How to Be There for Someone When Their Baby Dies
This booklet is a guide for friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, or anyone who wants to help a grieving parent survive the death of their baby. Written by the founder & director of Empty Arms Bereavement Support, Carol McMurrich.
See our products page for the downloadable PDF version of How to Be There for Someone When Their Baby Dies for unlimited institutional use.
When a close friend or family member has suffered a pregnancy or infant loss, we’re often uncertain of how to best support them. In addition, we may be grieving ourselves. We’ve divided this page into two sections: how to help yourself, and how to help the family you love.
How to Help Yourself
Find someone to talk to. Think in the rule of circles: if the family is in the middle of the circle, they may reach OUT to you for support. You, in turn, need reach IN to comfort them, and then reach OUT, away from the family, for your support. They will not be able to support you through what you’re experiencing. Read this article for a wonderful explanation of this “ring theory” of comfort.
You are more than welcome to reach out to Empty Arms. We’ve given lots of telephone and email support to grandparents, aunts, uncle, and friends. We also welcome support people to attend meetings, but we ask that you arrange this in advance with the grieving parents if they live in our community. Sometimes, grieving parents need a place on their own to air their feelings and experiences, and having other family members there could feel restrictive. If you share this community with the grieving parents, please let us know if you’d like to attend. We’ll confirm on your behalf that it feels comfortable and supportive to the parents to have you in a meeting. If the baby’s parents live in a different community and you’re local, you can feel free to just show up for support.
We encourage you to take good care of yourself, and to know that it’s a good priority for you to make sure you have space to grieve. If you’re suffering and in pain, you cannot be a strong resource to the family who is grieving.
How to Help the Family
The first and most important thing you can do is to try to get a sense of what this family might be experiencing. These two articles, “How to Love Someone Who is Grieving Their Child”, and “The Mistake I Made With My Grieving Friend”, explains so articulately what bereaved parents need and how you can help to gently hold them through these very difficult months and years.
After you read this article, browse the do’s and don’ts on this page and then we suggest that you make a plan. Figure out how you’ll offer the support– will you write, text, or call? Some people find it helps to literally write down a script of what they want to say the first time. Remember that it’s helpful for families for you to offer specific things– rather than saying, “What can I do?” Tell them, “Here’s what I plan to do, and here’s when I plan to do it.” Leave the door open to let them accept or refuse what you have to offer without discomfort. Don’t be afraid to show your emotion. It’s helpful for families to see that you’re grieving, too– and you can do this without “dumping in” (see above “Ring theory” article)
Again, having a sense of the depth of the loss that this family may be experiencing can help inform the ways that you might support them, and will help to give you patience and stamina as you continue to support them for what may feel to you like a very long time. The video below has been helpful to families and professionals who are struggling to understand what this experience may mean to a family. Many of the resources and links in our resources section may also prove to be helpful in developing your understanding of what this family is going through.
What you can say…
“I’m so sorry and sad for you.”
“This must be so unbearable.”
“How are you managing all of this? I want to help.”
“I’m here, and I want to listen.”
“Please take your time. I am here for you, and I will be for as long as you need me to be.”
What you can do…
Be there. Call or visit to say, “I care, and I want to help.” A family can always decline your presence or help, but in their grief they are unlikely to reach out for support. Don’t be afraid to intrude. It’s better to offer too much than to stand back out of politeness.
When you’re there, be available emotionally and physically.
On an emotional level you can:
- Let them cry, and cry with them.
- Be patient, and let there be silences.
- Use their baby’s name and recognize this baby as a unique person who cannot be replaced.
- Treat the grieving couple equally. Both partners need support.
- Give the space for parents to tell you about their child. Ask open ended questions which will allow them to share what they wish, but will not feel invasive or nosy.
- Give them hugs and affection if they are receptive to this. Their bodies are grieving and touch can help.
- Remember and talk about their baby in the months and years to come. Recognize anniversaries and first holidays. In the beginning, even each week that passes feels significant to the family. So figure out what day their baby died, and reach out every Tuesday… it will mean a lot if you do.
- Let them know that you understand that your relationship or friendship may be different following this loss, and that you are patient and understanding.
On a physical level, you can offer to:
- Offer to make phone calls for the family- to bring in more support, arrange services, or find resources.
- Offer to help with siblings or out-of-town visitors
- Offer to organize meals or grocery shopping
- Offer to help with housecleaning
- Find out if the family needs help with the baby’s things. Some families prefer to keep a baby’s nursery set up, while others want help packing up baby things. This must be the family’s choice, and you should ask them.
- Find out if there is paperwork– medical forms, bills that need paying, etc– that you can help with
- Find out if there is some way you can help with the memorial or funeral
- Research local support groups and other resources that might help this family, but don’t force them upon them. Some people will misinterpret these attempts to provide support as attempts to “fix” their grief. Be clear that you aren’t sure what will help, and that you’re just offering resources.
- Try to educate other family members and friends about how to care for this family
- Continue to offer all of the above for many, many months. It may be a long time before this family regains a sense of normal.
Things NOT to say
Unfortunately, all bereaved parents have been faced with well-meaning people who have offered words of “comfort” that just don’t feel comforting. Below is a list of those things. It’s important to note that it’s OK for a bereaved parent to feel these things, and you are welcome to agree with them if they express these sentiments. But these words should not be offered by you as an attempt at comfort. Following each phrase, in italics, is our rendition of a bereaved parent’s inner dialogue when they hear such words.
- Everything happens for a reason. And what would that reason be?
- It was God’s will. Please don’t make me lose my faith.
- God needed another angel. But I wanted my child here with me.
- Now you have a guardian angel. I didn’t want a guardian angel, I wanted a baby here in my arms.
- Your baby is in a better place. Where could be better than with his family here?
- At least the baby did not suffer. But I want him here!
- You’re lucky you didn’t get to know the baby better. I would give anything for more time with my baby.
- It could have been worse. I heard a story… Nothing is worse to this family than the death of their own child right now.
- At least you have other children. I wanted to have all my children with me. Which of your children would you choose to not have?
- You’re young, you can have more. But I loved this baby, and I wanted to take him home.
- At least you know you can get pregnant. Nothing feels certain anymore. That brings little comfort.
- I know how you feel (even if you are a bereaved parent under similar circumstances) Nobody can know how sad I am.
- You will feel better in time. But how will I survive today?
- It’s time to get on with your life. This is my life now.
- You’re so strong. I did not choose this, strength is not something I’m good at.
- I could never handle that. I didn’t ever imagine myself handling it, either. Please don’t point out that you, fortunately, don’t have to face this, and I do.
In general, it’s best to avoid all phrases that begin with “At least” or “Thank goodness that…”. Right now, families who are bereaved don’t want to hear platitudes. They are grieving, and they need validation that their loss is recognized and authentic. Supporting them in their grief will help to give them the space to gather the tools they need for their own healing. In time, they will build anew and weave this baby’s story into the fabric of their life. Grace them with the time to do this.