If you think pregnancy and infant loss is a third-world problem, think again. Pregnancy and infant loss, caused by miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and other causes, happen more often to American women than most people realize. Here’s a shocking statistic: one in four U.S. pregnancies ends in miscarriage and one in 160 deliveries ends in stillbirth.
Use stillbirth as an example. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Stillbirth affects about 1% of all pregnancies, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States.” Between one-third to one-half of stillbirths are “unexplained.” The World Health Organization ranks the U.S. stillbirth rate 25th in the world, with 3 per 1,000 babies stillborn.
Thirty years ago, President Reagan declared October the “Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month” to acknowledge angel parents, parents who have suffered pregnancy and infant loss, and provide them the resources they need.
But we live in a culture that doesn’t deal well with death, especially with pregnancy loss and infant death. Losing an infant is so unthinkable and shocking that many don’t talk about it. Naturally, angel parents who have lost their babies usually bury their deep sorrows in their hearts. They often feel very lonely during their grieving process. Their families, friends, and communities often don’t know what to do and how to comfort them.
If you happen to know an angel parent, here are a few things you can do that will bring tremendous comfort to him or her.
Acknowledge Their Angels
A new documentary film emphasizes this very point, even though its title, “Don’t Talk About the Baby,” is a bit misleading. All angel parents, especially angel moms, tell me the same thing over and over again: we want others to acknowledge the lives of our angels; we want to say the names of our angels and talk about them whenever we can.
People who haven’t had this experience often don’t understand these needs. They often think mentioning those children’s names or asking about them will remind angel parents of their losses and trigger sadness. But the truth is that angel parents never forget the loss of their children, whether other people choose to talk about them or not.
The message from angel parents is: since these children are no longer physically with us in this earthly life, saying their names and talking about them are some of the few ways we can keep our children’s memory alive and fill a parental hole.
Therefore, when you meet an angel parent, don’t avoid bringing up his or her lost child or children. Keep in mind that you are not going to remind such parents of anything they don’t already know. Like all parents, angel parents want to talk about their children.
So ask the names of their angels. Ask if they want to share any memories of their angels, and ask if they have pictures of their angels they’d like to share.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a wonderful organization that provides “remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with a free gift of professional portraiture.” These tasteful and artistic photos are done by volunteer professional photographers. These are usually the most precious things angel parents get to hold on to, and they want to share their babies’ pictures just like everyone else does.
If you feel uncomfortable, you don’t need to see these pictures. Just ask angel parents what they like to share about their babies and then sit back, listen, and let them talk. Believe me, this is one of the best things you can do to help angel parents with their grieving process.
When In Doubt, Reach Out and Show Up
After you heard that a couple has lost their baby, how long you should wait to reach out to them? It’s understandable to want to give the grieving parents time and space to mourn their loss with all the privacy they need. But don’t wait too long. Usually waiting for a few weeks or up to a month is more than enough.
Angel parents, especially moms, tell me that after the loss of their children, they often feel very depressed, lonely, and isolated. They had made many future plans when they were expecting. The loss of their baby blows up all these plans and leaves big holes in their time and space.
Since our culture treats death, especially pregnancy loss and infant death, as a taboo subject, angel parents often feel uncomfortable about asking for help. Also, pregnancy loss and infant death usually happens when least expected. Even months and years later, angel parents are still in shock and disbelief. They often don’t know what kind of help they need.
Thus, don’t wait for an angel parent to reach out to you. One angel mom who lost her daughter three years ago suggests this to families and friends of any angel parents: “When in doubt, reach out and show up.”
You don’t have to show up with food all the time. Keep the angel parents company. Light physical activities that take them out of their house from time to time really help. So if you can, show up and take him or her out for a walk, go for coffee or tea, or go hiking. Sunlight and fresh air can be uplifting.
Also keep in mind that for angel parents, grieving will not go away a few months or even a few years later. One angel dad told me that he lost his infant daughter ten years ago and the pain never goes away. He only deals with his pain in a different way now than when the wound was fresh.
If you can, don’t show up once and think the grieving parents will be fine. Instead, reach out and show up frequently if you can. Angel parents actually will need your company more as time goes by, when other people in their support network start to move on with their lives.
Please Check Clichés at the Door
Many family members and friends of a grieving angel parent don’t know what to say, so they often rely on clichés. But many angel parents tell me that clichés are hurtful. Here are a few clichés you should never say to a grieving parent:
“I know how you feel.” No, you don’t. Someone actually said to an angel parent, “I know how you feel because my dog died a few years ago.” Seriously? It’s very insensitive to compare the loss of a child to the loss of a pet. Even if you have lost a child also, you don’t necessarily know how other angel parents feel. Every loss and every pain is different. Let the angel parents tell you how they feel.
“It could be worse.” This is a bad one to utter. To a grieving parent, losing a child is usually the worst thing that has happened in their lives.
“At least you still have other children.” Children are not interchangeable. Each life is unique and precious. It’s also very difficult for angel parents who not only have to handle their own grief, but also struggle with how to help their living children deal with the loss of a sibling. So please don’t say this one to angel parents who still have living children.
“It happened for a reason.” Don’t say this unless you can explain what the reason is.
“It was God’s will” or “It was God’s plan.” Don’t say this even if the grieving parents are devoted religious believers. Unless you have inside knowledge of God’s will or plan, don’t try to explain God. For parents who are religious believers, offering prayers or quoting inspirational verses from the Scripture are comforting, but common clichés invoking in God’s name aren’t.
Check Out These Resources for More Ideas
Other things you can do to comfort angel parents include helping them celebrate the milestone dates of their angels, such as sending a virtual hug on the date of each month that marks the birth of their angel. You can also light a candle and send them a picture of it on October 15, the pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day. Angel parents appreciate these small gestures because these little things show that they are not the only ones who remember their angels.
For more resources on how to help angel parents, please check out these organizations:
- Early Pregnancy Loss Association
- March of Dimes
- Miss Foundation
- Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support
- Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
- String of Pearls
All of these organizations have resource pages on their websites that list blogs, podcasts, counseling, and support group information that can give angel parents a helping hand. In addition to these organizations, the Mayyim Hayyim center offers a healing guide for Jewish couples.
Losing a baby is the hardest thing many angel parents will ever experience. Many feel isolated, lonely, and depressed. If you are a family or friend of angel parents, do what you can to let them know that they are not alone. Instead, make sure they know they are surrounded by love and support.
Help them to find courage and hope to move forward in life. Let them know that, no matter how difficult their journey is, you’re right there with them.