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May 10, 2017

We’re going to visit a more heavy topic for today: Child loss.

I don’t go here often. It’s a hard topic- both for you and for me. Yet this is a very real part of my life- something that hits me every time someone asks how many kids I have (I hesitate, still, and then usually say “two” with a forced smile while thinking three in my head). It pops up whenever I fill out forms for my kids that ask about their siblings, and crosses my mind often whenever I see four year olds running around and laughing and playing and growing. I miss mine.

I can usually brush away any heavy thoughts within moments. Usually. I was once told that I’m very good at compartmentalizing- I guess this is a strength that has served me well. But there is one situation when I cannot simply push away the thoughts and realities of my experience, and this is when I come across another mother who is freshly experiencing the nightmare of losing a child.

It has happened a lot more than you might think. Child loss is more common than a lot of people seem to realize, mostly because it’s often a very personal and private thing. I think there are a lot of reasons to keep such matters private. It’s such a hard thing for a grieving family to talk about child loss with others, and it’s different in every setting. Talking with family is different than interfacing with coworkers, and all of that is different than being with your everyday friends, while you act still differently with your larger circle of friends… not to mention social media.

Even interacting with complete strangers becomes a cause for anxiety- what if the butcher remembers that I was pregnant and asks me about my baby? What do I tell them? What if I have a meltdown passing the baby section at Target in front of all these strangers? What if I run into one of my students? How do I explain to them why I don’t have a baby with me?

For every question or comment a normal pregnant mom gets upset or offended by (Can I touch your belly? Wow, you must be due any day now (when she’s not)! Are you carrying twins?? <Insert any variety of unsolicited advice about how to give birth or take care of a baby>), add a plethora of mixed emotions, including devastation, sadness, and despair, and you’ve got a better idea of one thing a grieving mother dreads facing multiple times every day. Not to mention the raging pregnancy and postpartum hormones, which usually aren’t doing us any favors.

Should these matters be kept private?

In a lot of ways, it can be easier to go through these things quietly, with as few people knowing as possible. Sometimes, I wish we took that route. It would have certainly been easier in a lot of ways. But it also was kind of impossible for our situation. Since we found out five months into the pregnancy that our baby wasn’t going to live long, I had at least four more months of pregnancy to endure. It wasn’t like I could keep it a secret either. Not only was a protruding belly kind of a telltale sign that I was pregnant, but we had already announced on Facebook, so friends and family far and wide knew we were expecting.

I could either keep the sad news a secret and let everyone know about her passing after the matter… or I could let everyone know what was happening right now, so it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. Both would be hard. Of course. There’s nothing easy about carrying a dying baby. It was a matter of which would be less terrible. Personally, I couldn’t bear the thought of faking enthusiasm and delight, along with all the congratulations, smiles, belly pats, advice from moms, gifts, and anticipation from others… while knowing how it would all end once she was born. I’m really terrible at being fake, so I knew this couldn’t be an option, except at my job as a teacher. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my fourth graders that the baby we were all so excited about was not going to make it. I just couldn’t.

Anyway, I’m not here to tell the whole story, but to share ways that others made me feel really supported, loved, and cared for. Because I can imagine that on the other side of this, friends and families would feel at a loss for how to help or even talk to us. Before we endured this trial, I had no idea what it was like to even be pregnant, let alone to lose a child. There are still so many aspects of child loss I am unfamiliar with, as mine was a very unique situation. My suggestions are by no means universal. Please consider the personality and needs of the person you are hoping to support, and only take my list as “things to consider” as you try to figure out how to be a good friend to your grieving friend.

Part I: How to support a grieving family
or Ways others supported me 

Again, I am sharing things that I personally found supportive and helpful during my time of grieving. Please always be sensitive in how you approach a grieving family, and only take these as ideas for you to consider. I know I just said that, but it bears repeating!

Withholding judgment and counsel. Our first pregnancy was complicated. I had never heard of anything like it before I was pregnant, and most of my friends hadn’t either. I really appreciated it when friends offered sympathy and recognized what a difficult situation it was and what enormously difficult decisions we were facing.

