In Small and Heartfelt Ways…
Little did I know when I started to make notes for this article that I would very soon find myself in this exact, heartbreaking and unbearable situation. I was out for coffee with a friend, we were later joined by my friend’s friend, the conversation veered onto the topic of baby loss (my daughter was stillborn at 28 weeks) and my friend’s friend asked me “How do you get over it?” to which I honestly replied, “Well, you never get over it.” At which point she broke down in tears and revealed that just two weeks ago she had miscarried her baby.
And, despite being some eight years down the road from the hideous event that was the death of my own baby, I was, momentarily, a rabbit caught in headlights with not a clue what to say other than to offer this lady the biggest hug, joined immediately by our mutual friend.
I suppose for a moment there, I could understand how mute those around us can suddenly become when they discover our baby has died – no matter how big or small that child was, no matter how angry I myself have been in the past for people seemingly brushing my daughter under the carpet, pretending she didn’t exist.
For a moment there I was sifting and sorting through my own words before I spilled them out, anxious to ensure they were the right ones and not something haphazardly thrown together.
But how do we ensure we offer the right words of love and support and tenderness when we learn of a mother’s loss?
How do we do “The Right Thing”?
Is there even a “Right Thing”?
Well, those very questions are as individual as the woman – or man, although in this particular article I can only truly give my female perspective – whose child has died. There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. But, based on my own experiences, there are gestures and words – grandiose and petite – firmly embedded in my memory courtesy of some of the most thoughtful friends and family.
So, I am sharing a few, not in the hope that you will ever need them, but in the realisation that sadly, we all find ourselves in this helpless scenario from time to time; wanting to reach out to another human being whose heart is aching in a way we may or may not understand.
In no particular order, here are some of the acts of kindness I encountered:
1: Sending a card with a soft and unhurried personal message.
The words can be short and sweet, but they should convey your love and absolutely refrain from giving unsolicited possible explanations of the “It wasn’t meant to be”/”It was nature’s way”/”You can always have another” ilk. This baby was the baby who was loved and wanted. Remember this baby existed, this baby is somebody’s child, a human being – no matter how big or small.
2: Say something.
Anything. The worst thing of all for a grieving mum is that pin dropping silence. She’d far rather you trip over your words than not acknowledge her child. Believe me: a grieving mum cannot help but make a mental tally of those who spoke her baby’s name, even if that was just a whisper… and those who buried it in the sand. She will remember this for ever. This super helpful link from the Return to Zero Centre for Healing, provides the right kind of inspiration… as well as a list of phrases to avoid.
3: Knock at the door.
A divisive idea perhaps, but often you (friend or family member) are the lifeline a woman who has been stuck indoors (usually without the baby’s father who is granted minimal time away from work) needs to help her get through the day – often whether she realises it or not. The grieving day is long. Very long. When it can somehow be fragmented with the smallest of intervals – no matter how mundane these may seem to you – you have helped that aching mother through one of the darkest periods of her life. No, this will never bring her baby back, but don’t underestimate what the tiniest of acts can do…
One of my oldest and greatest friends announced in a text message:
“That’s it! I’m driving over to take you out for the day.”
I probably wasn’t much fussed, hadn’t washed my hair in days, my eyes were puffier than cushions and mascara was the most pointless invention of all time. But she just intrinsically wanted to do something, and so she did. As a furnishings expert in retail, that something was to sort out my totally overdue a face lift curtains. And so she bundled me and my almost 2 year old in her car, drove us to a fabric outlet, chose me some beautiful new curtains (and probably paid for them too). She then drove us to buy flowers and we took them to my baby’s snow-capped grave. It was a bitterly cold February. The kind of weather that bites at your toes. She cried, I cried. I remember crying at the time because I felt “guilty” for making her cry! And, of course because I felt overwhelmed at how much she cared and the lengths she had gone to. She drove us home, fitted my curtains like a dressmaker, made us copious amounts of tea, then drove all the way back to Wales in the dark.
She’ll never know how much her actions meant to me that day. A grieving mum’s memory is often a very fuzzy place where pretty much all she recalls is one raw, empty, gloomy chain of hideousness, the days morphing into one another. But this memory and others like it shine like a beacon I hold close.
4: Bring ready made gifts.
