As the friends and relatives of the parents facing a terminal prenatal diagnosis, delivery day is what you have watched and helped your loved ones prepare for. You have been a sounding board as they navigated the decision-making process for their birth plan. You have been a support system as they chose keepsake items and outfits. You have been a listening ear as they shared their hopes and plans for the time they will have with their baby and the memories they hope to make. You have validated the hope, fear, sorrow, and joy they have felt throughout their pregnancy. You have been a rock and a safe place for these parents to process, plan, and begin to grieve.
That support is invaluable, and it has lasting impact. The level of tender and empathetic care you have given has allowed these parents to feel free to be where they are in the process. As a result of that care, these parents now feel as though they can continue to count on you as they navigate the unknown of delivery day, time with their baby, and the transition into life after loss. Trust like that in the midst of situations like facing the loss of your baby is a gift that cannot truly be explained or measured. You have done something worthy, valuable, and life-changing.
As a result, you may find yourself invited to be a part of delivery day. For these parents, there is no bigger gift than inviting you into something so tender and precious. A gift like this deserves to be treated with the utmost care and respect, and I want to help you navigate your role on delivery day. There is no one way to be supportive or provide care on this day. There is no script or manual that lays out exactly what you should or should not say and do. There are, however, a few guidelines to consider as you step into this family's most vulnerable and cherished time.
My three guidelines apply to the entire support network walking alongside a family, not just the people invited into delivery day.
Whether or not you are invited in is not a reflection on how the family feels about you. It is purely a reflection of what they need in these moments. They may be a family who draws into themselves and needs the security of an intimate number of people. They may be a family who cannot face the idea of experiencing so much unknown with other people in the room. They may be a family who has carefully selected their delivery day support network because of the specific gifts the people they have chosen possess.
They may be a family who did not know how to create the boundaries they actually need and therefore gave too many people the open invitation to come and go on delivery day. They may be a family who did not have the capacity to balance the feelings of their support network while also managing the tension between being present in the last days of pregnancy and anticipating all that is to come. They may be a family who thrives when they are surrounded by their friends and relatives.
As the friends and relatives of these parents, it is your job to carefully consider your role and to check in with the parents when it comes to delivery day. In no way am I saying that you know them better than they know themselves, but if it feels as though you are going to be intrusive or detract from the time they will have with their baby, listen to that feeling and tread carefully. If it feels as though you are having to convince the family to let you be there, you may be pushing too hard. If you cannot shake the feeling that this family will be isolated in a time that they need their support network the most, continue to gently offer your help in the form of meals, childcare for any siblings, a standing open availability to visit if they need you, or taking on the burden of updating the rest of the support network as the family wishes.
This is not an easy day to navigate for anyone. As the friends and relatives, you have to remember that in the days and weeks leading up to this day, the parents are consumed with so many aspects of life and loss. On the day, their focus is only on what is happening and what is yet to come. Remember to check in because the parents might forget or feel incapable of asking for help. Remember to walk the line between reaching out and placing expectations.
To help you navigate supporting a family on delivery day, I am giving you three simple guidelines: be mindful, be present, and be selfless. These guidelines apply whether you are supporting the parents in the very room they are in or from the other side of a phone. If you filter every interaction and decision through these three guidelines, you are providing the exact kind of support this family needs.
Mindfulness is truly the priority on delivery day. Whether you are present for the experience or supporting from a distance, being mindful of the needs of the parents is your number one job. Mindfulness takes many forms in this kind of circumstance, and it is important to understand them all.
You start by being mindful of your role. Ask yourself questions like:
- What is your relationship with the parents?
- What does your presence contribute to the day?
- How might your presence detract from the day?
- How can you support the family in tangible ways from a distance?
By understanding your relationship with the parents, your support role begins to take shape. If you are a colleague of the family or an acquaintance, it is likely that you are not the right person to show up in person on delivery day. Giving birth in any situation is an emotional, tender, vulnerable, and precious time. Respecting a family's privacy and boundaries is a gift so knowing your relationship is important. As colleagues and acquaintances, you can show up in other ways. An offer to have food delivered or dropped off with their nurse can be a blessing. Sending flowers, gift cards, or other gifts and keepsake items is helpful and supportive. For more information about giving gifts and keepsake items to parents, read our post found here.
