October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month, and it’s important to acknowledge this, raise awareness, and allow mothers touched by special loss to come together and share their experiences.
1 in 4 women are touched by infant loss, which means that even if you haven’t experienced it, someone you know has or will. The difficulty with infant loss is the stigma and discomfort it brings to those around us. This discomfort stems from the stigma that we shouldn’t talk about it, that women should move forward as though nothing has happened. This couldn’t be more wrong. A big part of breaking the stigma comes from talking and understanding. A big part of healing is through the community.
We spoke with Sandra Kesselman, MSW, RSW, a Professional Social Work clinician, for forty years. The focus of her work has been in the areas of crisis intervention, grief, and loss. In addition, she has worked in several teaching hospitals, both in the United States and Canada, providing counseling services specifically related to oncology, palliative care, grief, and loss. We wanted to know how to help and support a friend so that we not only break the stigma but also that our friends and family are helped through their healing.
It can be challenging to know how to support a friend going through a special loss. It’s hard to know what to say, and the last thing you want to do is say something that may upset them further. We want to be protective of ours friends, and seeing them hurting is difficult. But, it’s all a part of the process, so we need to support and be there for them. So, we asked Sandra for some tips on how to help a friend experiencing loss. She reminded us that
“We often want the grieving person to tell us what they need, but they’re usually not in a space to be able to do that, they don’t know what they need and putting that on their shoulders is too much.”
So she offered these tips and reminders of what we can do to support without putting the burden on the bereaved:
1) Ensure good post-natal care:
Remember that after an infant loss, the mother is still often experiencing physical and emotional post-natal symptoms. So along with offering grief support, the mother will also need to be taken care of physically. Keeping in mind, she can still be experiencing post-natal symptoms. So always ensure she is receiving proper post-natal care. Offer to make meals and do any heavy lifting the same way you would physically assist a new mom.
2) Offer Genuine Support
Whatever you say, make sure you mean it. The best way of doing this is to keep it honest and straightforward.
3) Acknowledge when you don’t know:
We’re only human, and we don’t always know the right thing. There is no precedent for this type of loss, and everyone experiences it differently. It is okay to acknowledge that you don’t know. If you’ve already shared that you love them and care for them, don’t try and be enlightening, be honest. They will be asking why a lot, don’t try and answer this. You don’t know why either. Just validate the feeling and allow them to continue to question, it’s a part of the process, and these unanswerable questions will take time for the parents to accept.
“I don’t understand why either”
“I don’t know what to say, but I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
4) Use the baby’s name- share a memory
By using the baby’s name, we acknowledge they sustained a significant loss, and you’re accepting of the loss and the feelings they’re experiencing. So don’t feel afraid to use the baby’s name.
“I’m here to talk about Maddy when you’re ready.”
Share a memory if you have one. Use their name. “I remember when I got to hold Maddy….”
5) Be there.
Let them know that you’re here for them and ready to listen when they’re ready to talk. Validate what they’re feeling and experiencing “It’s normal to feel angry, but it’s not your fault,” “It’s okay to cry,” “It’s okay to feel devastated.”
Or, say nothing and sit in silence, make a cup of tea, pass them a cozy blanket.
6) Do something, ask for nothing.
We have all heard of ways to support a new mom, and the ways to help a grieving mom are no different. Start a food train, clean the house, offer a lift to appointments, bring groceries over. These small gestures allow the bereaved time not to worry about daily tasks that can be overwhelming. It’s simple to do, and you can provide this support silently, allowing the parents some time.
One grieving mom shared that an Uber eats gift card given to the family was the best gift they received, “it made those evenings when we couldn’t manage dinner so easy. It gave us options and was something different from the frozen meals we’d been eating every night.
7) Continue Support
Remember that grief doesn’t disappear after one visit. It will be with them for a long time. So keep the support ongoing “Can I check in with you later” or “I’ll call you again in the morning” and then make sure you do. If a partner is returning to work, it may be an excellent time to offer to go for a walk together. Be there over the weeks and months to come.
6) Offer to help memory making and keepsakes
Often families will feel unsure about making memory boxes or keepsakes. But Sandy suggests that this is a good part of the grief process. For example, helping a grieving mom make some memories with a photo book or scrapbook of memories.
Here are a few things you should AVOID doing:
1) Don’t offer platitudes, especially early on
Anything beginning with “at least…” stop yourself right there. They don’t want to hear it. By saying these platitudes, you’re diminishing the loss, e.g. “at least you can have more kids” “at least they’re in a better place” none of these familiar platitudes are helpful.
2) Don’t share your own story
It just isn’t the right time, and although you may understand how they’re feeling, it’s not going to help them.
3) Don’t put limits on how or how long they should grieve
It’s so individual, and everyone copes differently. Nobody ever gets over it. They learn to adjust and live with the loss. Allow them the freedom to feel this completely, and never put limitations on their grief.
How supporting a friend may change the relationship:
Over time, it’s normal if talking with friends changes the balance of a friendship. It’s natural for a friend to grow tired of hearing and talking about the loss. There is only so much they can say or do. Friendship should be balanced, and when you start to feel the friendship is losing its balance, it becomes an excellent time to encourage your grieving friend to get help. At this time, encourage counseling or joining support groups. Although grief has no timeline, some people may feel they’re unable to cope for a more extended period, your friend or family member may need professional support if they’re still really struggling to cope with daily life. If they’re withdrawn, struggling to sleep, turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms. In her work line, Sandra added that although not everyone experiencing grief needs professional help, she finds that infant loss is one type of grief that can always benefit from professional resources. The other is by suicide.
Many support groups are tailored to precisely what they have been through (Miscarriage, SIDS, stillbirth, etc.) Sandra stresses the importance of these groups and says she has seen lifelong friendships stem from this kind of support group.
“Group Support is invaluable.”Sandra kesselman
If you feel you need further support to deal with your grief or you’re struggling to cope, it’s imperative that you reach out and get the professional help you need.