Friday, March 1, 2024

Don’t Let it Be the Elephant in the Room – How to Support a Friend or Family Member Who Has Lost a Baby

People refer to it as the last taboo – the elephant that sits in the room for so many families in New Zealand. Miscarriage and baby loss is a topic that is so rarely spoken about – which is completely at odds with how often it happens and how many families it affects. One in every four pregnancies will end in a loss. The number of children who die between 20 weeks gestation and 12 months of age in New Zealand is almost twice the total of the yearly death toll on our roads.

So it’s little wonder that when it comes to talking about it, many of us are lost for words. When a friend or family member experiences a loss, many simply don’t know what to say, or are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, they instead say nothing. And that silence only adds to the feelings of isolation that the bereaved parents are already feeling.

Vicki Culling, PhD, is the director and principal trainer of her own company which runs workshops and training programs for medical professionals dealing with perinatal deaths. She was a founding member of the national Perinatal and Maternal Mortality Review Community, among many other committees and has been working with Sands for more than 15 years, running support groups in Wellington.   

Vicki is also a bereaved parent herself, having lost her first daughter who was stillborn at 10 days overdue, whilst Vicki was doing her PhD in Women’s Health Research. That experience led her to utilise her skills – a background in education, social work and research – in supporting bereaved parents and families, and educating health professionals.

With her vast experience in this field, we approached Vicki to learn more about how we can best support bereaved families. What should we be saying? What should we avoid saying?

Vicki says that baby loss is an experience that is under acknowledged and under supported.

“We worry about the right words to say to friends and family members going though one of the saddest experiences of their lives, but first and foremost we need to reach out and offer the priceless gift of compassion,” says Vicki. “This really is the best gift you can give and one that will be appreciated long after the flowers have faded and the cards are put away.”

Here are some ideas about how to best support a mother or father who has experienced a loss:

  • Take a step back.

“One of the first things to do is to take a step back and think about how we approach grief in general,” says Vicki. “In Western culture we seem to be determined to have this approach of trying to make things better, but when it comes to grief, there is nothing we can say that can make things better. First of all you need to let that go.”

Vicki suggests that instead of our intention being to make someone feel better or “cheer them up”, instead our intention should be all about acknowledgment and connection. We need to acknowledge the profound loss they have experienced, to acknowledge their pain, and acknowledge that little baby.

“What we need to do is say, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that your baby died.’ – it’s really all just about acknowledgement and connection,” says Vicki.

  • Don’t search for a silver lining for them

That desire to somehow make the person feel better can sometimes lead us to look for a silver lining, which – while it may have a good intention behind it – can end up making the bereaved feel like their loss has been minimised.

“People can say things like, ‘Oh, well, at least you have your other children,’ or ‘at least you had three days with them’,” tells Vicki. “But there is no silver lining when it comes to death, so don’t look for an ‘at least’ for them. It’s the same with those euphemisms and platitudes, the ‘oh well, God needed another flower in his garden,’ or ‘God doesn’t give you anything more than you can handle.’”

If the bereaved wants to bring up religion, leave that over to them to say.

  • Bring it up.

Ask about the baby. Ask how they’re feeling – don’t avoid mentioning it. Vicki talks us through a situation that can happen so easily and is such a sad, missed opportunity to connect – and, sadly, is often one that plays out between even the closest of friends or family members.

“What happens is we see them, the person who has had the bereavement and we think, ‘oh, they’re looking quite good! And if I mention this awful thing it will make them sad, and they’re not sad right now so I’m not going to say that thing that will make them sad.’ But in fact, that parent is carrying around that story with them constantly. And yes, that story is tinged with sadness, but also so much love – there is so much love in their heart for that baby.

So when someone mentions their baby, their child – it’s like music to their ears. But when we don’t mention it, it becomes the elephant in the room. I remember seeing people and thinking, ‘oh, does this person know what happened?’ when really that person was probably looking at me thinking, ‘god, she looks okay, I better not bring up that thing that will make her sad.’ Instead, we both skirt around it and leave that conversation – it’s such a sad, missed opportunity.”

Vicki Culing
  • Don’t measure or compare

The loss of a baby is the loss of a child, no matter how far along the mother was, so avoid comparing their loss to others.

“I’ve heard people say things like, ‘oh well, she was only six weeks pregnant’ or, ‘well, the baby died before birth so it’s not the same’ but we really shouldn’t be measuring because we don’t know the person’s story that brought them to that place,” explains Vicki.

“Someone who a miscarriage at six weeks may have had nine years of IVF – we don’t know the backstory so we need to suspend any judgement.”

Another situation that is quite common, tells Vicki, is the desire to compare it to something we’ve experienced, or a story we know about. “It’s a common thing! You hear a terrible story and you search for a story yourself to connect with them. You might say, ‘Oh, my cousin had a baby who died,’ which can come from a good place of wanting to connect, but can feel like your loss is being measured and compared to another situation. I’ve heard people say things like, ‘Oh, I know someone whose two-year-old died,’ and that makes you think, ‘So, what? I should be grateful? I should be glad my baby didn’t make it to two?!”  

  • Say the baby’s name out loud

It all comes back to bringing up the bereavement – most parents want to be given the opportunity to talk about it. “And, I’d say 99.99% of the parents I’ve spoken with, really want to hear their child’s name spoken out loud by others,” tells Vicki. “I’ve been running support meetings for more than 15 years and it often comes up. Just recently someone said, ‘it’s been six months since my baby died and I haven’t heard her name spoken in six weeks.’

  • Don’t forget the dad (or other mum)

Sometimes in the aftermath of the loss of a baby, the other parent can be forgotten as we rush to support the mother. Vicki says men are quite often asked how their wife or partner is doing, but we can often forget to ask them how they’re doing.

“Often people will say, ‘G’day Harry, how is Melissa doing?’ But no one is asking how Harry is doing. Harry gets to talk about Melissa and how hard it has been and that’s where he gets to express some of his stuff, but not all of it. Dads can be overlooked.”

Compounding that can be the societal expectations that we place on fathers – there can be that expectation that they’re the strong one, the staunch one, the one to look after the family.  

“Sometimes we see a pattern of the mum being in deep grief and the dad holding things together, and as she starts to come out of that raw, deep grief, then he goes into it because he’s been holding it all together.”

If in doubt, the best thing you can do is get in touch and simply acknowledge their loss. As Vicki said, try saying,  “I’m so sorry to hear that your baby died.” Acknowledge their deep sadness, acknowledge their loss, acknowledge their baby.

Tomorrow we will hear from bereaved parents who share the best things that people said or did in the wake of losing their child.

And, as we continue our coverage over the course of this week, if you would like to share your stories, thoughts or memories around baby loss, please do get in touch by emailing me at [email protected].

And please, do reach out to Sands if you have experienced a loss.

Please do support the wonderful folks at Sands who do an incredible job supporting families throughout NZ. You can donate to Sands this Baby Loss Awareness Week – or any week! – by visiting https://givealittle.co.nz/org/sands

Main Illustration by Liana Lane

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