I don’t mean of the “let’s have a party” kind. That goes without saying. But another local friend (who must have felt terrible since our second babies were due at the same time, and she was gloriously glowing full of baby bump) turned up with freshly baked biscuits and books. True, I didn’t particularly feel like reading all of them, but some I did, and they were the most gentle stories (as far removed from babies as possible!); stories she had clearly taken great care to cherry pick from her bookshelf. Perfect for those many winter’s afternoons when all I could do was exist in a cocoon in my duvet on the couch.
Or make a vat of soup, or a chili, or a casserole. We’d do this for the parents of a newborn, after all. Well, the parents of a baby who died need that kind of pampering too, and big time. When it comes to eating, to having the strength to even begin to think about cooking a nutritious meal, they need all the help they can get, especially in those really painful early days.
5: Offer up a staycation.
Mum and Dad whisked my toddler and I down to Somerset for a short stay in those early weeks. It was hardly a holiday, no. But they lived in the countryside at the time. We needed that change of scene – no matter how brief – and we needed good home cooked food (Dad’s knockout beef goulash and dumplings will forever linger in my mind), pampering and two cats for plenty of lap cuddles. Meanwhile, my husband could somehow garner the strength to work through all the official paperwork that comes with the death of a baby post 24 weeks pregnancy. I cannot even begin to imagine how he got through that time, but it was undoubtedly made a little easier having just himself to look after for a few days.
Similarly, a few months later, my sister-in-law invited us down to a beautiful old seafront apartment she was lucky enough to come by for the summer. That four night break by the bright blue Cornish waves was utterly soothing, and probably offered us the first real smiles (other than our toddler’s antics!) in those very early days of mourning. She even babysat for our toddler and we went out for a couple of drinks; our first “date” and proper time alone in months. It was priceless.
6: Nothing says it like flowers.
Contrary to what you might think, a bountiful display of flowers, despite the constant searching for vases and makeshift receptacles, is a comfort beyond words. Yes, a mum whose baby has died will no doubt be inundated with them, but amidst the dark tunnel she is inhabiting, it’s a tiny glow of life, a connection to nature inside the house. Not only that, but flowers can be pressed. I kept many tokens from my prettiest blooms in my baby’s memory box and it’s uplifting to look back on them, remembering all those whose love poured through our front door.
7: Take them somewhere peaceful and comforting.
Preferably away from bright strobe lights and crowds (in case of a sudden meltdown)… Never underestimate the blanket of comfort even somewhere like a chilled out corner in a cosy cafe, a garden centre, a stately home and its gardens, the forest or a beach with a rug and a picnic can bring at a quiet time of day. Yes, a mother whose heart is permanently aching to hold her baby cannot be rushed. Yet – and do forgive the very trivial analogy – going back out into the world again is a little like falling off a bike for the very first time; the sooner it happens, the easier it becomes with time, but you may need to be a little persistent (in as kind, patient and understanding a way as you can). I experienced a number of panic attacks, horrendously loud sobbing attacks and random outbursts of tears during not only the first few months, but the first few years after the death of my baby. Be gentle on the mother who mourns, remember she is still learning to be gentle on herself and re-navigating a world which is very different to the one she used to know.
Another idea, certainly not immediately, but months down the line, is the health spa. My local SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) arranged for a group of us to go for a pamper day at a nearby spa for Mother’s Day. It was a wonderful, tear-filled – and at times, laughter-filled – heartwarming experience. In fact, of all days, Mother’s Day is that one day of the 365 in a year, when a woman without a surviving child in her life, needs to be reminded that she is a mum, just like the others around her opening their boxes of chocolates, filling their vases with flowers and being taken out for afternoon tea.
8: Give them time and space
This follows neatly on from the point above, but it is essential to somehow try to find the balance; to respect their boundaries and need for privacy, whilst not giving up on gently coaxing them back into civilisation too.
My pregnant friend mentioned above was particularly good at this. She never stopped inviting me to mum and baby groups (as dreadful as I felt after attending them, for they were choc full of breastfeeding mammas, smiles painted on their “we have a perfect life” faces), or the birthday parties of her little boy who came into the world on my little girl’s due date. In short, she included me and my toddler in everything, giving me the opportunity to accept or decline invitations with no hard feelings, giving me a head start in facing painful social situations. As much as some of them were excruciatingly painful at the time, they were essential for helping me to work through these emotions. It’s so easy to keep the tears we hold for our babies bottled up for years and to avoid the outside world for fear of a nervous breakdown.
