How to Support A Friend Through Pregnancy Loss
Loss and grief are an inevitable part of the human experience, yet modern culture does little to not only prepare us for when we lose someone important to us but also when someone close to us suffers a loss. We tend to only learn what grieving means as it unfolds and shapeshifts into every corner of our own lives. As observers of grief, we often feel ill-equipped to find the right words, actions, or mentality to approach someone who has suffered a loss. The critical thing to remember is that you can’t be good at grief, whether you’re the one experiencing it or the one trying to hold a hand. It’s a non-linear process, a journey that spans a lifetime, and all anyone can do is try their best, every day.
Losing a pregnancy adds some unique layers to the process of grieving and loss. It can more easily be misunderstood, discredited, or forgotten by others because the person lost was only in the process of becoming a living reality. Not only are the parents going through the emotional and mental process of losing their child, but the mother’s body must physically “lose” the pregnancy. She may not have a living baby, but she still had to give birth. No matter the gestation, this takes a significant toll on her body for weeks and often months after the loss.
LEARNING THROUGH EXPERIENCE
When I lost my first baby at 23 weeks, my friends and family quickly split into two lines. There were the people who were devastated for us, felt helpless, and sat in the shit with us anyway, helping us navigate this awful reality. Then there were the people who were devastated for us, felt helpless, and slowly receded into the background. Now that I feel like I can breathe again, I realize that no one in our life was any more or less a friend because of how they responded to the death of our baby, but a group of them must have felt somehow braver, or more confident to at least try and figure out how to support us in our grief.
Maybe these people who stepped up had lost someone in their own life and remembered what made them feel cared for. It’s also possible some of them had specific skills or strengths they knew could benefit someone in our position. Whatever the reason, I learned that if one day the worst thing imaginable happens to someone I love (which it will), even if I feel afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, doing something is infinitely better than doing nothing.
DON’T ASK, JUST DO!
Doing something can look like a lot of different things. It can be the friends that materialize at your house often and never empty-handed who sit with you, listen to you, cry with you, draw baths for you. It can be the sister who gets you out of the house and makes you laugh a lot because you seriously need to get out of the house and find something to smile about again. It can be the folks that drop everything and get on a plane so they can sweep your home, water your plants, and cook you a decent meal. It’s the consistent text and email check-ins from people who allow you to feel free to write a small novel for every reply.
Simultaneously, some people wanted to let us know they were there, they just didn’t know how. Hearing the always well-intended “let me know how I can help you” put all the responsibility on me, the grieving person, to understand what I needed. I had no idea what would get me through the next minute, hour, or day without my baby. Those who simply took action by dropping off groceries, sending flowers, holding space for me to talk, or giving me a massage were always welcomed and gratefully received.
A COLLECTION OF VOICES
In efforts to bridge this gap between those who want to respond to their friend who is experiencing a loss, and those who find a way to do it, I collected testimonies from women who have lost babies. I asked these courageous women to tell me how friends supported them during and after their loss in ways that made a noticeable difference. Even though supporting a friend going through a pregnancy loss can’t have a “one size fits all” approach, I am hopeful that hearing what made a difference, however small, for these amazing women will inspire you to step up for your friend if the day ever comes. Also remember, it is never too late to tell someone how sorry you are that they lost their baby, or send a Mother’s Day card to your friend who lost a pregnancy. She will never tire of knowing she and her baby are remembered.
The times I felt most supported during my pregnancy losses was when my friends did two things. First of all, they made it clear that they would be available to listen, talk, and process when and if I wanted to while also respecting my lack of social energy. Everyone handles grief differently. As an introvert, I needed the space to be alone, while also believing that my friends cared enough to listen when I was ready. Secondly, I really, really appreciated thoughtful gifts delivered or left on my doorstep. Even the smallest things: soup or a jar of flowers felt like a big hug when I didn’t have the bandwidth for a physical embrace or even conversation.
When people openly acknowledged what I’d been through without me having to say anything (rather than treating it as an awkward elephant in the room). A big hug, and an ‘I’m so sorry’ go a long way. After that, take a cue from the person as to whether they want to talk about it or not, but don’t ignore it.
When people sat with me in my grief and pain, without trying to fix me. My best friend hit the nail on the head when in reply to my message telling her that I was bleeding again, she just replied “fuck,” and then “what do you need?” (to which I replied “chocolate”). Miscarriage can be a fairly draining physical ordeal, so soups and stews are good too. Feed your friend’s drained body, as well as their drained spirit.
Validate the feelings of grief. I was so surprised by the enormity of grief I felt the first time—it’s a significant loss. Treat that person the way you’d treat someone who just lost a family member. There’s no need to get into the details as to how human an embryo [or fetus] is. Grief is grief is grief.
