What to Say to a Grieving Mother
Someone you love has lost a baby, perhaps through miscarriage or stillbirth, or you wouldn’t be here. And you don’t know what to do, what to say to make her feel better. But you love her, and you want to help.
First, realize there is absolutely nothing you can say that will help. There’s nothing — nothing — anyone can do to make it better. Miscarriage is a dark valley in the shadow of death, and the only path out is a slog right through it.
Second (and this is even more important to remember), it is absolutely essential that you say it anyway. Not to make her feel better. But because it will help her endure the immense grief if she feels loved, understood (at least sort of), and supported.
Finally, while nothing anyone can say will help, saying the wrong thing can definitely make it much worse.
What NOT to Say
- “It’s God’s will.” Even if it were true, she doesn’t want to hear it. Nor is it comforting to think that an all-powerful being wants a woman to be in that kind of pain. If you absolutely must drag God* into this, say something like, “God’s heart is probably breaking to see you in such pain,” but I don’t even recommend that.
- “It’s all for the best.” Again, even it if were true, it isn’t comforting. And it probably isn’t true anyway. As the mother of a disabled child, let me assure you I definitely believe it would not have been “all for the best” if I had miscarried her.
- “At least it wasn’t a real baby.” Variations include, “At least you weren’t very far along.” Again, this is not helpful. Some women bond extremely early with a baby, and it’s offensive to hear someone dehumanize her baby. Also, the hormone crash (read: postpartum depression) is physiological and can occur regardless how far along the woman is. So it isn’t necessarily any easier because she was only two months along (or two weeks or two days). Treat the loss as if her baby had been born living and then died.
- “I know how you feel.” No, you don’t. Unless you’ve gone through it, it’s impossible to know just how profoundly devastating a miscarriage/stillbirth can be. But even if you have experienced it and have some idea what she might be going through, you do not know her specific emotions at the time. You cannot.
- “You’ll have another, and forget all about this.” Variations include, “Don’t worry. You’ll have another baby.” First, you simply do not know that. Many women who miscarry go on to miscarry again and again, and some never do carry a child to term. Don’t give false hope; she knows it’s false. Second, she’ll never forget the pain. It’s an ache she’ll carry around for the rest of her life. A subsequent baby can help ease the immediate hurt, but she’ll never forget. You cannot replace a baby.
- “You’ll feel better soon. It’s just hormones.” Would you say that to a mother whose two-week-old baby died? Loss of a baby is not just hormones, regardless how old (or how far along) the baby was.
What TO Say
- “I’m sorry.” Variations include, “I’m sorry this happened to you;” “I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this;” and the old standard, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Don’t add anything to this, especially any qualifiers (i.e. phrases that start with “but…” or “even though…” etc.). Repeat as necessary.
- “I love you.”
- “It’s OK to be really sad.” She’s going to be getting the message from others that it’s not OK, so it might help to have you explicitly remind her that it IS.
- IF you’ve had a similar loss, you can say, “I had one too. It’s hell, isn’t it.” Variations of the second statement include, “It sucks;” “it’s a bitch,” and “I wouldn’t wish it on someone I liked, much less you.” Note I haven’t added a question mark to “isn’t it.” It isn’t a question.
- There really isn’t anything else to say, so just keep repeating items one and two.
What to Do
- Shut up and listen. She might need to talk about it. Or not. But if you’re listening, you can follow her lead.
- Touch her. Give her a hug, even if it’s stiff. Hold her hand. Pat her arm. It doesn’t have to be natural or feel comfortable, and it can be very, very brief. But the human contact is important. Note: try to be aware of her body language though, and back off immediately if she seems resentful.
- Sit in silence with her.
- Cry with her if you’re both comfortable with it.
- Buy the baby a gift, just as you would have had she been born. This gives the grieving woman something to hold. It leaves something tangible to prove that the baby really did exist. And it honors the life she carried.
- If you have a close relationship, you might give her information about a pregnancy loss support group (more information under Links), or get the name and number of a compassionate counselor, preferably a woman. Don’t just suggest she find a support group or counselor; give her a specific name and number. And offer to go with her.
That’s all I have to suggest, and it’s woefully inadequate. But say it, do it, anyway. Be aware she probably won’t snap out of her grief quickly. Don’t expect her to go back to normal in a week or a month. It will take as long as it takes. Just be patient, be supportive, and let her be sad.
- I am not a professional, just a woman who has experienced miscarriage and known other women who also have.
- This advice is intended for a healthy woman experiencing a “normal” amount of grief (whatever that means). Rarely, some women can become psychotic or suicidal from postpartum depression, and need professional treatment immediately.
- Your results may vary (but you shouldn’t be acting with the expectation of results anyway; the point is to express love, not to make her better).
*God, Goddess, Allah, Heavenly Father, Supreme Being, Higher Power, Force-That-Moves-Within-Us-All, whatever, but use the language she would use, not what you believe. So if you’re a Fundamentalist Christian, and your friend is a Muslim, say “Allah,” or if you can’t get that out, say “Your God.”