To blame is to assign responsibility when something bad happens. Assigning blame is a common and normal response in situations that feel hard, scary, or out of one’s control. A reason, even if it means someone is at fault, often feels more comforting than there being no reason at all. To judge is to form an opinion or conclusion about something or someone. When bad things happen to others, it is easy to draw conclusions about how they are navigating it. It is common to imagine how you might navigate the situation differently if it happened to you.
When someone you love shares with you that their unborn baby has a life-limiting condition, you may immediately find yourself grasping for answers that explain why this terrible event has occurred. When there are answers, it can feel as though hard situations can be explained and understood. If there is a cause, then logically, there must be a cure, right? If there is something or someone to blame, this horrible event can be prevented in the future, right? For most people, wrestling with the reality that bad things happen beyond our control and without the ability to prevent them from happening is a terrifying truth. Especially when it means that babies die for no apparent reason.
Throughout this process, you may also find yourself making judgements about how these parents are navigating decisions following diagnosis, the process of pregnancy continuation, and the experience of grief. All people make judgements about situations and how other’s handle them, particularly in the aftermath of something bad happening. This is not inherently a negative process, as watching other people navigate difficult situations allows a person to think through their own response and hypothetical decision-making. It helps make sense of or provide a sense of comfort in scary and confusing circumstances.
So, as you navigate supporting grieving parents, know that it is normal to feel anxious or scared. Seeing someone consumed by grief is a difficult experience. Seeing someone consumed by grief while knowing that this could very possibly happen to your own family, too, is terrifying. This is an uncomfortable experience, and it may feel as though having answers or someone or something to blame would lessen some of that discomfort. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The experience your friends or family members are facing is never going to be free from discomfort, grief, or pain for anyone involved in the process. There are no answers, reasons, or explanations that will ever feel right or justifying when it comes to the death of a baby.
Friends and family, your job is not to find answers or something or someone to blame for the diagnosis and death of the baby. Your job is to not question, change, or influence how these parents are navigating this news or how they are grieving. Your job is to lean into the discomfort of the unknown and support these parents however you can. Your job is to be a listening ear and shoulder to cry on. Your job is to recognize that there is no right way to grieve. Your job is to enter in and offer your support in tangible ways like taking meals, helping with life’s responsibilities, and being present with the parents. Your job is invaluable and means the world to parents facing a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition.
As you navigate supporting carrying to term parents, resist the temptation to assign blame, seek answers, or pass judgement. Instead, be introspective about your emotional state, your desire for information and answers, and your motivation for supporting the family. Consider your words carefully when asking questions, providing insight, or engaging in conversation with the parents. If you do inadvertently imply blame, pass judgement, or hurt the parents with your words, apologize and keep trying to support and encourage these parents.
Introspection, or self-observation, is the process of examining your own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Introspection is about reflecting on one’s state of mind, be it emotional, social, behavioral, physical, or spiritual. A healthy practice of introspection leads to good self-knowledge and understanding. It allows people to understand how external influences affect or shape their emotional, social, behavioral, physical, and spiritual states of mind. This information allows you to observe when you are affected by the world around you, how the world around you changes your state of mind, and it provides you with the insight necessary to change how you respond to outside influence.
When you learn that something bad has happened, what is your first response?
Are you emotionally influenced, meaning that you feel sorrow, anxiety, fear, or numbness? Are you socially influenced, meaning that you withdraw or reach out to those closest to you? Are you physically influenced, meaning that you have a physical response like tiredness, nausea, perspiration, muscle tension, or a rapid heart rate? Are you behaviorally influenced, meaning that you turn to a coping mechanism like eating, exercising, sleeping, or even researching the situation? Are you spiritually influenced, meaning that you turn to or even question your faith?
Understanding how you are affected by difficult and devastating experiences helps you understand how you process those situations. When you understand how you instinctually react and process, you can prepare for and then manage your reactions. This allows you to understand yourself and your motivations, which help you to engage in healthy intrapersonal (with oneself) and interpersonal (with others) communication.
When you practice introspection following the news that someone you love has received a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition for their baby, you can then observe your immediate reaction to the news. Is your reaction to ask questions? Is your reaction to feel anxious about this happening to you? Is your reaction to want to do something immediately to help the family? Is your reaction to compare this situation to other ones you have experienced or heard?
None of these reactions are inherently bad, wrong, or unhelpful to the parents. These reactions are all signs that you are genuinely affected by the news. What you do in response or as a result of your reactions is what matters.
Before acting on your impulse or instinct, really consider how your actions would affect the parents.
If your reaction is to ask questions, ask yourself why you want to know. Are you curious? Are you wrestling with your own complicated emotions? Are you believing that having answers means preventing this from happening to you? Ask yourself, honestly, whether or not your questions benefit and supporting the grieving parent in this moment.