Be mindful about possible triggers without excluding the person. I have so appreciated all the friends over the years who have had me as a big part of their children’s lives, inviting me to baby showers, births, birthday parties, placenta plantings, etc. At the same time, my friends have always given me space to stay away if I haven’t been able to cope. On those dark days when I’ve stayed under a blanket rather than attend a baby shower, I’ve felt so loved and supported just because I knew wholeheartedly that my friends were loving me in my absence, and not judging me for not attending.
I had post-traumatic stress following a more complicated miscarriage. The effects have lasted years. The research also shows that a strong social support system and social validation of grief and loss are protective factors against depression and post-traumatic stress. Don’t expect your friend to be okay after a few days, weeks, months, or even years. Be alongside them wherever they are, and if they’re really struggling, support them to seek professional help.
When in doubt, chocolate.
Having lost 2 babies, almost 7 years apart, what I needed from my close friends was very different for each loss. I miscarried my first baby at 12 weeks. Since it was my first pregnancy and miscarriage, I was scared. I needed reassurance that everything was going to be okay and that I could, in fact, have another baby. I needed to ask the same questions over and over, and I needed my friends to reassure me over and over. And they did. They kept my hopes up until I became pregnant again.
My second loss, 7 years later, was a much different situation. I was now a mother to a wonderful six-year-old son, and having another baby was a decision that I mulled over with my husband for over two years. When we got pregnant the first time we tried, it felt like the universe was telling us this was meant to be. My 20-week anatomy scan told us a different story. We were faced with the news that our sweet baby boy was not compatible with life, and we had to make the gut-wrenching decision to end our pregnancy at 22 weeks. After lots of thought and consideration, we made the hard decision not to try again.
The hope I had in my heart after my first loss was not there for my second loss. I mostly confided in one friend, and she was wonderful. She grieved with me, she let me vent, she vented for me, she validated my decisions, she asked about my feelings, she often texted to check in, she even made me feel okay to laugh; which was one of the best things, because it made me feel like myself again. Each pregnancy loss is so unique, and each person’s journey after that loss is as well. Losing a baby is very personal, if your friend comes to you for comfort and support, you are probably already doing all the right things.
Losing our son was the most painful and isolating experience. I found comfort in the friends who asked to hear his birth story and cried through it with me. Some other friends showed support by bringing meals and household items, so we didn’t have to brave the stores. I was living overseas at the time, and my best friends sent us international care packages with local items from home and handwritten cards expressing their love for our sweet boy and me.
It felt good to receive flowers from friends months afterward, and around the anniversary of our loss, just to know we weren’t forgotten. I imagine it would also be nice to be remembered many years on, as well as on tough days like Mother’s Day and other holidays or even “just because.” It’s easy to say the wrong thing, but you can’t really go wrong with flowers or plants.
We lost our first baby at 14 weeks. Some friends cooked a HUGE home-cooked meal with homemade cookies and fresh flowers. They simply gave us a big hug, told us they loved us and left. They brought another few meals later on, but knowing that we didn’t have to discuss it with them was so freeing!
I had friends who sent me flowers and notes. It made me feel less lonely. It was my first time ever getting pregnant after years of trying.
My husband’s best friend gave each of us a pair of beautiful walking shoes to walk off the grief. Every time we would put them on, it was like we were doing it in honor of our baby. It really helped.
A friend came and watched Riverdale with me. Trashy TV was my lifesaver for just being able to switch my brain off which I needed so much, but it was nice to have company. The main thing friends did was just be there with messages, donuts, or to listen when I needed to talk about it.
It’s all a bit of a blur, but a standout moment was when a friend from San Diego (I live in Detroit), after saying I just want someone to feed me, sent her mother to the grocery store and dropped off bags of groceries and prepared food. I cried like a baby. I felt so heard and cared for.
What I needed more than anything after losing my daughter was space to talk about what had happened and how I was feeling. My brain felt like it was spinning for weeks, on overload from the trauma of what had happened, and I just needed to get it out constantly. I needed to process. Friends who gave me an open door policy to text, call, or show up anytime I needed to let the floodgates of my thoughts and feelings open were my liferafts. Pregnancy loss is so fucking lonely. You’ll never “bother” your friend by checking in. Don’t be afraid to bring up the baby your friend lost because you don’t want to “remind” her. She will never forget and will be grateful someone else is thinking of her baby, too.
Author Bio Emily is a freelance writer, creative director, and podcast producer based in the Pacific Northwest. She has spent her career so far working passionately for woman-owned brands including Elizabeth Suzann and Local Milk. In her off hours, she’s likely working on what she hopes will be her first book, a “tragicomedy,” about her experience losing her first baby.