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***Trigger warning – neonatal and child death***
On 31 May 2018, I became someone’s mum. My daughter, Dorothy, was born at 11:30am, weighing 2lbs 7oz. She was 13 weeks early (taking after neither of her chronically late parents), and while she was the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen, she was also very, very poorly. Despite the best efforts of an outstanding NHS team, she died soon after she was born, as we told her how much we loved her. I am indescribably sad. Honestly, I can’t find the words to tell you how sad – and I’ve tried.
Sadly, my husband and I aren’t alone in our grief, even in our friendship group. One of my closest friends lost her little boy, Miller, in January 2016. He was born sleeping at 36 weeks, and she and her husband (two of the strongest people I know) set up a charity, Miller’s Stars, to help parents who find themselves in a similar position. According to Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, 15 babies die before, during or shortly after birth every day. I understand from both sides how difficult it is to know what to say. I’ve found myself speechless when one of my loved ones was in unspeakable pain, and I’ve watched friends and family scramble for words to comfort me and my husband as we face up to our own loss.
So, what do you say to someone when they’ve lost a child?
Everyone is different. I’d never dream of speaking on behalf of all bereaved parents, but this list is some of the things I’ve found useful, comforting, helpful, or – in some cases – the opposite.
Say something. Say (almost) anything
You might think you don’t have the words, you’ll mess it up, or make them sadder. That’s incredibly unlikely. It’s more likely that they’ll be comforted to know you’re thinking of them. And believe me, as someone currently on the receiving end of this, it hurts like hell when you hear absolutely nothing from someone you thought was a friend. If these are proper friends of yours (y’know, more than a Facebook acquaintance), say something, even just ‘thinking of you’.
Ask about their child
I understand the impulse to ignore the fact they had a child. Your friend is grieving. Perhaps you want to spare them more pain. Maybe you’re worried you’re going to make one or both of you uncomfortable. Unless they explicitly tell you they don’t want to talk about it (and, in my experience, they will), please mention their child. I carried Dorothy for seven months. I felt her kick, and talked to her about how much Doctor Who she was going to watch, before pushing and shoving her into the world. She was a real person, she was here, and you’re damn right that I’d like to talk about how beautiful she was. And if you want to see a photo, please ask. I wait for people to approach me because I don’t want to upset them, but I can assure you that I’m armed and ready to bore you with a seemingly endless stream of photos of my daughter and thoughts on whether she looked like me or my husband.
Let them steer the conversation
Some days, I want to talk about Dorothy nonstop. Others, I’d rather talk about (almost) anything else. So I’ll steer the conversation in a direction I’m comfortable with, or if I’m in a group, I might just sit back and let everyone else talk for a change. Don’t make a big deal about it (and for God’s sake, don’t press the point), but let your friend tell you what they want to talk about.
Remember it’s ok for you to be sad too
It’s not just the parents who have lost a child – whether it’s the child of a friend or family member, you’re grieving too. That’s normal, and please don’t feel that you can’t show emotions in front of the parents. This comes with a caveat – don’t expect the parents to emotionally support you. It’s not up to them to make this ok, or to minimise the pain they’re in; please don’t act as though they can.
Please don’t complain about your child
I know. Children can be amazing, frustrating, brilliant, annoying, cute and teeth-grindingly tedious (usually all within one afternoon), but please try to talk to someone else about all the ways your children are irritating you. I want to sympathise, but as I’d give almost anything to be surviving on 30 minutes of sleep a night, worrying about nurseries and at what stage I should be applying for a school place, I can’t.
Don’t say ‘I know how you feel, because…’
Unless you, too, have lost a child (and I am so, so sorry for your loss if this is the case), you don’t. I understand the need to empathise, but saying this is unhelpful and – for me – rage-inducing.
If in doubt, ask
Losing a child is horrible. Watching a friend or family member deal with the aftermath of losing a child is horrible, and I can only speak for myself (and occasionally, my husband). It’s difficult to navigate what to say (and steer clear from). If you’re not sure what to do or say, ask the parents how you can help, and what they find useful.