October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, which aims to shed light on the challenges that women and families face through these losses. While pregnancy and infant loss is not uncommon, it is often not discussed openly, leading to increased isolation and stigma for the women and families who have experienced it as well as discomfort for those supporting them. Oftentimes friends, family members, and other individuals find it extremely difficult to know how to navigate supporting someone who has experienced pregnancy or infant loss. In order to gain further insight in how to support a family who has experienced these losses, it is important to understand the differences in these losses.
Miscarriage is a term that refers to loss of a pregnancy before 20 weeks and is estimated to occur in 10%-20% of pregnancies. Miscarriages often occur when the fetus is not developing normally and at times it happens very early in the pregnancy before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
Stillbirth refers to the loss of a baby during the periods of 20 weeks and 40 of a pregnancy. This loss occurs in 1 in 100 pregnancies and this rate has decreased with improvements in medical technology. There may be various medical reasons for stillbirth to occur as well as unexplainable reasons.
Neonatal Loss is the death of an infant within the first 28 days of life and is the least common, occurring in 1 in 1,000 babies (or less than 1%) per year in the United States. The most common causes are low birth weight, birth defects, and premature birth.
Women who experience these forms of pregnancy and infant loss may not only experience physical reactions such as hormonal changes, but also deeply emotional reactions surrounding grief. This period is essential for women and their families to rely on their support network in various ways as they navigate the healing process.
How to support someone who has experienced pregnancy/infant loss.
Be a listening ear
It can be difficult to see someone you care about in pain and often we want to fix it or make sense of what has happened. Unfortunately a loss can’t be “fixed” or made better and when we attempt to do this, it may suggest that what the mother or family members are feeling are not normal or that they need to be emotionally stronger. What can be more helpful is listening, validating their feelings, and sitting with them in their pain – even if it means at times sitting in silence.
Show compassion and empathy.
Refrain from common platitudes such as “Everything happens for a reason” or “You can always try for another”. While these statements are usually well-intentioned, they can be very invalidating and hurtful. Instead, statements such as “I’m so sorry”, “That must be so difficult, if you’re willing, tell me more.”, or “I’m keeping you in my thoughts”. If you’re not sure what to say, even saying this can be comforting.
Acknowledge the life of the baby, regardless of how long it was.
This may mean using the baby’s name and reminding the parents that they will always be parents to the baby through cards or acknowledgements of their roles on Pregnancy and Infant Loss and Awareness Day (October 15) or other milestones.
Offer specific help.
Offers such as “Let me know what you need” or “Call if you need help” are likely going to be a barrier to the bereaved mother and family actually receiving help. When in the depths of grief, it can be difficult for some to ask for help or to be able to identify their own needs. Making more specific offers such as “I’d like to bring dinner over Monday night, does that work for you?” or offering to care for other children at a specific time can be helpful. If they decline, it is alright to ask again in the next few weeks.