As friends and even family members, you may not be the right people to show up in person, but you can also offer your support in tangible ways. You can handle some aspects of everyday life like running errands, taking care of plants or pets, or helping with childcare for any siblings who might not be able to attend the delivery. By anticipating these needs and asking if you can help, you are letting the parents know you are willing to support them in concrete ways. For more information about how to support parents, please read our post found here.
Being mindful also means being aware of the range of emotions that the parents may experience. Grief does not always look how we might expect it to. Understanding that everyone grieves and processes differently, even within the same family or set of circumstances, is critical to understanding how to support them. You may find yourself confused or caught off-guard by the emotions or lack of emotion displayed on delivery day and in the days, weeks, and months to follow. To help you understand the range of emotions a parent may experience, please read our post on the topic found here.
It is perfectly normal to find yourself thinking that you would handle a situation differently or want a different kind of support, but you have to remember that until you are in this exact situation, you have no idea how you would react and what you would need. It is important that you do not get caught up in judging the parents or trying to change or influence what they need. Meet them where they are and offer support based on their needs and wishes.
Be mindful of time. If you are invited into delivery day, be generous with your time, but always be aware of how long you stay. A family may welcome you to stay as long as you want, but be aware of their need for time as a family. Give notice of your arrival and before you leave, check in regularly during your visit, and offer to visit again if they want.
Be mindful of your presence. Anticipate moments where you might need to step out or moments that might signify the time to end your visit such as routine postpartum care, visits from lactation, and updates from their care team. Do not wait for the parents to ask you to leave. Instead, offer them the chance to have privacy with the reminder that you are either just outside in the hall or a phone call away.
Being mindful of your presence also means regularly asking yourself two questions:
- Has it become about you and your needs?
- Are the parents comforting you?
If you find yourself doing most of the talking or if your emotions have become the focus, take a step back. It is not uncommon for parents to worry about the needs and emotions of the people visiting. From my own experience, it can feel as though there is a level of responsibility for the hurt and collateral damage your loss has inflicted on the people you love. As a parent grieving the loss of my children, I found myself worrying about other people's needs because it was an instinct to mother someone. The most helpful and supportive people in my network reminded me continuously that my only priority was to my time with my children, my own grief, and the needs of my immediate family.
Being mindful also means giving permission. Give the parents permission to say no to you visiting. Give the parents permission to change their minds. Give the parents permission to ask you to leave or express any needs they might have. Do not underestimate the power of permission. As parents walking through an experience that is so out of their control, it can be hard to know where they have the right to assert control or express their needs. Providing that permission is a reminder that they are still parents with a voice even in the middle of loss.
Just as with being mindful, being present is a call to meet the parents where they are in any given moment. When you enter in to support a family on delivery day and the days that follow, be in the moment. There will be times that you are simply there to help pass the time or be a distraction. There will be times that you are there to sit in the hard and process the emotion. There will be times where you are needed as a listening ear or a source of encouragement. There will be times that you are needed to celebrate and honor this experience for what it is: the birth of a life cherished and the creation of new parents forever changed by the depth of their love.
Being present means embracing each emotion as it comes. You might have a picture in your mind of what a delivery room experience will be for a family facing a terminal prenatal diagnosis, but I can honestly tell you that it is likely different than you expect. I have spent time in delivery rooms with families, and I have been a parent in a delivery room facing loss. Each time, I am blown away by the amount of love, strength, and even laughter that fills these rooms. There is something so beautiful about being present as a family forms, changes, and bonds as a result of a life so precious and short. Bearing witness to that is a gift and a humbling experience that leaves me changed every time.
If you are invited in, be present. Take it all in. Observe the beauty. Learn from the strength. Partake in the joy. Listen to the words spoken and the truths taught. Be inspired by the perspective and changed by the brokenness. Honor the parenthood and feel the impact of the life created.
