It’s the word no mother ever wants to hear. It’s the experience no mother ever wants to live through or would wish on anyone. It’s the subject matter most people shy away from out of awkwardness and uncertainty.
In other words, total devastation and heartbreak for the mothers and couples that find themselves weaving through the earthquake-like cracks that unexpectedly show up in their lives. They have to sort through a myriad of emotions while creating a certain façade to present to “outsiders”.
Miscarriage/child loss can happen at any time and every mother’s experience is both similar and different. While some miscarriages happen before the pink cross shows up on a test strip, other mothers experience child loss just before the baby’s due date. No matter when it occurs, mothers have to handle and learn to cope with the loss in their own unique way.
However, for others attempting to offer and show their support, it can be a challenge to know exactly what to say or to truly understand what the mother is going through. So many people try and hope to be comforting and supportive, but this can be almost impossible when they really don’t know what the mother needs.
The following information was collected from over 25 women who lived through their own versions of child loss. These mothers shared their stories and answered questions in the hope that people would become more educated and knowledgeable about what a family might need when they experience this kind of loss.
The Grieving Process
Shock, devastation, and disbelief are the feelings that envelop a woman when she is told such news. Once she processes everything, it is not uncommon for her to become extremely withdrawn, isolated, angry, and even depressed. The suddenness and unpreparedness of such a loss can be traumatic and how each woman moves forward from that moment is different.
Women who already shared the news that they were expecting a baby now are faced with the burden of “untelling”. This is not something they want to do, but feel obligated to do. This can sometimes be detrimental for them, as they are forced to push aside their own emotions as they “update” family, friends, and co-workers. On the other hand, mothers have shared that they learned of others’ losses and had a more open dialogue with those moms.
Other women choose not to divulge their pregnancy news until they start to have “the bump”, or after the first trimester. If miscarriage occurs before this time, most women prefer to keep the loss to themselves and the handful of people they’ve selected to tell. They have their personal reasons for keeping quiet, but the most common reason is twofold. “People seemingly ignore it and it feels like they’re ignoring your pain,” Katie F. explained, a mom who has suffered multiple losses. “Or they try to smother you with pity and get so sad themselves that instead of being able to focus on my own path of grief, I have to spend time making other people feel better.” It’s common that a mother must process their own pain and move through the grieving process before they feel able to share their story. When they do open up, they feel they are finally ready to receive support and comfort. They also have the desire for people to know and acknowledge their child’s life, no matter how short it may have been. But getting to that place may take awhile. “Most of my desire to not share was avoiding that it happened,” explained Emilie G., “almost as if I didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen.”
Jaime W. had three miscarriages and shared another aspect of grief. “…I’ve learned coping mechanisms that help me ‘let go’ for my sanity. The grief was the easy part. It was the guilt and feeling like I failed my husband and my child.” This sense of guilt, while completely unwarranted, can affect many women. Even though they’ve done absolutely nothing to endanger the life of their child, they feel betrayed by their own bodies. “For whatever reason, my body had killed my baby, and I was trapped inside this murderous thing,” shared Jenny M. These thoughts and feelings don’t need to be explained; they just need to be understood by others wishing to comfort a mother. As a mother moves through her grieving process, they fade away in time.
It’s important to understand, particularly for family members, that pregnancy announcements will be very difficult for the mom. Social media has created a never-ending flow of information for us to consume. Many moms admit to being upset and hurt when they come across these pregnancy announcements. “My niece got pregnant right away,” said Kristin W., who lost her twins at 20 weeks. “I had to unfollow her on social media because it hurt too much to see her posts. I took it personally.” It can be almost impossible for women to feel happy for others at this point. Their own loss is still so fresh and poignant. It is not a personal, direct attack on the woman who is rejoicing in her pregnancy; rather, it’s an expression of their deep, inner sorrow of never being able to hold the lost child in her arms. In their minds are milestones, dates, ultrasounds, baby showers, and joy that become sad reminders of “what would’ve been”.
Statements to Avoid Saying
The expression of grief and loss can catch people off guard, especially when they aren’t expecting to hear it. Well-meaning statements of sympathy naturally seem to follow the news that a mother (and father) has lost a child. However, despite the good intentions of people, many of these words can actually add to the heartache, grief, and possible anger that mothers are experiencing. Most mothers eventually understand that these sentiments come from people who feel awkward after learning of the loss of a child but truly desire to help. While people attempt to offer their sympathy and condolences, words are said that actually do more harm than good. Following are actual statements and common sympathy clichés said to mothers that should be avoided:
- “You can try again.”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “It was for the best (indicating that something was wrong with the baby).”
