What NOT to say to someone experiencing pregnancy loss—and what to say instead

“I feel so sad, and I can’t imagine what you are feeling.”

What NOT to say to someone experiencing pregnancy loss—and what to say instead

Pregnancy loss is a term to describe many different losses—miscarriages, both in first and second trimester, and later pregnancy loss, often referred to as neonatal loss, including stillborn babies and babies who live for a short time after birth.

Pregnancy loss is devastating.

All the hope, excitement, anticipation and planning the future around a new baby comes to a shocking halt.Instead of progressing with a pregnancy and planning for a baby's arrival, parents are propelled into a world of emotions sometimes too difficult to label. Anger, despair, sadness, shock, numbness, heartache and yearning are amongst some of the emotions.

The grief is intense.

Death and loss are uncomfortable topics in society. It can be challenging to know what to say or how to react when someone you know and care about has a pregnancy loss. It is normal to feel uncertain or anxious on how to comfort someone who has experienced loss.

Below is a list of phrases and comments to avoid, along with helpful things to say and do for grieving parents.

Please don’t attempt to comfort by saying the following:

1."It was for the best; something was wrong with the baby."

Parents don’t want to hear this. Many babies are born every year with struggles, health issues and developmental concerns. While yes, it can be challenging for parents to have a child with such concerns, there is also an enormous amount of love for their child. So highlighting how the baby died because of a flaw or "defect" will likely not comfort grieving parents.

2. "You're young, you can always have another baby."

When a person has lost a pregnancy, there is no replacement for the lost baby. Fast-forwarding time to encourage a parent to think of a future pregnancy and another baby diminishes the pain and grief they are currently experiencing. They want the baby they lost, and there is no replacement.

3. "Everything happens for a reason."

Phrases like this can infuriate those who are grieving. One of the mysteries of life are why there is suffering and loss, especially when it happens to babies and children. Parents can seldom find a reason their baby is not with them, and this comment only further isolates parents who are grieving and diminishes the loss

4."The baby is in a better place." Or, "You now have an angel in heaven."

While the intent is to comfort, comments like this discount the pain and tap into the fact that not all people have a belief system regarding the afterlife, or find comfort imagining the baby is better away from them.

5."You weren’t that far along; technically it wasn't a baby," or, "You were so early in the pregnancy; it's better it happened now than later."

The experience of pregnancy can cause intense physical and emotional changes prior to any evidence a woman is “showing.” It's unfair to presume just because you may not believe it was a meaningful pregnancy, that a parent shares your point of view. For all you know, a parent may hold religious and spiritual beliefs that the moment of conception, or when a heartbeat is present, signifies life. Minimizing the loss through emphasizing the gestational time frame is not helpful.

6."Be thankful for the kids you do have."

Parents who have lost a pregnancy are thankful for their child or children; they do not need reminders of gratitude after a pregnancy loss. While it can be challenging for grieving parents to resume activities and responsibilities to care for children, many parents find having children forces a structure, rhythm and routine of finding a new normal after a loss.

7."I don't know how I would go on if that happened to me."

Comments like this take the focus off the grieving parent and turn it onto someone else. Parents who have lost a pregnancy have limited energy as it is, so refrain from making grief-stricken parents take care of your needs, insecurities or fears.

8."Are you going to feel jealous or uncomfortable being around me because I am pregnant?" Or, "Are you uncomfortable being around me because I have a baby (or child)?"

Losing a pregnancy can increase feelings of sadness, anger, discomfort and longing for a baby. But the key understanding here is that they want their baby back, not yours. A parent who has lost a pregnancy may not have the emotional reserve to be around other pregnant women or new babies. Instead of making comments like this, imagine how you would feel if you were in the place of a grieving parent. Coming from a place of empathy and compassion is more supportive than placing your fears and worry on the grieving parent.

9."How come you didn't tell me you were pregnant?" Or, "I had no idea, I wish I had known you were pregnant, hearing it now is hard."

