When someone you love receives the news that their unborn baby has a diagnosis incompatible with life, you might want to drop everything and be by their side to support them. The heart behind that desire is such a gift to these families, and it can be a lifeline for them during the carrying to term process and life after loss. Parents begin to grieve from the moment of diagnosis so offering your support from the time they choose to share the news with you is important.
It is not unusual for you to feel unsure about how to best care for your loved ones during this heartbreaking journey. You may find yourself saying things like, “I’m here if you need me,” “let me know if there is anything that I can do for you,” or “how can I help?” Though there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it can feel as though you are putting the responsibility of care on the parents who, in these moments, may not even know how to care for themselves let alone know what they need from you.
The best way to offer your support and still come across as being open to meeting whatever needs the family expresses is to first offer specific options. Instead of simply saying, “I’m here if you need me,” try “I want to know whatever you want to share with me. So, if you ever want to talk about your baby or what you are going through, I’m only a text message, phone call, or car ride away.”
Instead of asking, “what can I do for you?” or “how can I help?”, try “I would like to bring you a meal on Wednesday. If that day doesn’t work for you, I can drop it off on this other day.”
Offering tangible ways of supporting the parents with the option for them to change the plan is the most helpful thing you can do. It shows them that you mean what you’re saying and that you aren’t internally thinking, “please don’t ask. Please don’t need me.”
Though you know that your intentions are good and that you really mean it when you say that you are there for them, as the one experiencing trauma and grief, it is so easy to feel like a burden to the people you love. We, as loss parents often forget that we are the only people who feel like we are a burden. It is so easy to forget that the people in our lives want to be connected, supportive, and loving. When our worlds are crumbling around us, it can feel impossible to know where to go for support and help. Because it can feel so overwhelming to manage our daily needs, it feels as though asking for help with those needs will overwhelm the people we love.
So, as the support network coming alongside the families walking through a terminal prenatal diagnosis, the carrying to term journey, and life after loss, come armed with tangible suggestions of how you are best able to help. No one expects you to just know what the best ways to support these families are so I’ve created the GRIEF model to help you remember simple and practical ways to offer your support and care well for your loved ones. GRIEF stands for give, remember, internalize, empathize, and follow up.
Give is the practical and more tangible support that you can offer. When thinking through giving, consider what tasks might be helpful to have taken off their plate following diagnosis, throughout the carrying to term process, at delivery, and after loss.
The most popular and helpful thing to give is meals. Never underestimate the effect that having a meal that they didn’t have to plan and shop for, cook, and clean up after can have. Providing a meal may seem like a small thing, but it feels like love. It allows for more time with their family or to focus on their own self-care. It allows for one less thing to occupy space in their mind or one less thing to muster up the energy to accomplish.
When giving a meal, consider two little extra things that make a big impact. One, if you homemade the meal, consider including the recipe with your name on it. Meals are like memories, and it can be comforting to remember who made which meal and be able to recreate that meal later. Two, consider including something for breakfast. It can be something as simple as store-bought muffins or even cereal and milk. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but having the first meal of the day taken care of can be the thing that encourages them to actually eat.
If you take a meal following diagnosis, consider bringing a meal regularly throughout the duration of the pregnancy and then following the loss. It doesn’t have to be frequent, but even bringing a simple meal once a month can be a huge gift. That kind of consistent support is life-giving during this experience. It says to the family that you are there, that you care, and that you aren’t going anywhere.
Beyond meals, there are a variety of tangible ways to support. Handling life tasks like house cleaning, grocery shopping, and running errands are hugely impactful ways to help. If you know you’re already planning to go to the grocery store on Tuesday, text your friend or family member and ask if you can pick up a few things for them or if they want to give you a budget so you can handle their weekly shop. Offering to vacuum their house or even combine resources with others in their support network to provide a cleaning service would be wonderful.
If, depending on their circumstances, the family has baby gifts or other baby items that they no longer want in their house, offer to handle returns or donations. It can be incredibly difficult to balance the desire to have those items out of the house and manage to muster the emotional fortitude to return or donate the items.
There are less involved ways to support like, providing gift cards to grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and for other places or things that they enjoy. Mindless entertainment sources like Netflix, movies, books, or puzzles are helpful when the parents need an escape and a way to decompress.
Additionally, some families may benefit greatly from financial help. This can be a sensitive, emotional, and uncomfortable need for families. Medical expenses like specialized care, the labor and delivery process, and any after birth care can be incredibly expensive. Funeral expenses, whether for burial or cremation, can be thousands of dollars. These unexpected financial burdens can be crippling, both financially and emotionally. No family should have to worry about how they’re going to pay for necessary medical care. No parent should have to worry about how they’re going to find money to bury or cremate their baby.
Giving towards these needs can have a life-changing impact. If you are able to, partner with their extended support network and come alongside them in this way.
In many ways, remembering is the absolute best and most important way you can offer support. It’s so important, in fact, that we have an entire post dedicated to this topic, which you can find here.