- “At least you have your child(ren)” (again, insinuating that you really shouldn’t be as sad because you already have a child)
- “God has a reason and His plans are best (many women are not ready or able to hear these words. Some mother’s may not believe in God, while it may be too early for other mothers to hear this)
- “You’re young, you have your whole life ahead of you.”
- “At least it was early on and you weren’t farther along.”
- “This one must not have been meant to be.”
- “God has one more angel.”
- “Look at so-and-so, she lost a baby and now look at the beautiful kids she has.”
All of these statements fail to acknowledge the value of the life of the child a mother carried in her womb.
Katie F. expressed, “My children in my arms were a balm to me in my pain, but one human being doesn’t replace another or make up for another – each of my children is unique.” A mother would never consider the above statements as relief or explanation for why she will never get to hold her baby in her arms. And to suggest in any kind of manner that the life lost wasn’t “fit” for this earth or wasn’t “old enough” to incite grief is heartbreaking for mothers.
One mom gives the following advice: “When in doubt, picture yourself saying those things about the loss of a toddler. Suddenly, they sound very sordid.” This is a key thought to remember when expressing your sympathy to a mother and father who have lost their child. Any indication that their baby wasn’t valued “because something might’ve been wrong” or that “you weren’t farther along” can cause more pain to the parents.
Healing Actions and Words
Women can take comfort in words of solace that are offered at the appropriate time, yet many people are unaware of when that moment might be. In the initial aftermath of shock, there are few things said that supply any comforting feelings to a grieving mom. Rather, silence and a kind action can be far more effective than words.
Taking meals to a family that has lost a baby can be extremely helpful. Women go through different physical struggles during and after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Some women are still bleeding and experiencing morning sickness due to hormones, while others might be recovering from an actual delivery. Grief of this magnitude can also strip them of their appetites. Making meals and cooking can be difficult and the very last thing they feel up to doing. Bringing a meal or two (and maybe some frozen dinners) can be a huge relief for the mother, as it’s one less thing to burden her that day.
Having no expectations of the mother means a lot as well. Some mothers greatly appreciate an individual who will just sit with them and listen if they desire to talk about it. “She didn’t really do or say much. She was there,” remembered Sarah J. “She made me meals. She rented movies. She sat with me and just let me be quiet if that’s what I wanted. No pressure, no expectation, no obligation.” Allowing a woman to be herself in that moment, even if it’s uncomfortable, is vital. As a culture, we are not accustomed to silence. It’s filled with colors and sounds and words. It can be extremely difficult to not talk, yet the silent air and a loving, caring presence can often provide much more comfort than any words could.
However, many people might find it hard to not say anything when they hear this kind of sad news. Following are a handful of statements mothers have offered that were more helpful:
- “I’m so sorry. We will be praying for you.”
- “My thoughts are with you during this difficult time.”
- “If you need someone to talk to, I’m here to listen”
- “I’m sorry your child was taken from you too soon.”
- “Your child is loved.”
- “I’m sorry for what happened. I honestly don’t know what to say.”
Many moms agree that they truly don’t need words to begin with. Empathy, compassion, and above all – acknowledgement – are desired. This is hands-down the most important verbiage grieving mothers long for. Using the baby’s name in conversation is a powerful acknowledgment that this was a life and a person truly existed. This also opens the door for moms to be able to converse about their baby whenever the need should arrive. Naming their lost baby is a very meaningful experience for many parents, leading toward a sense of healing and closure.
It’s important to not ignore a miscarriage or pretend that it didn’t happen when conversing with the parents. Some mothers expressed offense and hurt. Simply stating loving concern and thoughtfulness to the parents is all that’s needed. “It hurt more when people pretended nothing had happened and expected me to just move on with my life,” shared a mother. “The few people who acknowledged this was a life lost, and my reaction to that was completely normal, helped me not feel so alone.”
Miscarriage/child loss can be an extremely isolating experience, particularly for a woman who has no friends who’ve been through it. A mother shared her feelings of anger and isolation: “I totally isolated myself and shut down for several months.” Mindy H. encourages would-be caregivers to “reach out again and again, even if you feel like the parent seems distant (and try not to get your feelings hurt if they are — most likely it is not at all a reflection of their feelings towards you, but is their grief).”
As time passes, mothers slowly begin their own personal healing. Unfortunately, time is also what causes other people outside the family home to slowly forget the parent’s pain and lost baby as the world continues to turn. The thing is, mothers never forget their babies. They will always be reminded of birthdays never celebrated, milestones never met, and hugs and kisses never given. These losses will still be felt years later. Simple acknowledgement is all that’s needed to bring joy and comfort to a mother’s heart. “We’ve given my mother-in-law little rocks with all the grandchildren’s names on them for the past seven years,” said Isabelle*, who lost her second baby at 12 weeks. “It’s been four years since we lost our baby, and this year she said she needed a rock with the baby’s name on it. It meant so much to me that she recognized our baby as her grandchild and wanted to include him/her.”
