Friends and relatives, you play an important role in the lives of grieving parents. You helped lessen a parent's isolation by being listening ears and shoulders to cry on. You have brought meals, run errands, helped with children, and navigated life's logistics with your grieving friend or relative. These acts of support have been invaluable during their pregnancy and loss. Just as you were valuable and needed during those experiences, you have a support role to play in your friend or relative's pregnancy after loss.
Pregnancy after loss is not a separate event, outside of the lingering effects of loss and grief. Rather, the two pregnancies- the grief and the joy- are inseparable. Each new milestone in a subsequent pregnancy is a delicate weaving of memory, hope, heartbreak, and joy, and no two people will experience pregnancy after loss the same way or with the same emotions. No matter how many pregnancies you or friend or relative have navigated, it is important to remember that pregnancy after loss is a wholly unique and delicate process, and it should be experienced with a network of support.
Whether you walked alongside the parents during their previous pregnancy and loss of their child or you are new to supporting them, you can care for families in pregnancy after loss by acknowledging their grief, honoring the child who died, and celebrating the child who is coming. Like grief, pregnancy after loss is a sensitive time. It is a new and transformative experience, and as the network of support walking with parents through this experience, a level of self-awareness is necessary.
You will want to consider your words and actions and the impact they have. How you communicate- both verbally and non-verbally- matters. Think through what is best for the parent based on your relationship. You have been invited into something scared: the tender, terrifying, and beautiful process of a parent opening their heart to a new child when they know the full weight of the risk. The delicate balance between grief and joy for a parent in pregnancy after loss requires sensitive, empathetic, and understanding communication and support. So, as a friend or relative, I want to help you understand how a parent perceives judgements, expectations, and support from the people around them.
At its foundation, judgement is the evaluation of evidence needed to make a decision. Informally, the term judgement is often used to explain opinions expressed as facts. A person's judgement of another comes when they form an opinion or conclusion about that person based on the information available to them. As humans, we judge and are judged by others every day. Despite the connotation of the word, not all judgements are negative. You can examine the information available to you and perceive that someone is happy and healthy, but the trick is to remember that what you see is not always the full picture. Rarely, do we get the full evidence needed to make informed, accurate, and fair judgements about other people.
As a friend and relative of a parent navigating pregnancy after loss, you are going to observe and process a lot of information. As a result, you will likely form opinions and come to conclusions about how your friend or relative is coping and processing. You may see or hear things that cause you to question whether or not he or she is navigating the complexities of pregnancy after loss well. You may think of how you would handle this experience differently if it were you and not them. These are normal human responses, but you have an obligation to sensitivity, respect for the experience that is not yours, and empathy to the person you are supporting.
You are allowed to have your own opinions about how a parent is grieving, celebrating, or navigating pregnancy after loss, but do not mistake that as the right to express that opinion to the parent themselves.
Grief shaming happens quite frequently, and you might be surprised to know the number of parents who have experienced it. This is especially true in pregnancy after loss. From outward appearances, it looks as though the parents have moved on, ready to look to the future. While this is partially true, it does not mean that they do not still carry the past. Parents often feel caught between the fear that a new baby will cause the world to forget the one they lost and the worry that people will question their love for the new child if they still carry grief for the child they lost. It can be a very isolating and difficult experience to navigate pregnancy after loss and all that it brings while also worrying about how the world will perceive you and speak to you.
What may feel like a well-intentioned and helpful insight on your part can actually further isolate a parent who already feels like no one understands their experience. Statements like "be present," "be grateful," "but this pregnancy is different, normal, or healthy," "just focus on this pregnancy or baby," imply a sense of not doing enough or not being grateful or present enough for the gift of pregnancy after loss. These statements are dismissive of the very real effects of trauma, grief, and fear.
Grieving parents, especially grieving parents who are learning to live in the tension that exists in parenting in the midst of grief, need understanding, support, and love long before they need advice. You cannot know what you have not experienced. You cannot know how another grieves and needs to grieve because it is a highly individualized experience. So, before you ever offer advice, sit with a grieving parent. Let them share their emotions and experiences. Create a safe space for vulnerability. Seek to learn and understand. Acknowledge the limits of your understanding. Think carefully about your words and their impact. Then, and only then, offer advice empathetically and with thought for how it will affect the grieving parent.
Remember that strength does not always look how you think it would. There is strength in brokenness. There is strength in expressing emotions. There is strength in vulnerability. Being strong does not mean never grieving. It means waking up every single day and facing a world in which your child is not present. Strength is entering into a pregnancy after loss when you know-truly know- the stakes. These parents know the precious and not promised nature of pregnancy, and to willingly enter into that again is the definition of strength. So, remember that they are doing the best they can to carry the weight of grief and loss while learning to make room for a future with a new child.
An expectation is a belief that someone should be a certain way or do and say certain things. In grief and pregnancy after loss, expectations- whether they are the ones parents place on themselves or the ones the world places on the parents- can be isolating and emotionally detrimental.
Like with judgements, expectations are not always negative. Setting expectations can help protect from disappointments and foster healthy relationships, but when we prescribe expectations to another person, we can encounter issues. Clearly communicated expectations- in normal circumstances and relationships- are good. After all, how healthy and functional could marriages and friendships be if we had expectations of the other person but never communicated them? But, when you are navigating expectations and relationships with people facing pregnancy after loss, expectations have to be treated differently.