As a visitor in that room, whether friend or relative, it is okay to express emotion. That is part of being present. Your emotion is welcome, valid, and honoring. It is okay to cry when you are sad or laugh when they laugh. Hiding your emotion does nothing but create a barrier between you and the parents. Expressing emotion comes with the responsibility of being mindful. Emotion is not wrong or not worth expressing, but you have to mindful of its impact.
Is your emotion so big that it overtakes the room?
There is a difference between grieving with someone and grieving at them. That can feel like a daunting line to walk, but do not let fear keep you from being present and real. The goal is to express your emotion tenderly and mindfully.
Being present also means being observant.
- Is anyone taking pictures of the candid, tender moments?
- Do the parents feel as though they are being heard by the doctors, nurses, and staff?
- Do the parents feel as though they can speak up and express their needs?
- Where do the parents need validation and encouragement?
These questions can help you navigate how to support the parents. By capturing tender moments, you are helping parents create memories that will sustain them for a lifetime. By offering encouragement and support as parents voice their needs to doctors, nurses, and staff, you are equipping and empowering them. By validating emotions and listening to anything that they want to share, you are showing compassion and offering support. That is being present.
The final guideline takes being mindful and being present deeper. When you enter in, leave yourself and your needs at the door. The weight of your day, circumstances in your life, and the full effect of how this experience affects you has no place in the delivery room. Your sole purpose and your sole job is to meet the needs of the parents. You are holding space for them to fit a lifetime of parenting into a devastatingly short amount of time. You are helping them shoulder the burden. You are protecting this precious time by not letting the outside world intrude. Everything else can wait. There is no more pressing need or situation for these parents than being present for every second of their child's life.
I fully acknowledge that for many of you there is an element of this loss that is about you. As grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who have become family, this loss has great impact on you. There is no denying that you face your own walk with grief and that you will wrestle with your own doubts, emotions, and sense of meaning through it all. Hear me when I say that I see you. I acknowledge your grief and your loss, too. I know the weight of what is asked of you, and I do not call you to this action lightly. As hard as it might be, and as hard as it is for me to ask this of you, there is still a call to sacrifice.
You have to put the full weight of your grief, your loss, and your struggles aside when you enter in. You absolutely can express how you feel, but it has to be for the purpose of their connection, support, and grief. The parents have to be protected from caring for you, meeting your needs, and bearing the burden of how you are affected. It is possible to share how deep your love and grief run without placing a sense of responsibility of the parents. I wish I had clear instructions to give you, but it is a walk you have to navigate for yourself.
What I can tell you is that if you are reading these words and taking them to heart, you are already walking that line well. If you are striving to be mindful, present, and selfless, you are accomplishing it. If you are putting empathy and the needs of the parents at the heart your support, you are not doing damage. You are loving well. You are supporting well. You are helping these parents bear an unbearable suffering.
Being selfless does not mean not taking care of yourself. As someone who has chosen to support a family from diagnosis, through pregnancy and delivery, and into life after loss, you have to consider and care for your own needs, too. Find time to decompress, process, and rest. Identify someone to talk to and support you. Know your limits, and honor your gifts. You are not all that stands between a family and their crushing grief. You cannot bear the full burden or fix this for them. You can help and support, but only if you know your capacity. Do not burn yourself out because you think you are the only one who can support a family. Let others in to help you. Let me help you by encouraging you, by equipping you, and by supporting you. If you have any questions about supporting parents facing a terminal prenatal diagnosis, I am here to help you find the answers you are looking for. You can reach me by filling out the form found here.
Delivery day is the most important and precious experience in the carrying to term journey. Your loved ones will be asked the impossible: to meet their baby for the first time and to fit a lifetime of parenting in before having to say goodbye. The memories created on this day and in the time they have with their baby will sustain them for a lifetime. As their friends and relatives, it is your job to recognize and respect the weight of this day. These precious minutes, hours, and days are all this family will get with their baby, and I encourage you to offer support with mindfulness, a willingness to be present, and a fully selfless nature.