People experience a lot of difficulty around how to talk to a person who has lost a baby. I use the word person here, because fathers experience the pain of miscarriage or stillbirth as well as mothers.
In my experience there are people who ignore the lost baby. This was demonstrated strongly recently when I saw a friend who had experienced a miscarriage. I told her I was sorry about the miscarriage and I was so sad for that little life lost. Before she could respond to me, one of the other people present cut in and shut down the conversation. A short while later the other person took me to one side and told me I was uncaring and insensitive for mentioning the miscarriage. I was shocked. Later I asked my friend if I had hurt her with my words. Her response was that it meant a lot to her to have her miscarriage acknowledged. To have someone acknowledge her pain. To have someone acknowledge the existence of that precious little baby. What had hurt her was the person who shut the conversation down.
People refuse to talk about the death of a baby for many reasons.
One is that they feel uncomfortable talking about it. In our society death is hidden away in hospitals and rarely discussed. Death of a baby is even more uncomfortable. Many minimise what a couple who have experienced miscarriage are going through. After all, the baby wasn’t a person yet, was it! As the mother of four children I felt each one of those babies was a person, my child, from the moment I knew I was pregnant. To lose one of those precious little lives at any time in the pregnancy was a terrifying thought. As a nurse I nursed many women who had lost their baby before or at full term. It doesn’t matter when it happens, it is devastating.
Another reason people won’t talk about the death of a baby is a misguided belief that “one doesn’t talk about such things”. I remember when my mother died and I had to see my friends again. My friends were all saying sorry. That was hard to be reminded of her death, but it was comforting to know they cared and acknowledged her life. One friend avoided the subject. That really hurt. I felt as though my pain was not valid. Imagine how a woman who has lost her baby feels if that is how she is treated? It is hard enough to lose a baby early in pregnancy when people may not even know you are pregnant. But to have that precious life ignored and minimised by not talking about it is even harder. Some women want it kept quiet, and that must be respected, but other women want the comfort, support and validation from other people that this little life mattered, their hurt matters and they don’t have to grieve alone.
I was once in a position where a woman I saw occasionally was pregnant. I saw her just before the baby was born then didn’t see her for some months. When I next saw her, I congratulated her on the birth of her baby, which I knew by then would have been born. She told me her baby had died shortly after birth. I was mortified. No one spoke about her or her baby so I didn’t know her baby had died. I apologised for the hurt my words caused and told her how sorry I was. She talked for some time about how hard it was and then said she was glad we had talked because not many people wanted to know how she was feeling and the lack of discussion about what had happened to her was like some shameful secret. She was grateful that at least one person was prepared to speak openly about her baby and express compassion for her as she grieved.
After the death of a baby so many people offer platitudes like “it was for the best” or “you can have another one”. They are not comforting. They hurt and minimise what the parent is experiencing. Those platitudes are offered all the way along pregnancy from the first trimester miscarriage to the still born baby. All hurt terribly.
I have always considered myself blessed because I had four healthy pregnancies with four live births. I have never had to experience the devastation of miscarriage or stillbirth. But that blessing has always made me so aware of how devastating the death of one of those babies would have been. I am sure I am not alone in caring deeply for other women whose pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. It is also important to consider the needs of the father as well. He is also grieving. So many men are told to support their partner, as if they have no feelings about this. But they hurt too.
If you care, then you can best support the mother and father in the death of their baby by saying how sorry you are and being willing to listen if they want to talk. Acknowledge the baby. If it was given a name, then use it. You don’t have to solve anything. There is no need for platitudes. You just need to listen and care. That is what a grieving parent needs and wants.