October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. In October, and always, we honor all babies amongst the stars. As professional doulas and educators, it’s our job to provide education, physical and emotional support, and comfort to the families we support. For many of us, there is no greater joy than knowing you were part of making a dream birth a reality, helping to bring a brand-new baby into the world, and allowing birthing people and their partners to be fully enveloped in that magical moment.
However, it’s also our job to offer support and comfort to those parents who, instead of holding their new baby, must walk the lonely path of shock, despair, and finally, grief.
Pregnancy and infant loss are much more common than we all would like to admit. Some reports say that up to 20% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage and that 24,000+ babies are stillborn in the United States each year 1.
It’s our duty to our clients, and our obligation to grieving parents around the world, to provide bereavement support, facilitate and engage in healing conversations, and continue to educate ourselves on best practices when it comes to loss.
I’ve been a certified birth and bereavement doula for nearly seven years, and I’ve supported more families than I can count through the grief of their children. Through practice, I’ve learned how to listen and hold space, what to say, and most importantly, what not to say.
If you are supporting families through loss, here are the top ways you can help:
- Help define a coping plan and put grieving parents in touch with the right local and national resources. Families will need different types of support depending on where they are in their grief process. For example, grief- related support groups can be really helpful after some time has passed.
- Facilitate the logistical planning for stillbirths and miscarriages. This includes details for delivery of the baby, memorial or funeral services, returning to work, and home stabilization.
- Develop a plan for after-birth support that covers self-care, meal preparation and coordination, going-home plans, and even lactation support.
- Help prepare for welcoming the baby, including holding, swaddling, bathing, arranging for photography of the baby and family (including siblings) as desired. Even if a baby has died, there are still rites of passage that families may wish to experience before saying goodbye to their baby.
- Offer grief championship by scheduling check-ins and listening sessions so that the family may have designated time to process and grieve.
- Etsy is a great place to find beautiful and meaningful keepsakes for grievers.
By assisting with logistical aspects of loss and being a point of contact for these services, you can give the family space to start the healing process and give them stability and guidance during a time of crisis.
Once the family has returned home, it’s important to facilitate the healing journey. Pregnancy and infant loss are so hard to talk about that often we just don’t.
But that’s not what doulas do. We are here to serve and support our families, even if we are not bereavement doulas, and we need to know how to respond with meaningful words.
Through my years of experience, I’ve found it helpful to stay away from some of the common condolences we tend to use in times of loss. Instead, I use these kinds of statements and non-judgmental curiosity when I serve grieving families, including those who have lost a relative or friend during pregnancy or postpartum:
- Tell me about your loved one (or pregnancy, or whatever is applicable here).
- Say their loved one’s name.
- You must really miss them.
- How are you honoring your loved one?
- I would love to give you some time to grieve. Can I watch your kids on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon?
- I am bringing dinner on Friday. Does your family like pizza or tacos?
- I’m sorry things are really tough for you right now. Can I come sit with you?
- Do you want to talk about ______, or would you rather watch a show together or take a walk with me?
- Can I please help you by making some phone calls for you?
- I found some pictures that reminded me of __________. Can I send them to you?
- I know it’s the anniversary of ______’s death/loss, I’m thinking of you today. What kind of coffee can I drop off for you?
- How are you coping today or at this moment?
- You have permission with me to feel all the feelings you feel right now.
- Tell them “I am here with you” instead of “I’m here you.”
If you’re wondering what terms I stay away from and why, here are a few examples:
Time heals all wounds – Somewhere in our culture, we got the idea that grief just stops after a short period of time. It’s just not true. There is no phase of grief, and grief is not linear or temporary. When you lose a baby or a loved one, no matter the gestation or age, you’ll grieve for the rest of your life.
At least… – If you’re about to say something along the lines of “At least the baby didn’t suffer…” or “At least he had a good life…” “At least you have other children…” “At least you know you can get pregnant…” JUST DON’T! Grief is hard enough without a friend reducing or qualifying the loss by trying to find the silver lining.
They’re in a better place or There’s a reason for everything – While I’m sure your intentions are very well-meant, not everyone believes the same things about life and religion. Just because you believe X, Y, and Z about life, death, and the meaning of life – not everyone shares those beliefs. And sometimes there’s just no reason at all that something happens.
How are you? One of the hardest questions to be asked. How do we answer that question on a normal day? It’s a loaded one for someone who is grieving. Instead, ask open-ended questions like “How are you coping today?” “What has today or this week been like for you?”
Let me know if I can do anything for you – A griever often doesn’t know what they need. Nor do they often have the brain capacity to ask for what they need or come up with something helpful. And in truth there is nothing anyone can do to take their pain away. But what you can say instead is, “I hired a cleaning company for you. They can show up Friday or Monday. Which time works for you?” Or, “I left some groceries on your porch for you. Love you.” Please don’t put more on a grievers plate than is already there.
As a grief companion or loving someone who is grieving it is not our job to fix their pain, but more our job to let our loved ones know we will walk beside them, and they don’t have to be alone or hide their pain. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings: Don’t cry. ‘ I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you. ‘”
As a griever and bereavement doula, please read and share this blog widely. We all have an opportunity to be better at being pillars of strength for grieving families no matter how uncomfortable we may be with grief. On October 15th, I urge you to participate in the International Wave of Light by lighting a candle at 7pm local time to honor all babies gone too soon. Keeping your candle lit for at least one hour creates a continuous “wave of light” across all time zones.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 30). Pregnancy and infant loss. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Star Legacy Foundation
- Julianne Curtis, Bereavement Doula https://juliannecurtis.com/bereavement-doula-resources/
As a doula in Northern Colorado, it is my life’s work to empower you to feel and be your best in all stages of the pregnancy, labor, and postpartum. Please contact me with any questions about pregnancy or doula services.