On the other hand, I found that it was easy to feel hurt, judged, confused, and even bitter when people tried to tell me what I was supposed to do. Unless we had directly asked for their opinion, we had a strong preference not to have people weigh in on our situation. It added more voices and chaos during a time when we were trying so hard to discern God’s voice and already felt overwhelmed in a storm.

Thinking before speaking. If you’re not sure, don’t talk about it. This one is very, very tricky. I’m not even sure if I should say anything about this, because it’s personal to every person. Some people will want to talk about their grief a lot. Others, like me, would prefer to try to live life like normal and come face to face with it when we want to, without having to worry that every encounter with every acquaintance will be another serious and sad conversation. There were definitely restorative, healing, and beneficial words spoken, but there was a lot of heartfelt and supportive silence, too, and that was equally important to me.

Silence was preferred over most unsolicited advice. Silence was also preferred over someone telling me how sad this makes them, and requiring me to comfort themThrough my own experience on the grieving side, I also learned to appreciate when people still talked to me like a normal person. I think most people are so worried about saying the wrong thing that they just avoid the grieving person completely. I can understand that, and am still tempted to do that sometimes, but that usually leaves the grieving person feeling more lonely and isolated.

Not saying, “I totally understand.” There are a lot of helpful things to say, but this is not one of them. When we agonized over excruciatingly difficult decisions, it did not help at all to hear someone say, “Oh, I completely understand what you’re going through.” I trusted that their intentions were right and that they were trying to be empathetic, but I still felt like it minimized the magnitude of what we were experiencing. It was even worse if they followed up with an example of that situation that was “so similar,” especially if it really, really wasn’t. It trivialized our experience and, ironically, made me feel even more misunderstood.

While we’re at it, here are some other phrases that did not resonate with me: “God just needed another angel in heaven,” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” Never once did I receive those words and feel a sense of peace. Instead, those phrases sent me shaking my fist at God with a lot of unanswerable questions.

Sending a care package. A little after we shared our sad news of what would happen with our baby, I received a care package in the mail. It was from a college friend who I hadn’t seen in years. She lived in another state and sent a package full of local sweets and treats. It warmed my heart. The treats were lovely, and I could tell she really picked out things that she thought I would like.

More than that, I was touched to know that she was thinking about me, and was sending love in a tangible and real way. Through her gift, I heard loud and clear, “JoEllen, I am thinking of you and loving you right now. I’m not sure what to do, but I hope these treats will bring a smile to your face today.” And they did. In the midst of the saddest time of my life, I felt the strangeness of my smile muscles working and it was a good feeling.

Sheryl Sandberg shared, “I used to say to people, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ And I meant it- I meant it kindly. But it kind of shifts the burden to the person you’re trying to help: they’re supposed to tell you what to do… Instead of offering to do anything, just do something.”

One of my friends who endured loss had friends that delivered meals while her family recovered and grieved. Someone set up a cooler outside of their door and their friends simply dropped off meals there, in case they didn’t feel up to seeing people.

It goes without saying, but if you do offer to do something like this, be sure to follow through with it! Another friend had friends offer to help with no actual follow through, which she said “felt like someone was kicking us while we were already so down.” I can’t even imagine! 🙁

I’m not sure what speaks love in a tangible and real way to the person you are trying to reach out to. Maybe they’re not that into sweets or treats or food. Maybe they like movies or sunglasses or stuffed animals. I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that anyone experiencing deep sadness would appreciate knowing they are being very thought of, and this is one way to show that.

Sending a prayer. I received many cards during this time, both during my pregnancy and after our daughter passed away. I know it’s really hard to know what to write to someone who is grieving- I’ve been there, too. I appreciated every card and comment we received, knowing that someone cared enough to take the time to write it and send it.

Most people sent messages like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “We are praying for you.” I took each one to heart, because I really believed that people were praying for us, felt for us, and cared. But the ones that made an extra impact were the ones with actual prayers on them. The ones that allowed me a glimpse at the very real words they were penning to a very real God, starting with, Dear God, I pray for JoEllen and Ben as they…

There was power and strength and hope in these words. That’s what I needed during my moments of weakness.