While it can be shocking to find out about a pregnancy when a loss has occurred, refrain from making such insensitive comments. Many people choose to keep a pregnancy private until completion of the first trimester, when they are ready, or if medical information indicates issues or concerns parents are not yet prepared to share. Don't take it personally, everyone has a different way and timing when sharing pregnancy information.

10."I know how you feel."

If you have never experienced loss, telling someone you know how they feel can be upsetting. If you have experienced a loss, instead of talking about your loss, keep the attention focused on the grieving parent.

11."Time will make it better."

Refrain from offering false hope. Time may not make it better. The passing of time may diminish the intensity of emotions, but this is not always a guarantee.

Consider, instead using the following statements to comfort and talk to someone who has experienced loss:

  • “I am so sorry for your loss.”
  • “I am here for you if you need to talk.”
  • “If you don't feel like talking, I can just sit here with you and keep your company, I have nowhere else I need to be.”
  • “I feel so sad, and I can't imagine what you are feeling.”
  • “What can I do for you? Or Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “How are you feeling?”
  • “Talk as long as you want, I am here for you and have plenty of time.”
  • “Anytime you need me, whatever time of the day, I am here for you.”
  • “If you want to talk about the baby, I am here to listen.”
  • If you have experienced a loss, you can say, "I remember having some of those same feelings you are feeling when I lost my baby.”
  • “I know nothing I do or say can take away your pain. Please know I am thinking of you and your family. When you're ready, let me know how I can help.”

Additional ways to help grieving parents:

1. Identify your feelings and thoughts before you talk to the grieving parent.

What does pregnancy loss stir up for you? Discomfort, fear, memories of a loss you experienced? Before talking to the grieving parent, speak to a friend or family member about your feelings so when you talk with the grieving parent, you can approach the situation with clarity, awareness and focus on the person who has experienced the loss.

2. Continue to call and reach out.

Don't ignore the person or stop contact. Initially after the loss, grieving parents are surrounded by support. As time passes, well-intentioned family and friends may not think about how the loss continues to impact parents. Continue to reach out and offer support.

3. Don't take a grieving person’s behavior personally.

Grieving parents may not return phone calls or texts and decline visits. When a person is experiencing grief, time takes on a whole new meaning and is experienced differently. Minutes can feel like hours and days can blend into weeks. Be compassionate and patient. It's not personal—grieving parents are likely focused on working through pain and healing.

4. Acknowledge the loss.

Don't ignore the loss. It is important for parents to have their pregnancy loss recognized, even if that is all you do. Expressing your condolences is meaningful.

5. Follow the grieving parents’ lead.

When talking with grieving parents, use words and language they use. It can be comforting for parents to hear their words reflected and repeated by friends and family. For example, if the parents share a belief system with you about the afterlife regarding their baby and mention their baby is an angel, or they imagine the baby in the care now with a deceased relative, listen and acknowledge their beliefs.

6. Ask what you can do.

Offer to coordinate meals, help with housework or host playdates if there are siblings. Gestures like this not only provides practical support, but allows parents time to grieve or time to take care of themselves.

7. Listen.

Allow the parent to talk about the loss. Telling one's story is often part of the healing process. Active listening through undivided attention, eye contact and compassionate statements show care and support. It's not your job to fix or take away the pain—no one can do that for the parent. While it may not seem like much, listening goes a long way providing support to those grieving.

8. Suspend problem solving.

It can be challenging to see someone in pain. While your natural instinct may be to go into problem-solving mode, that may not be in the best interest of a grieving parent. Instead, ask, "Is there something I can help you with?" or "Do you want me to give you some ideas on things to do right now?" Be thoughtful to ask what would be most helpful rather than assume what could be helpful.

9. Gift giving and donations.

After a pregnancy loss, it is common for people to want to give something to acknowledge the loss. While it's not a requirement to give a gift, the closer you are to the grieving parents, the more accepted it is to provide a gift. Gestures of condolence can include any of the following; a thoughtful card, a donation to an organization or cause, flowers, groceries, prepared meals, or planting a tree or flowering plant.

Pregnancy loss is difficult for parents, family members, friends, and acquaintances. While you may not always know what to say, taking the time to be thoughtful about your words and behaviors can go a long way in helping grieving parents heal.

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