I have a friend, she is kind and smart and has an electric, energy-filled, passionate laugh with voltage that lights up the room and every single person in it. She has the kind of courage we can only hope for in our daughters, homegrown from some early life tests, and strengthened by the unquestionable spot as the apple of her father’s eye. She is lucky in love, and married a man who has his own strong mind, delights in hers and likes nothing more than her company.
Last week, their baby son was born early, and died after one perfect day being loved and held by his parents.
It is impossible to not feel my friend’s pain, her loss. I feel it in my toes, in my soul. As an experienced mom, I know that only time and love will heal this for her, but her moments are long now, they don’t yet speed by.
At the funeral, I made a wish. It was not what you might think. I believe they will have the family they are meant to, when they are meant to- big or small- and that they will have the same marathon joys, fears, disappointments and thrilling roller-coaster moments we all have as parents. But, in that moment, what I wished for my friend was simply this:
May every dumb thing people say out of good intention, or a need to distance themselves from the irreparable sadness of this moment- may all those unhelpful words, and their impact be forgotten, and only the intent, the meaning and the love behind them be remembered.
Yes, it’s a strange wish. But, I know I have made so many well-intended but dumb and unhelpful mistakes at times like these. And, consider the language we still use at times like this about women:
“She lost the baby.” She did not lose the baby, like someone loses their favorite pen or their cool. It was not hapless, irresponsible behavior. To say she ‘lost’ the baby assigns blame to the woman, however subtly, lining up next to ‘she couldn’t give him children,’ another not helpful, oppressive phrase we use, regardless of the circumstances (like his infertility).
“She had a miscarriage.” The etymology may be “untimely delivery,” (although it is also ‘misbehavior’), but the sound of the word suggests that again, the woman is responsible, that she mis-carried, or carried the baby poorly, or somehow wasn’t a ‘good enough carrier.’ It’s just not helpful.
There are scores more unhelpful, but well-intentioned things to avoid saying:
- It was God’s will. (In that case, I would want to officially skip religion on the whole.)
- You’re young, you’ll have plenty of time for more kids. (This woman is not grieving ‘more kids,’ she is grieving THIS child whom she loved and carried and held and kissed).
- It’s for the best/This wasn’t meant to be. (How do you know?)
- Just try to forget this baby and move on. (Not even a possibility. And, even if it were, we are talking years and years of therapy to right that emotional wrong.)
- God needed this baby more than we do/Now you have a special Angel in heaven. (Even if you believe this, please don’t say it, because no one, NO ONE could ever need her baby more than a grieving mother.)
What should we say, what is helpful? These are some ideas from my friend Marian, who is a grief counselor with Bo’s Place in Houston:
Like most things in life, just start with the truth.
- I’m sorry, and so sad for your loss.
- I am so sorry (name of baby) died.
- I am here, and I would like to help. Can I bring dinner Thursday night?
- I love you.
- I know you’re hurting, and I care so much about you.
- I’d like to know everything about (baby’s name), so when you’re ready to tell her/his story, I want to hear all about him, and his time here.
- I don’t know what to say, and I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing, so just know that I am here, and I care, and I will do anything I can to help. I was thinking of taking care of your lawn for the next few months, is that okay? (Marian suggests being as specific as possible, as many parents don’t know what help they will and won’t need.)
My friend did not miscarry. She did not lose her baby. She worked unbelievably hard to bring that baby safely into the world with a determination possibly unknown by those who have not walked that same path, who have not borne human life. Her sweet little boy died, and we would all do well to just say it and surrender to the heartache of those words, which should never have to be spoken, but are spoken today.
Let’s not minimize her pain, their sadness, just because it is hard for us to face. Let’s be there, and join my friend and her husband in the depths of it, because there is safety in numbers and if we all surrender to that pain and sadness together, then there’s no way it can swallow us up.
My new wish for my friend and her husband:
I hope you both loved your first perfect day of parenting, that you felt the joys, the excitement, the deep, almost secret love borne of unspeakable vulnerability. Because, it never goes away. Welcome to parenthood, friends. It is a mindset, a way of being, and you’re in it for good now, no matter what helpful and unhelpful things people say. I hope you celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, his birthday, and I hope that you carry the memory of that tiny precious boy everywhere you journey, from this moment forward.
And, I hope that you let him go enough to be present for the journey ahead, to gain momentum into life again, when you are ready, and not a moment sooner.
Goodbye, to our littlest friend. We will remember you, and smile, knowing you brought enormous joy every moment you were here. And, for that, we are forever grateful.
What do you think? Ideas of what to say and not say? How to help grieving parents?
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This blog was originally published by the Times Union and can be accessed here.