I am actually not very confident at all with caring for hurting people. I always score low on “mercy” with those tests on spiritual gifts. But I know one thing that I can always do is to pray for them. And truly, I believe nothing is more powerful to heal a broken heart than God’s love and grace, so allowing the recipient to read the grace and love you are praying for them is a very powerful thing. A lot of things were said during this rough time in my life, but I remember feeling the most uplifted when someone was speaking words of prayer for us.

Helping with a memorial service. After my first daughter passed away, I lived in a world of grey. Everything was grey. It wasn’t even a sadness kind of grey- it became a numb, disconnected… dying kind of grey, interspersed with periods of intense grief. I wasn’t sure how to get past it, but holding a memorial service for her was an important step in moving forward with my life. It helped officially commemorate her life and also close the chapter on her life. It allowed me to move forward in the healing process, and not to simply exist in the reality of her death. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to have a service until the week before we had it. Looking back, I know that was the right decision in helping us celebrate her life and in taking a step forward towards healing.

During that time, I did not have the wherewithal to plan anything important, let alone an entire memorial service. My friends and church community were a godsend, and they honored her life and our friendship by helping us put together a beautiful and meaningful service for her. For some reason, I was really intent on making the program and slideshow myself. The slideshow I had already started before she was born, documenting the first ultrasounds, visits to the doctors, etc., so it was something I wanted to finish. The rest of the service my friends helped with- getting the church ready, decorations and flowers, setting up cards for friends to write encouragement on for us, setting up photos, taking care of refreshments, set up, and clean-up, playing music, speaking words of encouragement. Their actions spoke volumes to us of their love and care for us, and their loving hearts will always be treasured.

I do want to note that a memorial service is a relatively public and involved event. It is not for every family. My advice here is not for you to encourage your friend to hold one, or to even contact them about helping out with it. But if they reach out and want to hold one, then there are many ways they will need help, and perhaps you can be part of that help. It’s possible/likely they will not even know what part you played, but it is still meaningful.

I still remember that as we were leaving the service we held for our daughter, I saw someone cleaning up the refreshment area. I remember this not because I knew her well, but because I didn’t. She had just started attending our church a few weeks prior, so it was really surprising to me that she would not only attend our daughter’s service, but would stay and help clean up. I barely knew her at the time, but her willingness to serve our family this way meant a lot to me. Today, she’s one of my closest friends.

 

Part II: Considerations for parents experiencing child loss

If you are a mother or father experiencing child loss right now, whether it is a miscarriage, a complicated pregnancy, SIDS, or losing an older child, my heart goes out to you. I’m actually not a very good comforter myself, which is unfortunate because now that everyone knows my story, I am connected to grieving families more than ever before. I don’t have great words of wisdom or advice to offer you, but I thought I would share some things that I did that helped me.

Again, and I have to say it: I’m not sure if these are the right things for you. I’m sure we are different. Maybe I am more extroverted than you, or maybe I like writing more than you do. I don’t know, but if any of these suggestions resonates with you, maybe it’s something that could help.

Don’t be afraid to be specific with your preferences or what might help you. When it was apparent that we were going to have to share our sad news with everyone, we started a CaringBridge site where people could stay updated on our story. In one section, we were explicit in how we wanted people to help us:

There are enough unusual things going on in our lives, what with being pregnant, and now this. You would be a huge blessing to us by helping us maintain some semblance of normalcy in our lives– still hanging out, laughing, and smiling with us. Of course there will be times when we won’t be in the mood, but you don’t need to worry about that. It’s harder being around people who always approach us with sad faces and sympathy hugs.

Maybe it seems a little demanding to put forth such blatant requests of your friends, but if you’re anything like me, you’d rather know how to help than accidentally step on a grieving family’s toes.

One of my friends made a really important point that sometimes it’s hard for a grieving family to figure out how to deal with such a devastating loss and that it might be difficult to try to even identify what they might need or find helpful. This is so true, and I hope for any family going through such loss that they still feel loved and supported by those around them!

In our specific scenario, we were able to take a while to digest the tragic news before we made decisions on how to move forward. Once we knew what we needed from our community, I feel like this was a helpful message to send out, and others have confirmed that. Since then, a lot of people have mentioned to me that it was very helpful to know how we wanted to be approached. They were glad to know, for example, that we encouraged laughter and wanted to act normal. This way they would know they didn’t have to be serious and somber around us all the time. Whew.

