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Things not to say to parents grieving miscarriage or infant loss

With October being Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month, I think it is important to acknowledge how hard it can be to know what to say to a mother or father who has suffered a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. You might be tempted to remain silent on the subject for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing sadness, but in reality many parents who have gone through this experience feel that silence from friends and family is far worse when it comes to acknowledging their grief.

So when it comes to offering support to a friend or family member in this scenario, most often the best thing to say is that you acknowledge and respect their pain and (if true) that you cannot imagine what they are going through if you’ve never experienced it. It also might be a good idea to avoid any of the following comments, no matter how innocently you think they may sound. Parents who have suffered this kind of loss have said that these kinds of comments have only hurt more than they have helped:

“But you never even knew this baby.”

It might be true that they never had the chance to hear their baby giggle or teach him or her to walk, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know their infant. Many parents start to have hopes and dreams for their children long before they born, wondering who they will look like and what personality traits they will inherit. So to say that the parent of a miscarried or stillborn baby never really knew him or her disrespects the relationship that probably started right when they found out they were expecting.

“It was meant to be this way.”

So often this is said so that a mother or father won’t place any guilt on what they might have done differently to avoid this outcome, but it is often not received with that meaning. A grieving mother may not be able to understand how she could ever be meant to feel this kind of pain, even though you have the best of intentions by saying this. 

“You’re so lucky that you already have a child.”

Having an older sibling does nothing to replace the child that they will never be able to hold in their arms. If anything, it can add another complex layer of guilt with the idea that your living child will never be able to know this sibling. 

“It was so early in the pregnancy so it shouldn’t be as hard to deal with.”

Some people think if a woman suffers an early miscarriage that it should somehow be easier to “get over” than a full term stillbirth, for example. This may well be true for some people, but not all, and assuming or suggesting that can be very hurtful to parents who don’t feel this way. 

“Just think how soon you can try for another.”

While it can sometimes be helpful to hear that a recent pregnancy loss will not impact future fertility, this is usually a conversation best left between couple and their doctors. The reality is that they will never be able to have this baby again, and that can’t be replaced by another pregnancy.

“It’s been a few months — you should have moved on by now.”

Who is to say how long grief lasts? 

“You’re lucky that you can even get pregnant.”

This might be true, but it doesn’t take away the fact that a baby was lost in the process.

“You shouldn’t be so sad/angry/happy.”

Grieving parents have the right to any emotion they like: sadness at what was lost, anger that it happened to them, and even relief (some parents who have a babies with a medical condition incompatible with life have expressed feeling relieved when their babies passed so they didn’t need to suffer anymore). They should not be told how to mourn “properly.” 

“Oh, don’t celebrate her birthday. It’s too sad and awkward.”

Many parents who have lost a baby share one common fear: that their baby will be forgotten. Some families will want to keep a baby’s memory alive by acknowledging his birthday or other meaningful days (such as the day he would have been due). Ask how your friends wants their baby to be remembered, and if they express that celebrating a birthday would be meaningful to them, then do so, but don’t move on if you think it’s “been long enough.” For them, this day will always be special.

“Don’t keep talking about it, otherwise you’ll never be able to get past it.”

This is similar to the point above in that it can certainly be healthy to continue to talk about a lost child. Asking friends to stop bringing it up because it is too sad does not give them much credit and does not respect their need to grieve. In reality, no parent ever really gets passed a loss, and being a listening ear when they need it is a priceless gift.

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About Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, Bundoo OB/GYN

Dr. Jennifer Lincoln is a board-certified generalist obstetrician/gynecologist and attending physician in Portland, Oregon. She primarily works on labor and delivery and has recently been certified as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.

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