got too many in a week (also because early on some people’s appetites are low).
  • If their grief is slightly older, beyond the first month or two, reach out again! This is the time when I felt like the initial wave of help was done, but I wasn’t fully functional yet, and my fears of Charlie being forgotten were really high.
  • If you are close with the person, make note of dates that they might find meaningful, and remember them with a card or text or something. The birthday of the baby is especially poignant for most loss parents. Some other dates that might have meaning: Date they found no heartbeat, date of conception or date they found out they were expecting, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, date of the funeral, October 15th (remembrance day), date of a particular memory (I have one in February because that was the first time Charlie kicked back when hubby put his hand on my tummy!).
  • Support an organization that helps! You can use smile.amazon.com to donate as you shop, or you can donate directly to an organization. Ask your loss friend – they’ll often have one or two they’ve really connected with. There are plenty out there. Some take photos of the baby right after birth, some make weighted bears, some do research to prevent further pregnancy and infant loss, some provide pro-bono counseling… there are many options!
  • Support an organization in memory of the baby, and let your loss friend know. For instance, we had a friend who bought us a tree, through an organization that re-forests after forest fires, and the tree is in memory of Charlie. Or if the loss friend has a symbol for their baby (many do, often an animal that represents the baby, sometimes connected to a story about the baby), you can donate to a cause they support that ties to that symbol.

I know that’s a lot to think about, but there are so many ways to support your friends it’s hard to stop telling you! I’ll leave it at that right now, but if you have questions or other ideas, feel free to share in the comments – I’d love to hear your ideas! The key point is that you respect the loss mom or dad and how they grieve, no matter what.

💟

In love,

Yours,

Sarah

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