The last thing we wanted was for everyone to step on eggshells around us or to timidly ask around the subject, not sure whether to ask about the pregnancy or act like nothing was going on. This took away that social anxiety, and I think it helped people simply to continue to interact with us. In the last few years, I have heard from a lot of mothers that people stopped talking to them during their period of grieving, and that they felt very lonely. I’m guessing that others simply didn’t know what to say or didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Still, it made a difficult season even more isolating for the mothers.

BUT maybe strong squeezes of love and many heartfelt conversations are just what you need. If that’s the case, ask for it! Ask for hugs, ask for people to be sad with you, and ask for the silent friend who is with you in your darkness. I asked for it, too, but only from a small handful of people. Since I didn’t need that from everyone else, I clearly asked them to treat us normally and they honored that request and supported us wonderfully in that way.

Consider using CaringBridge, or something similar to keep others updated on your situation. While Facebook is an option to update a large audience about what’s happening, I personally didn’t prefer it. If your account is like mine, you have a lot of people on there you haven’t talked to in over a decade, and some people who you literally can’t even remember meeting. It’s not really the place to share personal updates like this.

CaringBridge is a helpful resource so you can share your very personal updates with people who really care, and you also won’t have to repeat the same heavy updates in person all the time. It frees you up to talk about things with friends other than this hardest thing that you don’t necessarily always want to be talking and thinking about. Sometimes, it’s easier mass-communicating that through a website than talking through the details in person all the time. I also appreciated the encouragement, prayers, and hearts people left for us here. Their words of encouragement carried me through a lot of dark moments.

Consider starting a (very private) blog. If writing is an effective way for you to process things, you might even consider starting a blog. I started a very, very private one which I shared with a closer circle of friends, where I was able to more honestly share what I was going through without having to always talk about it in person. It saved me from having tearful conversations every day and from falling apart at church every week.

It also helped me not feel isolated during this difficult season. I felt a lot of things, but I rarely felt alone. I felt like my friends were there with me, experiencing my harder moments with me, and I believed that they would be prayer warriors on my behalf. That made all the difference for me, and sharing some of my most difficult struggles with them there worked for me. Since it was a very private blog, I didn’t worry as much about “oversharing” or editing things out. I just put my heart there and knew it would be safe, and that meant a lot to me at the time.

Consider taking photographs. The doctors made it clear that if she made it full term, our baby girl was going to have a very short life. Knowing this, I was desperate to make sure that we had some high quality photographs and video of whatever minutes we might get with her. I knew my memories would fade, but the photographs would be a lasting way to remember our precious girl for always.

I am so thankful to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an organization that provides the gift of remembrance photography for parents suffering the loss of a baby. Through them, I was able to connect with Shirley, an amazingly gifted photographer who volunteers with this organization. She ministered to us in a most powerful way, making herself available at a moment’s notice and driving quite a distance to wait at the hospital until our baby girl arrived. I had been worried that it might be strange having her there during such an intensely personal experience, but she exuded nothing but love, comfort, and peace. She is the closest thing to an angel I have ever known.

To this day, I am so grateful for the treasured photos of our darling daughter that we have proudly shared with others and continue to remember her by.

Go on a retreat. It felt like a weird thing to request at the time, but shortly after my first daughter’s passing, I felt this urge to get away from my life. The house I was pregnant in, the house I did not bring my child home to, the city where the hospital was in, the street that the mortuary was on, my shower, my grocery store- all of it. I wanted to escape and exist somewhere where I could feel released from the heaviness of processing and dealing with emotions and trying to move forward. We invited four of our closest friends to join us on a weekend trip in a cabin a few hours away, and we escaped our lives for that weekend.

To this day, Ben and I still fondly recollect that trip with our friends. It was one of the best we’ve ever had, actually. Maybe because the lightness and freedom in it contrasted so greatly with the heaviness and broken hearts that we faced in real life. I don’t know. But it was medicine to my spirit and gave strength to my bones. After that trip, I knew I could look at the days to come with a smile on my face, even as my heart continued to ache for my lost baby. It was incredibly freeing to be with people who knew us, wouldn’t judge us, would laugh with us, play with us, and let us be happy. And sad. Or whatever we needed to be.