9: Give them your baby to hold.
One of our biggest nightmares when our baby has died is that people will assume we are on the hunt for a replacement. Not at all helped by EastEnders’ terribly inaccurate screenwriting some years ago (fortunately they made up for that last year and I was so moved I penned this article). To use the getting back on a bike analogy again, most of us in this situation overcome a major milestone when we hold another newborn baby. My pregnant friend above provided me with this opportunity too, and she will never know how soothing that was for me at the time. I think it can also help a lot when the baby is a different sex to the baby we have lost… as was the case for my cuddle time. Not only is it immensely healing in a small way to be so close to a baby who is breathing, thriving and full of life, it is also the biggest reassurance that this paranoia we may be looked upon “suspiciously” is in fact, all in our heads.
I had the opportunity several times over to “repay” (for want of a better word) this act when I offered up my baby boy for cuddles to friends and acquaintances of mine from my local SANDS group. It brought tears to my eyes because I could see that tiny reenactment of healing happening from the other side of the story, and I already knew how important it was.
10: Gift them with a beautiful candle.
It’s so lovely to have a cluster of pretty candles set aside for milestones such as birthdays, Christmases and The Wave of Light (October 15th every year) when only the most gorgeous illumination will do.
11: Send them a gift from a special website.
Nowadays there are a number of baby memorial gift websites with an array of personalised and non-personalised treasures to choose from. If you are sure of a parent’s tastes then you probably cannot go far wrong with selecting anything from these sites. But if you are not so confident, opt for something much more general (as strange as it may sound, grief is an unpredictable place, and not every mum will be comfortable with the idea of their baby’s footprints dangling on a necklace, or decorating the hallway in a frame). Alexandra’s Angel Gifts, based in the UK and Sympathy Solutions, based in the U.S (the latter offering a wide variety of lovely ideas for memorials), are two of the best websites I have come across. But again, if you are not entirely sure then a candle or flowers will be a much safer bet.
In addition to this, the brilliant Return to Zero Centre for Healing have a mini directory of websites you can take a look at for both remembrance items and healing projects (via this link), and if you scroll to the bottom of the page, they also provide a lovely list of remembrance ceremonies and gatherings.
12: If you are an “artist”…
And I use the term loosely, when the time is right, you might perhaps consider offering to sketch a parent’s baby from a photograph, or write a poem including particular memories. And if you can knit… why not go ahead and knit the cardigan or woolly hat and gloves you would have given the baby had they been born fit and well anyway?
Because to a mum with empty arms, that very item of clothing, particularly as time goes by; the fact you took the time, love and care to acknowledge their child’s existence, will mean the absolute world.
13: Buy some groceries.
It may seem small and it may seem too run-of-the-mill for consideration, but when your baby has died, the last thing you want to do is spend any amount of time in a supermarket… often packed to the rafters with screaming babies and doting mums. Online grocery shopping is one thing (I definitely overindulged in that to avoid breaking down in tears mid-aisle), but a basket of goodies on the doorstep from family or friends is such a healing, and unexpected balm.
14: Put them in touch with another “sister”…
Do you know somebody who has been through a similar experience as your friend or family member? If so, ask if they’d be willing to come visit them for a cuppa, or even to just chat over the phone. Okay, a mum who is grieving may not instantly be up for this at all, but in my experience, when the woman who ran my toddler’s nursery put me in contact with another mum who was “still standing” and whose baby had also passed away at 28 weeks gestation, it brought me a little flicker of light in those first few weeks when I hardly knew how to put one foot in front of another.
15: Offer to babysit.
All too often a grieving couple’s relationship is the last area to receive any TLC. Yet it is super important. Many are the parents whose marriage or relationship does not last the distance after the death of a baby. But carving out time together can be tricky, especially when there are other children at home. Be a guardian angel: offer (even if it is a daytime thing) to sit for their other children for a couple of hours so Mum and Dad can get a few hours of uninterrupted time to chat or just “be” together – over drinks, or preferably a meal. But heck, if you are feeling generous, offer to babysit all night so they can escape to a nice hotel. They will remember you for ever!
So there you have it. And I am sure there are so many more acts of kindness and uplifting spontanaiety you can conjure up to add to the mix. In fact, if you have experienced other gestures which touched your heart… or if you have more ideas, please let us know. The more resources we have to support parents at this time, the slightly easier we can make their journey.