5 ways to support someone grieving pregnancy loss or death of an infant

This guest post was written by:
Melissa Reid, MSW, RSW, Owner/Counsellor, Calming Tree Counselling

When a family experiences a pregnancy loss, neonatal death or death of an infant there are multiple people in a family system trying to make sense of this unimaginable event. In addition to the devastation of the loss, parents are reconciling physical, psychological, emotional and social changes that have disrupted and interrupted their anticipated future. It can be even more challenging to navigate this grief when faced with well-meaning but insensitive forms of support or the complete absence of community or compassionate care.

I have been providing grief support to individuals and families for over sixteen years. In this time the bereaved have often discussed what was helpful and what was hurtful to them. While the following list is not exhaustive, there are some themes that have emerged from listening to the bereaved. If someone in your life has experienced a pregnancy loss, neonatal death or death of an infant and you want to be a support person for them, the following suggestions can provide ideas for compassionate care and two things to avoid saying.

Compassionate Care ideas:

  • Look for ways to provide practical support to newly bereaved families. This can include getting groceries, taking young children for a day, completing household chores (cleaning, laundry, etc), cutting the grass or shoveling the driveway. It is common for people to bring meals for the grieving family. This is a kind gesture that can become overwhelming when the freezer is overflowing with casseroles and another casserole appears on the doorstep. If you would like to provide a meal for the family, consider arranging a prep-to-table meal at a designated time with the family.
  • Communicate how you would like to be supportive (i.e. practically, emotionally, etc.). Organize and articulate the form of support and follow through. All too often, newly bereaved individuals are asked what they need or how people can help them. This can be an additional burden for someone already overwhelmed by grief. Often times people will suggest they don’t need anything to avoid having to expend energy to consider and articulate a need. By suggesting what you can do and what you are capable of, you relieve the bereaved person of the responsibility.
  • Check in often but first check in with yourself. Not everyone is capable of providing emotional support to a grieving person and family. Reflecting on whether you are that person is important for your mental health and the care of the bereaved. It is okay if you are not capable of providing emotional support, there are plenty of other ways to be supportive. If that is a role you are capable of, check in often in a non-judgemental, actively listening capacity.
  • Be patient and kind. Grieving is a full time, all-encompassing experience. It can feel very abnormal to the person in the midst of it. Bereaved individuals often lose a sense of time and space. They forget appointments, dates of importance and lose concentration and focus. Not to mention experiencing the tidal wave of emotions that crash in and recede, just to crash in again. What expectations do you have for your bereaved friend or family member? Do they line up with an understanding of grief and are they compassionate?
  • It is okay to say their child’s name and/or acknowledge dates of significance to them (i.e. due date). These dates and their child are always on their mind and knowing others think of them too can be validating. Your bereaved friend may experience or express emotion at the acknowledgment of their pregnancy and child and that is okay. Obviously follow their lead, if they need to change the direction of conversation, that is okay too.

Two things to avoid when communicating with someone who is bereaved:

  • “At Least”– Two powerful words that act to minimize the validity of the bereaved person’s pain and suggest that they redirect their attention to something that we believe is the silver lining in their experience. The bereaved person may make meaning out of their loss, but it will be in their own time and emerge out of what they believe is significant.
  • “Should” – This word is often used to articulate an expectation that does not correspond with what is realistic for the person’s needs or their current capabilities. We often use should to influence, move or push ourselves or others out of feelings of discomfort, pain or shame. Checking and challenging expectations and approaching bereaved people with compassion will provide opportunities for connection and support.

Experiencing a pregnancy loss, neonatal death or death of an infant is devastating and impacts individuals, families and their community. Grieving these losses can be disenfranchising if they are not acknowledged and given compassionate care. Bereaved individuals are faced with reconciling the life they anticipated and the future they had hoped for in the midst of pain and sorrow. With the care and compassion of friends and family members and a community focused on providing support, bereaved parents can take the time and energy they need to grieve.