I found a wonderful site for loss moms, Stillmothers.com. It is full of blog posts for varying mothers all writing about their stillborn children. One mother, Sue Dagg, wrote this amazing piece on what not to say to a loss parent.
I know we all know what is obviously not to be said, but a lot of time people are trying to mean well and ending dealing out more hurt (I’ve been a recipient of this, see my post “the M word”). So please read this so you can help your friends, not unintentionally hurt them further.
By Sue Dagg
We need to talk. No, not you, new Loss Mother and Loss Fathers. You focus on whatever gets you through each moment. I need to talk to the people surrounding you as you navigate your shock and grief. I want to give some advice that could save Loss Parents additional sadness, upset and alienation. I’m going to be direct and I’m going to be a more than little bit abrupt- but since I know you have your heart in the right place then (if you listen), I’m going to be helpful.
No comfort ever comes from those who say “At least”.
Seriously. If you ever find your mouth opening to say these words, please just shut it again. While you’re thinking through what to say, just give a hug or take a deep breath or something. I’ve learned to mentally brace myself when I heard a sentence start this way.
“At least you found out you were able to get pregnant”
“At least you were able to meet your daughter and spend some time with her before she died”
“At least you’ll know and be monitored better next time”
I know you’re trying to comfort or cheer this person up, because they’ve experienced something so enormous and horrible. I know you mean well, and would like to think you’re doing good. You’re not. Nothing can ‘cheer up’ a person when their baby has just died and trying just makes a mockery of their experience. Resist the urge. At best, you’ll be ineffective; at worst, you’ll imply that their pain is unwarranted, thereby offending and upsetting the grieving parents.
I can tell you from this side of the fence that your ‘at least’ comments make me take a step back from you. It’s upsetting that you shut down my sadness when I try to share it with you. On my worst days, my thoughts turn nasty; “If you think that holding my baby in my arms a few times is a good exchange for her being dead, you clearly have no human emotions”. On my better days, I understand your motives, and try to help you to manage yourself better; “Wow, this person is really uncomfortable with strong emotions. Quick, pretend you’re fine so that they don’t feel so awful”. I assure you that any ‘better’ is just pretend and for your benefit alone.
Why is it so terrible? Well these ‘at least’ comments can be great points that sometimes bring me comfort when I’m ready to consider them myself. When you say them to me though, they tell me that you don’t recognise my need to grieve. That you think I should be able to lift my chin up, pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with things because they’re not so bad after all. Your words tell me my feelings aren’t valid, that the event wasn’t so awful after all.
When someone shares their grief with you, they’re not ready to see a silver lining, they need to express themselves. Please don’t shut them down.
Whatever you do though, don’t turn to, “You’re so amazing to cope with all of this. I couldn’t do it”. Without meaning to, this phrase implies that either you love your children more than the grieving parent (because you couldn’t cope but theycould) or…what? If they didn’t cope, what would happen? Their heart would cease to beat? They’d try to end it all? Trust me when I say that the person thought their heart would stop beating, and probably wished it had. You’re not helping by suggesting that their life should have ended when their child’s did- and that’s what you’re inadvertently saying. Don’t go there. No praise is necessary for coping with an experience that was forced upon someone.
So now that we’ve established that you should never, ever, (ever!) tell someone ‘at least’ regarding any type of grief or loss ever again, what should you say? Actually, it’s exactly the opposite from what you might expect. The best thing you can often do is to acknowledge the situation fully, and allow them to confirm that in their own words.
“That’s just totally and utterly crap. I wish you didn’t have to go through that”
“What a terrible experience. How are you?”
“I can’t even grasp the magnitude of this. It must have been such a shock to you.”
“That’s so awful, I just don’t even know what to say”
Just make sure you’re willing to hear the person’s answer if you ask how they are, and let their grief be expressed; don’t try cheer them up. Even better, ask about their child. Almost no one wants to forget their baby, and if they don’t want to talk about him/her, they’ll make it clear. Try asking about their name, their birth weight and length, whether they were able to spend any time with the baby. If you feel comfortable, you could ask if there are any pictures that they like to show; be aware that this might possible be a picture of a baby who has already died, but these parents are often as proud of their baby as any other parent and dying to show pictures of how their child had Mum’s nose or Dad’s forehead.
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment: though you desperately want to discuss and share your child with the world, no one has ever asked you about how your baby looked, refuses to look at photos and is offended if you try. This is heartbreaking, and my best memory of telling someone that Emily had died at a few weeks old is of a woman who said to me “oh, she sounded tiny! Do you have any photos?”. She made my day and for once I felt normal.
Finally, if you don’t feel comfortable with any of the above, or you’re not in the place for this type of conversation, just rely on the favourite of many: “I’m so sorry to hear that” and move on.