If your reaction is to feel anxious about this happening to you, take the time to work through your feelings before engaging with the parents. Your anxiety is valid and worthy of being processed, but not in a way that makes the parents feel responsible or to blame for you feeling anxious.
If your reaction is to immediately need to do something to help the family, ask yourself if the time is right for the family. Would your help benefit them in this moment, or do they need some time and space to process before they reach out for help?
If your reaction is to compare this situation to other ones you have experienced or heard about, ask yourself why. Are you trying to contextualize and make sense of these events? Are you looking to make supportive connections for your family member or friend? Are you using those other experiences and examples of grief to guess or set expectations about how your friend or family member will grieve?
When you understand your reactions and motivations, you can navigate supporting and communicating well with grieving parents.
Consider your words carefully
It can be easy to inadvertently apply blame or express judgement in conversation with grieving parents. Questions and statements that can imply blame or judgement include:
Did you do anything that could have caused the diagnosis?
Could the diagnosis have been prevented?
Is the diagnosis genetic?
You are making life harder or more emotional by (carrying to term, making memories, going through labor and delivery, talking about the baby, grieving for so long, etc).
You will feel better when (you have another baby, you move past this loss, you go back to work, you get on with your life, etc).
Focus on the positive and do not dwell on the hard and sad.
It has been X amount of time, and you are still grieving.
Additionally, statements that start with “at least” can imply blame, judge, and dismiss a parent’s grief. When you start a sentence with “at least,” you are dismissing the experience of the parents as not important, valid, or worthy of emotional expression. Statements like “at least you had time to prepare for you loss,” “at least you had time with your baby", “at least you know you can get pregnant,” or any other “at least” statements imply that the parent is wrong for feeling how they feel, grieving how they grieve, and it creates an unsafe emotional space for these parents.
Statements that include “should have” or “would have” can imply blame or judgement as well. When you say that a parent “should have” acted, felt, or navigated this experience in a certain way, you are blaming or judging the parents for how they feel, what they have experienced, and how this process has played out. When you say that you or someone else “would have” acted, felt, or navigated this experience differently than the parent, you are implying that the parents have made wrong choices therefore blaming and judging them for their experience, emotions, and grief.
Here are some helpful and supportive statements to say to parents facing the loss of their baby:
I am so sorry for the diagnosis and all that you are navigating.
I can only imagine how overwhelming and difficult this is for you.
I know you are processing a lot of information right now. I am here if you want to talk.
I am here to be a listening ear or sounding board.
I want to know whatever you want to share with me.
I know someone who navigated a similar experience/the loss of their baby. Would you want me to connect you two?
It is important to know that you can also inadvertently apply blame or judge a parent’s experience and grief by comparing that experience to someone or something else. Comparing the death of a baby to the death of a parent, friend, other family member, or pet is unhelpful and hurtful. While the loss is valid, it is a different type of loss. The experience of losing a child should be validated and supported as its own unique experience. It should not be compared to other deaths or difficult circumstances like the loss of a job, house, or relationship.
As the network of support, you may find yourself in the position of knowing another family who has been through the experience of losing a child. This experience could be helpful and supportive to the parents who are navigating a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition because peer-to-peer support can be incredibly encouraging, supporting, and healing. The key is to share this other experience in a way that does not compare the two experiences. Everyone grieves differently, and there is no standard for grieving well. Provide this other experience and make connections between the two families, if the parents are open to it, but avoid using either experience as a measuring stick for grief.
Apologize and keep trying
Communication is not a perfect science. It is more like art in that requires practice, the willingness to learn from mistakes, and the vulnerability to keep trying. As the friends and family members supporting grieving parents, you will potentially say or do something that does not feel supportive to the parents. This is true regardless of whether or not you have personally experienced the loss of a child. Every single experience of grief is unique, so there truly are no experts on the experience and grief of losing a child.
Your only job is to do your best. Enter in. Be genuine. Be introspective. Consider your words carefully. And, if and when you misstep, acknowledge the hurt, take responsibility for your part, apologize, and keep trying. Keep trying to enter in and support the parents. Do not let the fact that you are not an expert prevent you from providing the support and care that you are capable of offering. Do not let the fear of hurting the parents or making missteps prevent you from trying.
Most grieving parents would agree that navigating missteps and forgiveness with their friends and family members is worth it because isolation is a terrible feeling. Engaging with other people in grief and difficult situations is a messy experience. There are big emotions, and these emotions can cause conflict between people who genuinely love and care about one another. Yes, supporting parents throughout this process will be complicated, emotional, and at times, full of conflict. Just remember that these parents need you. More than they might realize or be able to articulate to you.
Yes, you might misstep, misspeak, or imply blame or pass judgement, but it really is okay. You are human. No one, not even the parents, expect you to be perfect in this process. Just do your best, be introspective, choose your words carefully, and recognize when you have caused pain, offer an apology, and do better next time. That is all any grieving parent wants and needs from their network of support.