Friday, November 26, 2010

What Not To Say When Someone's Baby Dies

When someone is experiencing the worst thing imaginable, the death of their precious baby, it is difficult to know just what to say. The important thing is to SAY SOMETHING. Do not avoid a grieving parent simply because you feel uncomfortable or because you don't know what to say. Please consult my earlier post for tips on what to say and how to be helpful rather than hurtful.

Every parent who has lost a child knows what it feels like to cringe after a well-intentioned comment leaves them reeling. The following is a list of some of the comments the definitely belong on the What Not To Say list.

1. "You can always have more children."

Whether you can or can't have more children is irrelevant. Children, like all other people, are not replaceable and having another baby will not make everything okay. Along with your child, all of your hopes and dreams for your future as a parent and the dreams you had for your child and your family die. If your grandfather dies, people do not say to you that everything will be okay because you have another grandpa on the other side of the family. Keep in mind that not everyone can have more children. Tragedies strike during labour and delivery and some women can not have any more children. Some couples have struggled for years with expensive infertility treatments before becoming pregnant and the road ahead is one that they neither welcome nor think about with hope.

2. "It was God's will."

Whether you are religious or not, no parent believes that God wanted their baby to die. The death of a baby can cause even the most devout believers to question their faith in God and references to God's will will not help. For those who are not religious, this comment will sting in two ways: they won't appreciate the reference to God in the first place but they will be deeply angered that anyone could believe that God wanted their baby to die.

3. "Now you have an angel looking over you."

If you could choose whether you wanted your baby to be here on earth with you or somewhere out there looking down on you, which would you choose? Every parent who has lost a child would give anything to have them back in their arms. They would never prefer to have an angel looking over them. For the same reasons as references to God's will, this comment can leave the grieving parent feeling hurt and angry.

4. "At least you have other children."

This should be self-explanatory, but children are not replaceable. Having other children can help one to carry on and keep going, but it does not lessen the grief they are feeling for the child that they lost. Parents who have living children are grieving the loss of their baby as well as the hopes they had for their living children and their family. Their living child may now be without any siblings, they may have planned to have their children spaced so many years apart, and now they are grieving the loss of all of those things.

5. "There must have been something wrong with the baby."

Whether there was or wasn't something genetically wrong with the baby, that baby was perfect to his or her parents. There are plenty of babies with health problems who live and go on to have normal, fulfilling lives. Also, don't assume that there was something wrong with the baby. Many people who lose their babies do so for reasons completely unrelated to the health of their baby. It is extremely painful to know that your baby was perfectly healthy and still died.

6. "At least you didn't have the time to really love him."

From the moment they found out they were expecting, those parents loved that baby more than anything. Seeing a heartbeat on an ultrasound is a moment that no parent can ever forget. Understand that it is the lack of time that the parent had with their child that makes their grief even stronger. They don't have the memories or the stories to cling to in their times of sadness. All they have is the ability to wonder what would have been.

7. "So and so lost their twins last year but they just had a healthy baby."

A grieving parent who has just lost their baby will not be comforted from knowing that someone else has gone on to have a healthy baby. That outcome seems light-years away for a couple who has just lost their child. Also, please don't think that a subsequent baby will "cure" the grief that the parents are experiencing. A subsequently healthy baby comes with complex feelings of grief surrounding what could have been and all that was missed with the previous child.

8. "So and so lost her baby and had an emergency hysterectomy. At least you can have more children."

This is the silver lining approach in which you point out all of the more horrible and more tragic things that other people have gone through to make the grieving parents feel somehow grateful. This approach, however, does not work with grieving parents as there is no silver lining to losing your child. These parents would have given anything up or gone through anything to simply have their child back. Thinking about the tragic and awful things that happen to other people makes grieving parents feel sad for those people in addition to the sadness they feel for themselves.

9. "It's been 2 months now and you need to get over this."

The grief involved in losing a baby is complex and all-encompassing. Not only do you lose your child but you lose your hopes and dreams along with them. Mothers also have to contend with the physical pain during and after delivery. They will be reminded again of all that they have lost when their milk comes in and they have no baby to feed. There will be constant reminders of their loss in the world around them in the form of babies, strollers and pregnant mommies. Every holiday, every anniversary, every Mother's Day, every Father's Day these parents will be reminded of the hole in their heart. The grief involved in losing a baby will go on for years, not days and not weeks. Do not expect someone who has lost their child to just "get over it." There is no timeline for this grieving process, but know that it will go on far longer than anyone expects.

10. "You should come to the party/get-together. You need to get out."

The word "should" should be avoided when talking to a grieving parent. Know that most grieving parents feel like the rest of the world has moved on without them, and for good reason. No one, unless they have suffered this type of tragic loss, can possibly relate. It's very difficult to get in the mood to socialize or to be festive when your heart has been shattered. So often, the things that one may have enjoyed before their loss, now seem meaningless. It is nice to occasionally take breaks from grieving, so if a grieving parent feels the need to get out of the house, do support them, but know that their grief is just below the surface and that things can change from minute to minute. There is nothing they "should" be doing right now except for doing what feels right and comfortable for them.

11. "So and so is having a baby shower next week. You should come."

Years after someone has lost their baby, they may still find baby showers extremely difficult to attend. It should go without saying that shortly after someone has lost their baby, a baby shower is out of the question. Yes, the grieving parent is happy for that person and hopeful that everything will go well for them. But pregnancy and childbirth for this parent is now filled with emotions of great sadness and watching someone who is innocently enjoying their pregnancy makes them feel even more alone. Send the invite if you wish, but do not expect the grieving parent to attend or RSVP. If they can bear it, they will send a gift to you, but if not, do not take it personally.

12. "When are you going to try again?"

This is an extremely personal decision and should be left up to the grieving parents without any pressure or advice from the outside world. These words "trying again" can imply that the grieving parents need a do-over as they didn't quite succeed in becoming parents the first time. If they do try to conceive another child, that baby will be just that -- another child -- not a replacement for the child that they already have and not a do-over to correct some tragic failure on their part.

13. "You are pregnant again. You should be happy!"

For anyone who gets pregnant after losing a baby, know that they will be terrified throughout the entire nine months of their pregnancy. The glowing, innocent pregnant woman is someone else now. During a subsequent pregnancy, expect that the parents will be nervous, anxious and sick with worry. They will most likely be going for frequent doctors appointments and at every appointment they will be praying that their baby's heartbeat is still there. This will be the longest 9 months of their lives and anything you can do to make their journey easier or to remove other stresses in their lives will be appreciated.

14. "You have a new baby now. You should be happy!"

As explained above, having a healthy baby does not cure one's grief. A new baby is a joyous thing and there is no doubt that the new parents will be grateful for what they have. However, the new baby will also remind them of the baby they lost, they will now be using clothes and toys that were purchased for the baby they lost, and they will constantly wonder what their other baby would have been like if he or she were alive. There will be plenty of grief for the baby they lost coming to the surface at this time. Don't be alarmed if the new parents adopt an extremely overprotective approach towards their new baby. One thing about losing a baby is that you learn about all of the other tragic things that can happen. The new parents will fear losing their newborn to SIDS and will likely lose a great deal of sleep watching over them and trying to protect them from every conceivable tragedy.

Anything you've heard that should be added to the list?

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