How to help and care for a friend after miscarriage or stillbirth
Grief is complicated and clumsy
According to Dr. Erica Berman, “Research consistently finds that women who have experienced a miscarriage feel that the responses of friends and family minimize the significance of the event and are dissatisfied with the support they receive.” The fact that you’ve sought out this resource demonstrates your desire for your friend to have the support she needs. Thank you for being a good friend.
Thank you for putting aside your discomfort, your awkwardness, and your own sadness, and for being willing to lower your guard and put yourself in the vulnerable position of offering help to a grieving friend.
As someone who’s been on both sides of the coin—needing care and offering care—I’m well aware of the tightrope you walk as you try to navigate doing and saying the “right” things. Unfortunately, there’s no road map for this, and quite frankly, most of us feel incredibly clumsy. That’s okay. Grief is complicated to begin with, and grief from an intangible loss can seem even more complicated. It’s just hard.
What if I get it wrong?
I have some bad news: You actually might do or say the wrong thing. You’re at risk of sounding dumb or unintentionally doing or saying something hurtful to your friend who’s already in pain. Because everyone grieves differently, it’s impossible for me to tell you exactly what your friend needs to experience or hear. A lot of us let this possibility hold us back from trying. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we say nothing. We’re afraid of doing something insensitive, or making her pain worse, so we do nothing. But that’s not you; you’re actively looking for ways to help.
And, thankfully, I’ve got good news too: There is no one right way to help someone who’s grieving—there are a million. And you—her friend—are in the best position to know how to care for her because you can listen to her, follow her cues, and gently offer support as she (or he) is willing to receive it. You know her personality, the things that make her exhale, and the things that cause her to knuckle down or run for cover. You know what makes her smile and what fills her cup with joy. You know her favorite drink from Starbucks and the snack she likes best while curled up watching Netflix.
Please bear in mind that the form your friend’s grief takes may surprise you; don’t let that deter you from continuing to offer friendship. She needs you now, whether she’s able to see it clearly or not. Thank you in advance for your patience and your freedom to forgive if she takes for granted the care you offer.
The power of presence
Most importantly, never underestimate the power you have to minister through simple kindness and connection. Whatever you can do to help create space for her to process her grief and know she is loved will most likely be welcome. (Sometimes this means covering the practical work of cooking or cleaning so she can do soul work.) It doesn’t take much to help a family in crisis find the difference between grieving with despair and grieving with hopeas they process the loss of their child within a caring, supportive community. Mostly it just takes your presence. But it also takes small acts of compassionate action.
Think of it like this: Your friend has just experienced birth and death all at once. The things you might offer a new mother in the haze of postpartum hormones (yes, your friend has these too) are the same things she needs. And the things you might offer a friend after she’s buried a loved one—these are the things she also needs.
Your willingness and generosity to offer practical, emotional, and spiritual support during this most tender of times can fortify a friendship like nothing else. Thank you for wanting to help carry brokenhearted parents through their pain.
I hope the following suggestions help. Because they aren’t universal, I encourage you to always offer rather than insist upon these demonstrations of support.
Please note: A version of this appears in Appendix E of my book, Grace Like Scarlett: Grieving with Hope after Miscarriage and Loss (Baker Books, 2018). Nothing in this article can be reproduced without prior consent from the publisher.
How to help a friend after miscarriage
1. Don’t be silent.
Your friend and her family need to know they aren’t alone. They may (or may not) ask for space, but even if they do, consider reaching out in a noninvasive way. Send a handwritten note or drop off flowers. At minimum send a text or write an email. She may not answer the phone or return your text straightaway, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t appreciated. Don’t be silent just because you feel awkward. Say simple things like, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m thinking of you.” Even if you’ve reached out by text or email, make sure to say something again when you see her in person: “I’m still so sorry for your loss.”
2. Be available to listen and talk… or not.
Your friend may want to talk it all out, or she might prefer instead to talk about her favorite Friends episode or the latest weird fashion trend. It doesn’t matter! (Your presence and availability are what matters.) She may find comfort in hearing your own story of loss, or she may wish you’d quietly listen. If social cues aren’t clear enough, simply ask. (And then don’t take her answer personally.) Continue to gently make known your availability.
3. Give her permission to feel whatever she’s feeling.
Your friend is likely experiencing a huge range of emotions right now. Reassure her there’s no singular “right” way to grieve and gently steer her away from comparisons if you sense she’s sizing up her grief against someone else’s. Her pain is the worst pain in the world to her because it’s hers. It’s important she feels validated—she’s grieving the loss of her baby, and her sorrow (or whatever she’s feeling) is normal. Remind her there’s grace for the process.
(Note: If you think your friend’s behavior isn’t normal, or suspect she might be suffering from depression or PTSD, then urge her to visit a doctor or call a helpline for professional advice. If she is hesitant, call a helpline yourself and ask for suggestions for how to encourage her to get the help she needs. Obviously, if she’s suicidal, then stay with her and immediately access emergency services.)
4. Refrain from offering pat answers or religious clichés.
A grieving parent doesn’t need to hear things like, “God will never give us more than we can handle,” or “Now you have an angel in heaven,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” or “That baby was too special for earth,” or “God gives and takes away,” or pretty much any form of “There’s a reason this happened—it must be for the best.” (I could make a very long list here, but I think you get the point.) Take care that you don’t inadvertently minimize her pain by telling her she can try again or using any “at least” statements (e.g., “At least you weren’t far along,” “At least you know you can get pregnant,” “At least you have other children,” “At least you are young and can try again”). These well-intended sentiments can be very damaging for a grieving parent. Don’t compare the loss of her baby to the loss of a pet, no matter how much of a beloved family member your fur baby was. In fact, don’t compare the loss of her baby to any loss. Just let it be her own.