One of the biggest worries that parents face after the loss of their baby or babies is that people will forget. In so many ways, the grief that follows losing a baby or babies is invisible. Few people, if any, get to meet the baby. There are a finite number of memories and pictures. Time is cruel in this area. The acuteness of the needs fade, people move forward, and yet the parents are still grieving. So, remember. Remember the name or names. Remember the birth and death day. Remember after time passes.
This can be as simple as setting a calendar reminder in your phone, setting it to recur every year, and sending a text on that day. Consider offering a meal on the anniversary. Mail a card at the holidays. Do something that says that you remember, even months and years later.
As a part of the support network, you can internalize this experience by considering what your friend or family member is going through, identifying needs, and assessing your ability to meet those needs. Internalizing this experience is not to be confused with making it about you. Rather, internalizing is about knowing your capacity, limits, and boundaries. It is vital to the well-being of the parents going through this devastating process that you know what you are and are not able to offer.
Support can take many forms, and it is okay to know what type of support is best for you to provide. If you know that you do not have the emotional capacity to sit with them as they talk through their experience, that is okay. You can be someone who comes alongside them in a different way. You might provide a meal and drop it on the porch. You might partner financially to help them offset some medical bills. You might drop a card in the mail or send a text every now and then to let them know you’re thinking of them. All of those things are supportive.
It’s also okay to know your own budget and financial limits. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or give a lot of things to be supportive. Giving support through your time and your words is wonderful, too. This can look like taking a moment to write a note, send a text, or make a phone call on a random morning that you were thinking about them. Supporting someone in this journey doesn’t have to look like a big gesture. Truly, the biggest gift is the steady people who continue to check in, speak the name or names, celebrate and grieve on birthdays and holidays, and offer words of support.
As loss parents, we don’t want you to feel the need to burden yourself with our care. We may need help shouldering our own burden from time to time, but never at the expense of your own well-being.
Connecting with your loved one on a personal and emotional level is a wonderful way to support them. Parents facing terminal diagnoses and loss often feel isolated and disconnected. They feel alone in their grief, and they desire connection. While sympathy is caring about and having concern for a person and what they’re going through and desiring for their circumstances to improve, empathy is deeper. Empathy is the act of entering in and sitting with someone in their experience. It is putting aside your own feelings and your judgments about how you would handle the situation differently.
Empathy is listening to someone communicate their feelings to you and trying to internalize those feelings. It is about putting yourself in their shoes and looking at it from their perspective. You may not understand why they are grieving the way they are. You may not understand the manifestation of their overwhelming emotions. You may not understand their decisions. That is okay. You don’t have to understand it, but you need to put yourself aside.
Allow them to feel how they feel. Do not try to fix what is happening to them or change how they are feeling. Losing a child is a trauma like no other. It changes the parents in ways you cannot imagine so understand that it may take a while before you recognize your friend or family member again. Understand that, even when they seem like their former selves, they are never going to fully be the same person they were before. Remember that grieving is intense, hard, consuming, and looks different every day. Be understanding when they need to cancel plans simply because the idea of being social is just too much to handle. Be patient. Simply put, empathy is meeting them where they are at any given moment.
Empathy is a powerful tool for connection. It fosters a sense of support and lessens feelings of isolation. Communicating well with bereaved parents is one of the best things you can do to support them. No one expects you to know exactly how to communicate well because it takes experience and practice. I have written more in-depth about communicating well with parents facing terminal diagnoses and loss, and you can find that here.
Following up is more about meeting emotional needs than it is about meeting physical needs. Following up is what you do when you’ve heard the news of the prenatal diagnosis, and it’s been a few days or weeks. Following up is what you do when you know your friends or family members have had their baby or babies and gone through the painful experience of saying goodbye. Following up is what you do when it’s been days, weeks, and months, and you want to check in.
Following up can be simple and quick like sending a text message or giving them a call. It can take the form of asking to come over and being open to hearing everything they want to share about their baby or babies. It looks like sitting and listening, truly listening, to the pain, the joy, the memories. It looks like connecting them with resources that you might know about. Maybe you know someone else who’s walked through a terminal diagnosis, the process of carrying to term, and/or lost his or her baby or babies shortly after birth. Maybe you know a counselor who specializes in pregnancy and infant loss. Maybe you know of support groups or organizations like Carrying To Term. Compile those resources and let them know that you have them whenever they’re ready for them.
Following up helps bereaved parents bridge the gap between needing help and support and knowing how to ask for it. If they see you following up, empathizing, and remembering, they’re going to feel safer and more comfortable asking you for specific needs. Trauma and loss can create a lot of shame for parents. Shame for needing help. Shame for not knowing what they need. Shame for knowing what they need but not knowing how to ask for it. By following up, you are creating a safe and trustworthy place for them seek support.
Watching your friends or family members experience a terminal prenatal diagnosis and all that follows it can be a painful process. It might bring up feelings of uncertainty in how to care well or fear of saying and doing the wrong thing. Always err on the side of reaching out and maybe not doing it as well as you’d hope over staying silent, distancing yourself, or disappearing altogether. When you feel unsure about what might be helpful, refer to this GRIEF model, and offer a few options to your loved ones. Follow up with them and trust that your consistent and genuine desire to care for them well will show them that you aren’t going anywhere.