What Not To Say To A Parent Who Just Lost A Child

By Ashley Patek

What Not To Say To A Parent Who Lost A Child

Her name is Harlow. And she is the child who made me Mom.

When I close my eyes and bring my hand to my belly, I can still feel her kicks and rolls inside the womb. 

As I wrap my arms around myself, I imagine wrapping her in all of the love and safety only a mother can give to her growing baby. 

At 28 weeks, my body went into labor, 16 hours of it. 

Everyone said I was experiencing Braxton Hicks, so I finished my shift at the hospital and drove home, curled over myself and the steering wheel. 

While I had no idea what Braxton Hicks vs real labor felt like, my intuition told me that something wasn’t right. In fact, I had been telling people something wasn’t right for weeks now, mostly to be advised, “Everything is normal.” Or, “This is just first-time mom jitters.” 

But a mama knows. She knows her body unlike anyone else. And she knows her baby’s patterns, rhythm, and energy from the earliest of days. She knows. 

By the time I returned to the hospital, I crumbled, unable to walk to the door. My husband was frantically parking the truck while strangers rallied together to carry my collapsed body and call for help. 

They ushered us in quickly, asking some basic questions while simultaneously jumping into action. This was no waiting matter. 

On a bed now, the doctor said, “You’re in the transition phase. Your baby is coming. We will search for a heartbeat.” 

The jelly was cold and the minute was long. Before I knew it, there was a team of nurses and doctors surrounding my bed, most of them looking down or away, because if they looked at me, I would have seen their tears. But I already knew their unspoken pain, because I sensed it too. While I would deliver a baby girl, she would not come home with me. 

I am sure my howls could be heard down the hall. They weren’t from the pain of an unmedicated delivery. It was the raw roar of a mama who had lost a child, one she knew so well and also barely knew at all. 

She came into the world quietly, still, beautiful. Our daughter, sweet Harlow. 

Why am I telling you this story? October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and it is time to break the enduring stigma and silence that surrounds it. 

For Those Who Lost

For the mothers and fathers who need to hear it: You are allowed to mourn. You don’t need permission to feel the complexities of emotions that you feel. And you are not alone. There are parents across generations and across the world who have lost a child, and it is time to give you, them, and our children a voice. 

It was incredibly hard to watch the world keep spinning while mine had not. Days felt dark, and I wondered if I would ever see the light again. My marriage was shaken because, while my husband was incredibly supportive to me and also navigating his own grief, our healing moved at different paces, and sometimes I felt alone. It wasn’t his fault. I had literally just lost a piece of me. 

I can’t tell you how to grieve, that is intimate and personal. I can only share with you my story. These were some things I did to help me move through the darkness. 

  • I honored my body. I thanked my body for doing the most sacred work of carrying and delivering a baby. We mothers are creators, portals between the stars and Earth, and I am no less a mother for losing a child than I would be if she were still here. This one took me time to believe and accept, but it did come. 
  • I gave myself permission to grieve and feel all emotions. Some days getting out of bed and brushing my teeth felt like a success and other days I was a visible human. 
  • I decided to donate Harlow’s breastmilk. I felt like it helped her legacy carry on. I did that until it stopped feeling healing to me, and after three months, I knew it was time. 
  • I found a Share group. While I didn’t go to meetings, I did attend their annual walk where I could be in the company of other parents who lost. Six years later, I still go. 
  • I said her name. I talked about her. I talked to her. 
  • I learned that most people avoid bringing up the loss because they don’t want to upset you. So, I urged them to say her name, too. She existed. She exists. Even if the world cannot see her, I can feel her. I needed to hear people say her name. 
  • I got clear on what I needed and expressed that to my husband. It saved our marriage. 
  • I journaled. I walked in nature. And I found small ways to reclaim myself. There was no going back to the person I was before, because like all parenting experiences, you are forever changed, but I learned how to walk with tiny footprints on my heart. 

For Family And Friends

This part feels equally important for me to write. The unfortunate truth is that the majority of women feel shame, self-blame, and guilt after a pregnancy loss. While you cannot take away the pain, your support matters. 

All with good intentions, many things were said to me, some that felt helpful and some that really missed the mark. I get it, there are no right words, and we are doing the best we can. Just know these parents aren’t looking for perfection. They just need your presence.  

Here are some things often said to parents after a loss. They have all been said to me. These are things to AVOID: 

  • Don’t worry, you can have another one.
  • Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
  • Everything happens for a reason. 
  • Will you have more kids? 
  • At least you have healthy living children.
  • Time will heal you.
  • Do they know why this happened to you?

While all of this is well-intended, we can do better as a society and support system. 

Two other points here. 

  1. Don’t compare the loss to losing a pet. Not the same thing. 
  2. Don’t tell them you “feel their pain” in the same capacity as them. If you’ve never lost a child, you cannot fully understand (thank goodness!). If you have lost a child, please remember that all pain, grieving, and healing are intimate and unique.

Here are some things to CONSIDER: 

  • I am here for you.
  • How can I support you?
  • It’s okay to grieve/feel what you feel.
  • You are not alone.
  • Offer or say the child’s name in remembrance/acknowledge his or her existence.
  • Reach out on the child’s birthdate or anniversary of the loss. 
  • Acknowledge that holidays can be more challenging, especially those first few. 
  • Be sensitive to new babies being around parents who have just lost.
  • Just be with the mama, listen and be a safe vessel for her to feel without trying to “fix” her. 

While pregnancy and infancy loss is an uncomfortable topic to discuss, it is real. I will continue to create discomfort until we break through the stigma. Please, join me. 

For all of the babies who have gone too soon, thank you for showing us the most indescribable love. 

For the mamas and papas who have lost, you are enough, you did enough, it’s not your fault. 

I am six years post loss. And, as I close my eyes and see her face, I feel peace, gratitude, and love. Thank you, my love, my sweet Harlow. 

•  •  •

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