5. Offer practical help.
Women who have just lost babies often feel emotionally and physically exhausted, like train wreck exhausted. Some days she needs all her strength just to make it out of bed, so extra help with household chores and tasks can minister deeply. An important tip: Don’t make general offers such as “Let me know if you need anything.”When you’re grieving, it’s hard to make good on vague offers and articulate when you need the help. Take the guesswork out of things for her and offer something concrete instead: “I have a dinner planned for you; would Tuesday be okay to drop it by?” or “I have set aside some time to clean your bathroom and run a load of laundry; may I come later today, or would tomorrow be better?” (It’s also worth noting again that you must follow her lead. Some women want to be left alone and would feel humiliated by someone coming to sweep up their hair-littered bathroom floor. If you can’t figure out what she wants/needs, then ask her husband or ask her outright. Don’t take it personally if she rejects your offer, but do offer again in a week or two.)
6. Don’t assume that someone else is looking after them.
Be mindful not to miss an opportunity to support a family after a loss because you think it’s already covered by someone else. They need you now more than ever. I don’t know a single woman who had “too much” support after a loss, but I sure do know a lot who felt they had too little.
7. If you are a person of faith, pray.
In addition to praying privately, consider offering to pray for the mother and father in person when you see them during a visit, at church, and so forth, or pray for them out loud over the phone. You could even type your prayer and send it in an email if you are uncomfortable praying aloud. Pray for her heart, her marriage, and her connection to Jesus. Don’t fall victim to the “it’s just prayer” mentality. Prayer is powerful, encouraging, and transformative. It is one of the greatest gifts you can offer to your friend.
8. Don’t forget dad.
Men experience grief and loss after a miscarriage too. In addition to the expectation that he’s not to miss work, he’s likely supporting his wife emotionally, assisting her practically as her body recovers, caring for other children, maintaining the home, and so on. He might seem to be holding it all together as he strives to maintain the status quo for the sake of his family, but he’s grieving too. Ask yourself if there are small ways you can ease Dad’s load, validate his pain, or demonstrate your support to him in a personal way. Include his name in cards you write and texts you send. Pray for him. Encourage him. Affirm him. Make room for his grief—welcome it, in fact.
9. Try to understand her triggers.
There’s no way to know what capacity your friend will have to be around pregnant mothers and babies, but you can anticipate some of these sensitivities and gently ask her: “Does saying ‘yes’ to attend this baby shower feel like too much for you right now?” or “Would you rather not do the girls’ night out, since many of the women going are new moms likely to be talking about baby milestones?” and so forth. Your friend may struggle with certain songs at church, holidays, family gatherings, or when a stranger asks how many kids she has. She may seem fine holding a friend’s newborn one week and then months later, near her due date, not be able to bear the sight of fresh little babies even from a distance. No one assumes you have superpowers to read your friend’s mind, but she’ll appreciate you taking initiative to ask if certain things are hard for her; this gives her an opening to be honest, even when she worries what others will think. If nothing else, she’ll appreciate your sensitivity and your willingness to try to understand.
10. Call her child by name.
If your friend has chosen a name for her baby, use it in cards, texts, and conversation. Hearing her baby’s name spoken aloud helps give identity to her baby and validation to her grief.
11. Engage with her story.
If she’s been vulnerable enough to share her story on social media or in a blog post, it’s because she’s hoping you’ll read and engage with it, so please do. Rather than simply “liking” a post (which anyone can do), make a thoughtful comment or send a message letting her know you’ve read it. Thank her for being vulnerable. Tell her that her story and her baby’s life matter. These are simple ways to validate her grief and show empathy.
12. Give her a thoughtful gift.
Put together a care package or buy her a thoughtful gift. While it’s not about buying something expensive, it will mean the world to your friend to receive a thoughtful gift that communicates “I see your pain and I care.” Consider buying your friend a book on miscarriage, a gift certificate for a day spa, or another comfort item such as chocolates or a bottle of wine.
13. Mark your calendar.
Note anniversaries or other important days: what would have been the baby’s due date, the date they received a horrible prognosis, the date of the miscarriage, or other significant dates such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. As those dates approach, do something small (even a text!) to remind her she’s not alone. Knowing her baby and her grief are not forgotten will be a special comfort during those “marker” dates.
14. Be sensitive about “trying again” and future pregnancies.
Use discretion when enquiring about things like when they might try again, how many children they’d like to have, and so forth. Please understand that even if they do get pregnant again after miscarriage and carry a child to term, it will never replace the baby they lost. It’s easy to think a new pregnancy will swap joy for their grief (and for some it does), but new pregnancies can also cause women to experience their grief all over again. Bear in mind that each woman handles this differently. If she gets pregnant again, she’s likely to need extra support during her pregnancy as she copes with fear, anxiety, or other forms of grief.
Free devotional: Grieving with Hope after Miscarriage and Loss
Community support: Our Scarlett Stories: Grief + Grace + Hope (an instagram community dedicated to story-sharing, support, and encouragement after pregnancy loss)