10 Ways to Support Your Friend Through the Loss of Her Baby
What to say and do this Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day is coming up and I’m thinking about this a lot because I am that friend. The one who lost a baby.
I am probably the friend who you’re tiptoeing around. I might be the friend who has become a major social weirdo and cancels plans last-minute. I am the friend who you’re not sure about inviting to a baby shower. I’m the friend who might have unfollowed you on social media when you announced that you were pregnant (read: I did. I definitely did. I just need to be sad right now.). I can’t relate to your normal-mom conversations about late-night feedings and nap schedules and which jogging stroller is the best. The truth is, I have experienced motherhood in a unique and powerful way, but I feel left out and confused about my identity as a mom.
On January 1st, 2017, in Room 44 of the NICU at Children’s Hospital, I became this friend. I held my first and only son, Afton, as he died in my arms. He was just one day old.
In sharing his birth story on my blog, many people have reached out. The obvious ones are from women who have experienced similarly life-altering losses, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, or premature infant loss, like my son, Afton. But you know who else has come forward? The friends. The friends have come forward saying, “my friend, too.” And then the question that follows closely behind is: “What can I do for her? What can I do for my cousin, my sister, my friend who has lost her baby?”
You are asking the right question. You can and will help your loved one through this.
Saying something is better than saying nothing. If you don’t read or remember anything else, remember this: please, please, please acknowledge the loss, the grief, and the fact that your friend is now living without an actual part of her heart. Of course I might cry when you bring it up in the grocery store. But of course I want you to acknowledge what Sheryl Sandberg calls “the elephant in the room”—in my case, the fact that my baby has died. It is deeply painful to make small talk about the weather when my whole world has fallen apart. Please acknowledge this pain.
“I am so sorry for your loss.” is really meaningful. But “I am so sorry about the loss of your sweet baby boy, Afton. Will you tell me about him?” is much more meaningful. Because for me, the death of my baby is not a generic loss. It is the loss of a specific person who had a specific future. And when you speak about him as a person—not just a pregnancy or a baby, but a person with a name—that validates my grief.
Many loss moms, especially those whose babies were premature or stillborn, have pictures of their baby but fear that people might not like looking at them. Think about that. Think about what it might feel like as a mom to think that people won’t like looking at your baby. The baby might have discolored skin. Their lips might be blue. They might have a physical deformity or their eyes might still be closed tight. It is hard to look at pictures of babies who aren’t “normal.” But do you know what your friend thinks? She thinks this is the most beautiful baby in the world. And you’d be giving her a profound gift by telling her that you think her baby is beautiful, too.
This is part of an actual text message that my friend Melissa sent me after we lost Afton, and it is all kinds of right: “If you guys need anything, like groceries, dinner, deodorant, or Kleenex, will you let us know? We’ll be your prime now and your bite squad. “ I don’t even think I responded to the message, but I saw it and I remembered it. And the morning after we got home from the hospital, when I went to find something for breakfast and realized we had no milk and could not muster up the courage to face anyone at the grocery store, I knew who to text.
After we announced his birth and passing, a few of our friends honored Afton publicly on Facebook and Instagram by writing about him or sharing our pictures and our posts about him. It’s so simple, but just knowing that others cared enough to share something with their own family and friends really meant a lot to me. It showed that they were impacted by our son in a deep and profound way.
Cards written to your friend are great, but cards written to my baby are rare, intimate, and incredibly special. My sister wrote a card to Afton on his due date and it is one of my most treasured possessions. We got a letter written to Afton from his nurse, and a few other letters to Afton from family members. We got a birthday card written to Afton from his Uncle Erik on the day he was born. It is powerful and moving to see and hear other people love your baby.
Along with the overwhelming grief, your friend is dealing with all the same boatload of weird stuff that women deal with after birth, and she probably is not able to think about self-care right now. Some of the best gifts that I got from friends after we lost Afton were medical: C-section underwear, high-waisted soft pants (if debating on the size, larger is better), magnesium chewy gummies, an eye mask, essential oils, girl-type products, digestive-type products, a tummy wrap, and C-section scar treatment strips.
Just a few days before Afton was born, I had ordered a bunch of new maternity workout-wear. And I had been so excited about it. Of course, the package arrived to our house just a few days after we came home from the hospital. A friend came over and saw the unopened package and said, “Here, let me return that for you.”
One of my most-dreaded things after losing Afton was making small talk in social settings. If you are in a social situation with your friend, you can support her in a big, big way by being aware of how social dynamics might be affecting her. If you can stick close to her, change subjects when needed, and be a little extra talkative and friendly to others so she doesn’t have to, it gives her that space to just sit back and be socially awkward. And she needs that space.
There are important days in the calendar now that your friend will never, ever forget. The day my baby was born. The day that he died. The day he was due, the day of the scan, the day there was no heartbeat. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Christmas. Loss moms feel the pain of loss every day, but these specific days are especially painful. Be intentional about reaching out to your friend on these days and even in the days leading up to the day, because sometimes the anticipation is worse. Set a recurring reminder in your calendar and have it end: never. Because even 20 years from now, Afton’s birthday will still be his birthday, and I will still want people to remember him.