Maybe that is a totally extroverted thing to do, I don’t know. If this idea doesn’t sound healing to you, toss it out. Maybe going on a personal retreat by yourself is what you need, or maybe staying home is exactly what is best for you. I just know that when the idea first crossed my mind, it seemed kind of wrong to be going on a trip when I was in the middle of grieving, but now I know it was absolutely one of the best decisions we made. I also feel better about it now that I think of it as a “retreat” for healing rather than a “trip” (which brings to mind feelings of vacation and entertainment). But I’m also trying to not care what the heck anybody else thinks about me as much, which brings me to my next point.

Don’t worry about what others will think about you. This one is interesting, because I wrote this post months ago and have been scared to post it because I’m STILL worried about what people will think. Ha. I have always struggled a lot with this, and it has rarely served me well. Especially in times of grief. Do what you need to take care of yourself and your family, and try not to weigh in what others will think so much. There’s enough to process and deal with during seasons of loss, and managing others’ opinions of you doesn’t need to be one of them.

.  .  .

It has been half a decade since I began to grieve the loss of my first child, and I don’t know whether that feels like a short time ago or a long one. But five years is five years, and I think it’s true that time helps heal (even if part of us doesn’t want it to). But there is always that first day, first week, first month, first year to endure, and I think there are ways to be supportive during this most difficult time. If you are looking to take the extra step in caring, then it is my prayer that God will redeem my experiences here to bring comfort to others who are hurting.

14 responses to “How to Support a Grieving Mother”

  1. Joanna says:

    Hi JoEllen,

    I’ve been a long-time reader of your blog and have many of your posts favorited so I can refer back to them. I’ve always been one of those annoying lurkers, but your post today really resonated with me, and I wanted to delurk and thank you for writing it. I am so sorry for your loss. Although I have never gone through your situation and cannot imagine how it might be, your post helped me see ways that I could help others in similar situations, and I am truly grateful for your insights. Thank you for tackling this difficult topic.

    • joellen says:

      Joanna, your comment means so much to me. Thank you! I appreciate that you read it and that you care so much to help others in similar situations. It means the world to us.

      Also, I know it’s hard to get over the hurdle and delurk (something I am also guilty of for other blogs haha) but I hope you will not be a stranger here anymore! :].

  2. Sharon Carroll says:

    Hello Joellen, Thank you for sharing your personal feelings and words with us all. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of our little angel in heaven. I will never forget your mom coming up to me at our angel’s service and just held my hand to her heart and looked into my eyes, saying “I know”. and…I knew she did. Even now, tears are coming but a heartfelt look comforted me. You are blessed by what you give and what returns from your family and friends. We love you.

    • joellen says:

      Dear Sharon, we love you and your family so much, too. It’s hard to believe what has transpired in both of our families in the last few years, but I am so glad we had each other to lean on. Now that I have a daughter, I can only begin to imagine how hard it must be to watch your own child go through this, too. <3.

  3. Becky Hart says:

    This was a brave post to write, and it was very helpful for me as a reader. The hardest parts of our lives truly teach us how and when to love and support others, don’t they? Thank you for sharing, and I’m sorry for the loss your family experienced.

    • joellen says:

      Thank you, Becky! I’m so glad you found it helpful and yes, I agree with you! Going through trials really does teach us how to better comfort and care for others. Thank you for your kind words ♥️.

  4. Robyn says:

    What a beautiful and necessary article. I too agree, that most friends & family have no idea of how to comfort you. By putting it out there directly it allows them to remain supportive. It’s easy to retreat when there is doubt. It was expressed to me, “That you know we love and support you”…yet at the time I had my doubts because many of them became invisible when they I needed them the most. Another strong point you addressed were the “dreaded universal, I think this is appropriate” phrases of sympathy. I NEVER appreciated a single one of them!! They came across as mechanical, not from the heart and simply did not lend any comfort at all. The were so very impersonal that I again doubted our relationship. I applaud you for not only sharing your pain, but also for your willingness to direct and help others by doing so. Thank you <3

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