As the friend or relative of the parent, I encourage you to not have expectations of the parent. Pregnancy after loss, like grief, is an overwhelming and consuming process. The person you love and are supporting may struggle to balance friendships and relationships outside of their significant other, any children they may have, the child they lost, and the child who is yet to be born. They may avoid you, not respond to text messages, and say no to invitations to dinners, baby showers, or other activities. If you have the expectation that your friend or relative is the same as they were before the loss or the pregnancy after loss, you may be disappointed, angry, or hurt by their lack of relationship and response to you. Know that the parent appreciates you and that you have continued to reach out. They just may not be able to respond or engage how they would have before or how they would want to right now.
This is not a value judgement of you or your importance to the parent. It is just a part of the consuming nature that is pregnancy after loss. Continue to reach out and offer invitations to events and activities. Just protect yourself by not placing expectations. Support the parent by following up communication or invitation with statements like, "it is okay if you don't or can't respond right now" or "there are no expectations that you attend this event. I just wanted to include you." There will come a time when your friend or relative is able to engage more in the relationship. Just be patient and give the parent the benefit of the doubt.
It is also important to not place expectations- even inadvertently- on how your friend or relative should act or feel. Remember that there is no perfect or right timeline for getting pregnant after loss. No one but the parents and their medical care team get to decide when is too soon, too late, or just right. There is no perfect or right timeline for announcing their pregnancy. This announcement may come earlier or later than you might have expected or would have done yourself. Some parents find comfort and support in announcing their pregnancy from the moment they find out because the idea of people knowing about their child helps them navigate the fear of losing that child. Other parents need to keep the news to themselves until they have reached or passed certain milestones. Keeping the news quiet allows them the time to process, wrap their minds around this pregnancy, and navigate the fear and worry that comes with pregnancy after loss.
There are also no right or perfect emotional responses to pregnancy after loss. Every day will be new and different for the parents. Some days will be full of anxiety and fear. Other days, the parents might be overcome with grief and yearning for the child they lost. Other days, the parents may feel free to be joyful and excited for the new baby. Remember that these parents are still grieving. They are still navigating a range of emotions. Trauma and fear can make emotions, behaviors, and reactions unpredictable, even to the person experiencing them, so be careful of expecting a parent to be a certain way, say certain things, or do certain actions.
Finally, help parents navigate their own expectations of themselves. Remind them to have patience, empathy, and understanding for themselves. Encourage them to hold space for their emotions and experiences. Encourage them to set healthy and positive expectations for themselves like self-care, communication, and acceptance of support.
As the friend or relative of a grieving parent, you are well-versed in supporting them through their pregnancy and loss of their child. You are important, precious, and valued by the parents because you experienced this process with them. You saw them, loved them, and supported them in the worst, most devastating experiences of their lives. You are a gift, and you were given a gift when the parents invited you into their beautiful and broken experiences. As these parents begin to navigate pregnancy after loss, you are needed and valued. Who better to celebrate with than the people who they grieved with? You were there for the grief, and now you get to be there for the joy.
As the network of support, do not assume that these parents do not need or want support. Do not assume that they have a lot of support around them. Reach out and ask. Supporting parents in pregnancy after loss is not that different than supporting them in pregnancy continuation and loss. The GRIEF model, which stands for give, remember, internalize, empathize, and follow up, still applies. Give your time and tangible support through meals and errands. Remember and speak the name of the baby they lost. Internalize this process by knowing your capacity, limits, and boundaries. Empathize by entering in and sit with the parents in their experience. Follow up and check in regularly. For more information about the GRIEF model for supporting parents, read our post found here.
There are ways to support parents in pregnancy after loss that are unique to this experience. Help parents create memories and find joy in the new life by offering to throw a shower for this baby. Encourage the parents to take maternity pictures and include all of their children in the experience. Support the parents as they learn to bond with this new child by listening to their fears and validating their feelings. They may be trying to self-protect throughout the pregnancy, but know that the parents really do know that there is nothing that protects from the pain of this kind of loss. They know that if something happened in this pregnancy, too, they would be devastated. But, often the idea of delaying announcing the pregnancy, finding out gender, naming the baby, nesting or decorating a nursery can feel like self-protection. These are normal reactions, so validate them, and find ways to encourage the parents to bond with and prepare for this new child when they are ready.
You can support parents by encouraging them to seek counseling and specialized support as needed throughout the pregnancy. Pregnancy after loss can bring up old emotions, triggers, and trauma from their past experience, and there is nothing wrong with seeking support from professionals. Individual counseling can be incredibly helpful for parents learning to navigate the delicate balance of grief and joy. Support groups, online groups, and peer support can be powerful tools for connection and validation. For more information about counseling and specialized support, read our post found here
Friends and relatives, thank you for entering in and caring well for the grieving parents in your lives. Never underestimate the gift your support is in the midst of loss, grief, and pregnancy after loss. As you walk alongside parents navigating a new season in their lives, be mindful of your words and actions. Give parents the freedom to grieve and celebrate without judgement. Give parents the permission to be wherever they are in the process without placing expectations. Offer continued support as they experience the beautiful and broken process of pregnancy after loss.