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Family and Friends - How you can Help

The following was taken from a pamphlet written:
by Rana K. Limbo, RN, MS
Sara Rich Wheeler, RN, MSN
and Bonnie K. Gensch, RN.

As a Family member or friend,
"What do I say? What can I do?"
There are no easy answers
when a baby dies.

How do you express your grief and concern without saying the "wrong" thing? How can you "be there" for the parents without interfering?
In this pamphlet, we hope to explain how acts of encouragement and support can give parents strength during this very difficult time. We also hope to show how those gestures can provide positive memories as parents look back on their loss.

There's No "Right" Way to Grieve

Grief affects everyone differently. Because of that, it's impossible to know how parents will react to their baby's death. But most people go through multiple phases of powerful emotions that may be hard for you to understand. Keep this in mind:

Even though the parents had little, if any time to "know" the child, The parental attachment is still strong. This attachment can begin even before conception, as parents dream of the baby's first birthday or Christmas, or of strolls through the part. So when a baby dies, parents lose a future they looked forward to sharing with that child.

Respect the parent's rights to express whatever they feel or think - regardless of how strange it may seem to you. Give them time to grieve. Most of all, accept them for who and what they are - parents.

What You Can Do To Help

You are the greatest gift you can give grieving parents. Holding a hand, touching a shoulder, giving a hug says, "I'm here. I care." By letting parents talk about their pain, you can help them come to grips with it.

What To Say, What Not To Say

You shouldn't assume that parents "don't want to talk about it." And it's okay to say, "I don't know what to say" - it's honest, and it opens the door for the parents to share their feelings.

Parents have told us about words that help and words that hurt. Here is a sampling:

Do say: "I'm sorry."
"What can I do for you right now?"
"I'm here. I want to listen."
"This must be hard for you."

Like other parents, they want to talk about their baby. You can help them do that by saying:

"Tell me about your labor and delivery."
"What did your baby weigh and how long was she?"

Some well-intentioned statements cause resentment or prevent the expression of grief.

Don't say: "You're young, you can have others." (Parents have to mourn for this baby before they can have another. One does not replace another.)
"You have an angel in heaven." (They don't want an angel in heaven. They want this baby.)
"This happened for the best."
"Better for this to happen now, before you knew they baby."
"There was something wrong with the baby anyway." (Well-intentioned "reasons" like that often make the pain worse.)
"Don't be sad. Don't cry." (This is telling the parents how to feel.)
"Don't dwell on this. Just put it behind you." (This sounds like you're making light of the loss - it can cause prolonged sadness.)
"If you need anything, call me." (Bereaved parents seldom reach out. State a specific time you'll check in with the person, and then do so.)

Let Parents Make Their Own Decisions

Let parents make their own decisions about the funeral and what to do with the baby's room or clothing. Don't deprive them of experiencing the reality of death. Don't assume that they want you to "take over." You can make suggestions, or offer to help with the funeral (by making luch, for example), but let them make their own decisions - it gives them a sense of control when their emotions are out of control.

Help With Daily Living Needs

Sometimes, you can be the biggest help by doing the smallest things - preparing meals, cleaning the house, doing laundry, caring for children.

Many people bring a meal in the first days after the death. Though thoughtful, these acts can be overwhelming when they come all at once (particularly if the family doesn't have a freezer.) Often, in the weeks after the funeral, parents find themselves disorganized and unable to do daily chores.

You might organize a "help chain" of friends to rotate duties such as meal preparation. One person can bring a meal Monday, for example, and line up the next day's helper. That way, the family memebers know the won't be inundated all at once, but can count on others during the difficult times ahead.

Attend The Funeral/Memorial Service

Attending the funeral shows you care and support, and your recognition that this baby was unique, even though she or he didn't live long.

Giving a special memento or writing a poem or letter to the baby are also special ways of saying good-bye.

If you can't attend the funeral, send a letter or note. These acknowledgements may be a treasured part of the "baby book" that many bereaved parents keep.

Drive The Parents Home

The shock of a baby dying can be so overwhelming that parents aren't aware of their surroundings and can't make sound judgements. They may not know that they shouldn't drive at those times. Offer to drive them home, to the hospital, and/or the funeral.

Include Children

The loss of a baby affects the entire family, including siblings. Children may not know what death is or be able to understand it. But even the youngest child feels the tension and sadness.

Children do grieve. Acknowledge their loss. Their reactions may vary with their age and their feelings about a new brother or sister.

Children express their feelings through artwork or play. One way - to comfort them is to let them give "their" baby a favorite toy, picture, or gift that will always be with them.

Adults want to "protect" children from loss. But children need to be included as much as they or their parents want them to be.

Don't tell children the baby is "sleeping", "on a trip", or "lost." Those words can frighten a child.

Say instead that the baby's body stopped working and died. Emphasize that it was "nothing anyone did or didn't do." Children may need repeated assurance that they didn't cause the death, that thoughts or words don't make babies die.

Call The Baby By Name

Many parents get great comfort by naming their baby. The name identifies the baby as a person and lets everyone participate in saying good-bye. Calling the baby by name tells the parents that you acknowledge the child.

Never call a baby "it" or refer to him or her as a "fetus." To the parents, the infant was a baby, regardless of how long he or she lived.

Give Mementos, Memories, Remembrances To The Family

There are many ways to show that you remember the baby: Give the mother a baby ring, send a planter or flowers in a baby vase, write a poem. Also meaningful are needlework, figurines or ceramics. Trees or rose bushes are living memorials that parents treasure.

Remember parents on the infant's special days - due date, birthday, anniversary of the death. Acknowledge the baby at Christmas. Remember that Mother's and Father's Day have special meaning for the parents.

You may know someone whose baby died long ago. If you have remained silent, not knowing what to say, remember: It's never too late to express your feelings.

Give Parents The Gift Of Time To Heal

Grief doesn't end at the funeral. It can take 18 to 24 months or longer before the parents feel "normal" again. Some need less time, some need more. Parents go on with their lives, but they're never quite the same again. They develop a "new normal."

As a friend or family member, you can help most by recognizing that grieving has no schedule. It may take a long time before the parents want to be around babies or at family celebrations.

Research shows that people who get support from close friends and relatives are better able to cope with major stresses in life, such as the death of a baby. you are very important to the parents now and in the weeks to come.

Books that may help you and the parents are:
Don't Take My Grief Away From Me by Doug Manning
Understanding Mourning by Glen Davidson
When a Baby Dies: A Handbook for Healing and Helping by Rana K. Limbo and Sara Rich Wheeler

If you are concerned about the way you or your loved one is grieving, please don't hesitate to call Resolve Through Sharing, (608)791-4747.