“I think about calling a friend sometimes, but I’m not sure anyone wants to spend time with me right now.”
“My coworkers look nervous when they ask me how I’m doing.”
“My family was really supportive at the beginning, but now they don’t even mention the baby and what happened.”
Humans are social creatures. We need each other. We mingle in all kinds of family and work groups and have developed complex interdependent systems to take care of each other when it comes to food, healthcare, entertainment, safety and emotional well-being. Just to get through a routine day, we usually require quite a bit of assistance from other people. We need them to drive the bus to work, sell us coffee and go for a walk with us at lunchtime to discuss the new Star Wars film. We depend on family, friends and professionals to help us stay upright and healthy in the world.
During pregnancy, and in anticipation of birth and the early time with a baby, we generally receive an even higher than normal amount of practical and emotional help from others. This often means more contact and attention from loved ones as well as the healthcare system of doctors, midwives, doulas, etc. People often meet us with high energy and open hearts during the exciting time of transitioning to becoming parents or extending a family.
When something goes wrong, however, the team of friends, family and professionals that was very well prepared for a living baby may not be as up to the task of coping with a loss. People may be awkward, show up at first and then back away pretty quickly or they may have trouble offering anything at all.
There are probably lots of reasons for this. We don’t expect the early end of a pregnancy or death of a baby and each person struggles with his or her own reactions to such events. We also live in a society that tends to minimize grief in general and baby loss in particular. There is discomfort and confusion about the significance of losing someone who was not really well known to the world. Those who were eager to help with a new life may not be ready to help with pain and emptiness. This can be challenging on both sides, meaning that it can be tough to both give and receive support after baby loss.
Challenges Related to Providing Support
Because of anxiety, mistaken assumptions or just feeling at a loss, it can be hard for those in a position to help after loss to do so effectively. Family and friends might wait for cues that they either don’t see or misread. Medical providers may also feel challenged in this situation. They are not always comfortable with the shift in focus from more routine pregnancy and baby care to the raw feelings and needs displayed by someone experiencing perinatal bereavement.
The discomfort from members of the potential support system is often relayed through unclear or unhelpful communication. “Let me know if you need anything” can feel like a pretty vague statement to someone. If “I should wait for her to bring it up” is used as a strategy, it may translate to a grieving person as indifference.
Euphemisms can also be less than helpful during this time. Euphemisms hide or distort direct meaning and in some situations can make information softer or easier to hear while still conveying something useful. When we read a sign that says “please do not throw feminine products in the toilet”, we understand the underlying message and that it’s not a concern about our pitching lipstick or Adele CDs into the loo. But when, after a heartbreaking loss, people speak to us about “letting go”, “moving on” or “closure”, what does that really mean? Implying that there will be an end to feelings about the permanent loss of a loved one can be confusing and painful to someone in the throes of grief. It might just make a person feel misunderstood or alone.
Challenges Related to Receiving Support
As far as making the effort to reach out for help or accepting support, that can be tough too. Most of us are horrified by the thought of being the neon lit person of the recent tragedy. It’s tough to be that person in the social circle, even as a temporary identity. It’s one of the many things you probably wish wasn’t happening right now.
Since the emotional and physical ramifications of baby loss are not often discussed, you may not feel socially entitled to being seen and treated as a bereaved person. People in your situation often have trouble letting others know their feelings or needs. Sometimes, as often happens with a miscarriage or termination due to a devastating medical diagnosis, they may not even let others know that it happened.
Increasing Your Support
Losing a baby means losing someone dear to you, often in an unexpected and traumatic manner. When this happens to you, it’s a high needs time. Maybe you want to talk and maybe you don’t, but you need something. Maybe it’s someone to help you deal with your insurance paperwork, walk your dog, take you to your appointments, bring you groceries or sit with you in silence. Maybe you don’t know what you need, but that doesn’t make you less needy. You’re hurting and it’s your time to lean on others a bit.
If someone is offering help, take him or her up on it. If it seems extra hard, start with something very small. If someone has to be told that you need them, consider doing so. Sometimes people appreciate the information and can step up when prompted. Many people are anxious and uncertain about how to be helpful or if their help is even welcome. Letting them know what you need may make them feel more comfortable as you’ve given them the option of directing their energy in a useful manner.
When your medical providers are not able to give you what you need at this time, consider giving them feedback and/or switching to someone else for your care. At a time when so much is out of your control, remember that you still have choices in this area. Because it can be so hard to process information at this time, and the information you have may be incomplete, you may also want more than one medical professional to help you understand what happened and what it may mean for your future.
If a friend or family in your support system is awkward or insensitive in their help-giving, consider trying to forgive them. Take a break from them if you need to, and try not to make any long term assumptions about the relationship. None of you are in the best place right now.
Maybe you will want to break ties or change your relationships with someone based on their current behavior, but it may be helpful to wait before assuming estrangement with a friend or family member. I recently found out that a decades long rift between two now deceased members of my family was caused by “something to do with pork chops”. It’s hard for me to believe that this fight and the feelings of upset needed to result in the extended separation and tension in the family. Although it can be very hard to forgive emotional injuries, whatever the cause, it may be worth it because it may help you feel better and more peaceful in the long run.
Ask those who are closest to you and who are the most competent to engage others further out in your support network. If no one is local, try using the phone or internet. If you really can’t find someone to help you in the moment, remind yourself that you deserve it anyway and keep looking. As Les Brown said, “Ask for help, not because you’re weak, but because you want to remain strong.”