A friend of mine just lost a baby during the sixth month of pregnancy.
She and her husband are devastated, and spending time with them has brought back hard memories of my own: On two separate occasions, I delivered babies during the second trimester because they had died in utero. I’ve written about those losses before, but I feel compelled to do so again in an effort to help others know how to respond when someone they love faces a failed pregnancy.
It would be wrong to suggest that all women feel exactly the same way when fetal demise occurs. Feelings can run the gamut from sorrow to rage to possible relief, depending on the individual and the circumstances of the pregnancy. And, in fact, no one should tell a woman how she ought to feel about what has happened. It’s her experience. She gets to feel how she feels. Period. End of story.
In my case, I was completely blindsided both times. I’d heard the babies’ heartbeats. I’d felt them move beneath my ribs. I’d seen them on the ultrasound. As far as I was concerned, they were already part of our family. And then one day? No movement. No life. Nothing.
The first time it happened, I was filled with a deep sadness and an unsettling anxiety. How could something like this have happened in the womb — the one place where a baby should be the safest? The second time it happened, I was consumed with disbelief that quickly morphed into a white-hot anger. Really? This was happening again? What kind of sick cosmic joke was this anyway? All these years later when I think of holding that second child (red-skinned as a baby bird), I can still feel the sharp bite of that old fury.
How then to approach someone in this situation?
The first thing to remember is that the mother may be in a physically weakened state after losing a baby. If she wants to see family and friends, short visits and phone calls are better than long ones. Do make genuine offers to help — does she need meals? Help with other children? — and then let her tell you what she wants.
Of course it’s always difficult to know what to say during hard moments. Sometimes in an effort to comfort, people will make remarks that are well-meant but not particularly helpful. I’ve done it myself. In general, however, a simple "I’m so sorry" works better than assurances that everything will be OK or that a couple will have more children or that there’s probably a good reason why the pregnancy ended.
It’s also wise for people to avoid random speculation about what went wrong. Logical or not, the mother may already be experiencing guilt over the loss, and she’ll probably feel like she’s somehow being blamed for what’s happened.
When offering comfort, people should also consider the father where appropriate. When we lost our babies, my husband appreciated those individuals who offered him their condolences, too.
Which brings me to the most important thing one can do — acknowledge what has been lost. In my case, I desperately wanted people to understand that these were my babies. Children I wanted. Children I would have taught to speak and walk and sent to kindergarten and signed up for tee-ball teams and comforted and scolded and fretted over when they learned to drive and missed when they finally grew up.
Children I was willing to make room in my life for.
In the end, my husband and I acknowledged those children by naming them and claiming them and making them a living part of our family’s story. I know my young friend and her husband will find ways to do the same.
In the meantime, I wish them peace.
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