Culture & Entertainment

Infant loss: How to help a friend who's lost a baby

By: Jennifer Gruden
Canadian Living
Culture & Entertainment

Infant loss: How to help a friend who's lost a baby

By: Jennifer Gruden
Yesterday was my eldest child, my daughter Emily's 9th birthday - or would have been had she survived. Emily was the victim of a nuchal cord accident - the umbilical cord was around her neck and although we were in a hospital we were not able to have a c-section in time. She was resuscitated and despite the best efforts at both the delivering hospital and the Sick Kids NICU she died four days later. Losing an infant can be a very strange place to be. For a long time -- until I was visibly pregnant with Noah actually -- my husband and I called ourselves "parents without portfolio," because we had had gone through at top speed welcoming a baby into the world, making critical decisions about her care, sharing her baptism with family and saying goodbye. But no one else had gotten to meet her. And a lot of people had no idea what to say - and I wouldn't have either. There isn't an Infant loss: How do I help my friend who's lost a baby manual anywhere. So here's what was helpful to me. Be sure, however, to keep my first point front and centre: 1. Keep in mind everyone grieves differently Some people want to be left alone, others don't want to be left alone, and a lot of us waffle between the two. Remember that your friend or sister or cousin is still her unique self and you'll largely be okay. 2. Be sparing with phrases like "everything happens for a reason." It is absolutely fine to believe whatever you want to believe. And if the bereaved parents express this sentiment themselves, then that is just fine. They may or may not find particular meaning in their loss. That said, both for me and for others I have spoken with over the years, this kind of statement can be really hurtful to hear at the time. And it seems to be something people say. For me, I knew that friends or relatives who said this kind of thing were really trying to say "hang in there, Jenn, because I care about you." And that is great. But at the time pretty much every ten minutes my brain was asking why did this have to happen to my baby, and the answers "God never gives us more than we can handle" or "everything happens for a reason" were entirely insufficient. I needed to feel the unfairness of it. What can you say? "I'm sorry" was always enough for me. And a hug. It helped me the most when people were willing to just be in the moment with me. I actually found it most comforting when people said they didn't know what to say (in a way that did not make me feel like I had to comfort them) -- good, because I didn't either! 3. Give practical help Of course many of us show up with a great comfort dish - and let me tell you, that food made with love sustained my husband and I. Lots of people were ready to help and asked us how, but to be frank: I had no idea. But here are the things I remember: Our neighbours mowed our lawn several times. A good friend did laundry (although for me, it has to be a pretty good friend!) A family member took our car in for maintenance for us. Help with any of that life stuff was huge. Something I've been asked is whether to offer to help pack up the baby's things. This is really individual, and I would not ask or offer unless you are very close to the bereaved parents. I left our nursery intact for a long time and it became my place to sit and heal. Other people may not want to come home to everything. 4. Help make a mark on the world I almost hesitated to put this on the list but I think it is universal enough to include it. One of the things I found so hard was that Emily had a huge impact on me, but very little mark on the world. I had a number of very kind people donate money in my daughter's name in a way that she would be remembered - she has a kilometre of the Trans-Canada trail, for example. For me, that was huge.  5. Keep in touch for the long term The first weeks of grief are awful, but for us anyway, we had a lot of support. It was about 6 weeks later, when most of our friends had understandably moved on, that I started to feel alone - but I wasn't ready to reach out. Infant loss can be really isolating. The people who thought to call me or invite me out for a cup of coffee or who lent me books and movies and let me know why they were thinking of me were incredibly helpful. 6. Be sensitive - but don't make assumptions One conversation I remember was from a relative who asked if we would still like to be invited to a cousin's first birthday party. Yes! And no! And yes! We went, because we were so happy to have this member of our family celebrated. And it was a little hard, but that was right for us. At a different time, we might have said no. What I appreciated was that our grief was acknowledged, but I was given the choice -- my cousin did not assume that it would be better to leave us off the invitation list. 7. Be patient For me it took about a full year to start to feel like I had real ground under me again. And I know I was sometimes irritable, or cancelled plans at the last minute, or failed to return phone calls on time. I could often function pretty normally, and I even had a lot of fun the summer after my loss. But there were other days where I just had to sit down and let myself experience the fact that all the things I had planned  -- walks with baby in the stroller; bonding over mat leave with a friend -- had been rewritten without my permission. I wasn't quite myself for a long time, and even now I need a little extra TLC in March. There aren't really right or wrong answers, but these are the things I think I would have liked people to know. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!  
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Infant loss: How to help a friend who's lost a baby

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