It’s in the little ways that touch mothers so much and that might be considered when attempting to reach out:
- A Christmas ornament with baby’s name or an important date on it
- Making a charitable donation in baby’s name
- Including the baby in the number of kids the family has
- Mentioning baby to the mother/parents
- A card every so often mentioning baby and letting the mother know you’re thinking of her
A Mother’s Support System
Mothers who have experienced the loss of a child handle the heartbreak in various ways. What has worked for one mother might not offer the same support and help for another. Women turn to various people in their life to lean upon, but predominantly it’s a husband, mother, sister, or close friend who can provide the strong shoulder to lean upon. Beth E. lost five babies in three years and her husband, mother and sister were the figures that showed her the unconditional love she so desperately needed. “They were all just there for me to listen, give me hope, pray, and had patience with my grieving time tables.”
The anger and rage some women have built up inside will sometimes cause them to push people away. This is not uncommon and, again, it is not an offensive attack on people. Keep trying to reach out in whatever way possible, even if it means sharing your own painful story when the mother is ready to hear it. The feelings of isolation and loneliness, as if no one else understands, are one of the worst things a grieving mother needs to feel on top of her pain. No mother is alone and being able to share in someone else’s grief can often help those that are grieving. Emilie G. described the turning point for her anger and depression after losing her firstborn. “My friend told me she was going through losing her second child. My heart melted and I felt so horrible for her. Her talking to me and sharing her pain opened the door for me to become active in my own healing. I went from wallowing in my misery to trying to make myself better and heal my relationships.”
Moving Ahead for the Family
“Pregnancy after loss is HARD,” emphasized Mindy H., mom to Maddy who was stillborn at 37 weeks. “There is so much anxiety that something will go wrong and also feelings of guilt because you don’t want to be replacing the child(ren) you lost.” Mindy and other moms make it clear that while having another baby can be healing, it doesn’t change the way they love and miss the child they lost.
Experiencing a pregnancy after a miscarriage/child loss is much different than what a mother feels during her first. Prior to the loss, many mothers have a kind of innocence and naiveté to their pregnancy. They can’t imagine anything will go wrong. Subsequent pregnancies become more stressful and worrisome once their eyes are opened to other possible outcomes. Fear is a common feeling women will experience. However, a deeper sense of appreciation for the gift of life is developed. Jenny M. shared how she was able to have more patience and gratefulness for every day, knowing how the life she carried was so precious. Sarah J. said, “No matter how sick or tired or achy you might be, that baby is alive and that is an incredible blessing.”
It’s helpful to remember the fear mothers might be experiencing during the pregnancy of their “rainbow child” (the term given to babies born after a miscarriage). Their past losses and emotions seemingly rise to the surface as they mentally prepare themselves to possibly live through another loss again. Yet hope remains and the support of loved ones is vital as they take one day at a time through those next nine months.
Through it all, these amazing women move forward and face the world with new eyes. Some go on to have healthy children, while others will sadly experience more heartbreak with additional miscarriages and infertility. Personal dates will be remembered, tears will be shed at the most random times, and the sense of longing for the life that could have been will never quite go away. Burdens slowly become memories. “There will always be the scar to remind me but eventually it’s no longer an open wound,” said Katie F. And those scars are important for society to recognize and understand. Child loss is tragic and heartbreaking, and understanding more thoroughly the grieving process of mothers can provide them the loving care needed during their path to healing.
Remembering the Life/In Memory Of
I want to personally thank the women who shared their story and experiences of very difficult times in their lives. These women have lived through one or more miscarriages, stillbirths, infertility, and adoption losses. Their words and advice were given in the hopes that our society would be educated on how best to help and comfort grieving mothers and create a dialogue flow that would give acknowledgement, recognition and validity to the lives of their children. Ultimately, mothers want their child(ren)’s lives to be valued and remembered. We can and need to do that for them.
In memory of Dean, Maddy, Mercy, Rose, Jamie, Jeremiah, Shiloh, Theodore, and all babies whose mothers never got to hold them in their arms.
Resources for Families and Caregivers:
The women who were interviewed for this article willingly participated in the sharing of their stories and answered over 20 questions via email about their experiences to gather the information presented. The similarities of their thoughts and feelings were overwhelming, regardless of their own unique experiences. I also lost a child through miscarriage and you can read my personal story about the loss of our second child here.
The hope and goal is that this information can be used to help, assist, and direct people in the most effective ways when offering their sympathy and support to a mother who has experienced child loss. If you have any additional resources that you found helpful, please share in the comments so I can add to this list above.
I welcome you to share the name of your baby lost too soon in the comments so that readers made know he/she lived and was loved!