What to say to the parents of a stillborn baby

At my parents’ house on the weekend, my dad handed me the local paper and said, “You’ll be interested in this.” Yes, I was. It was a series of articles called Breaking the Silence, focusing on baby loss. The next day, I wrote a letter to thank The Spectator for their feature, which talks about the efforts of two grown sisters, one of whom had a stillborn daughter, to get people opening up about miscarriage and perinatal death.

This is part of that letter, referring to something I have only gradually understood:

Since [my son’s stillbirth], I have been aware of the silence [surrounding the topic], but have also realized I am sometimes a perpetrator. I have been in several conversations with people I’ve just met, where it would have made sense to mention my pregnancy but I deliberately avoided it. I balk at turning a normal, lighthearted conversation into a tragic one. This is part of why the silence is there: if death can put a damper on a conversation, infant death can crush it completely.

In this letter, I also mentioned – and please, give yourself a hug for this – how awesome YOU are. You, dear readers, made it okay for me to bring this up, to not be silent. Even when I gave you what I feared might be too much information, you stuck around. You are amazing. Unfortunately, for the sisters in the article, “social media became a nightmare” after the stillbirth, and I can see how that could happen. But Sean and I have felt nothing but support and love from our online interactions. Once again, thank you.

Along with the articles, there is a “Do and Don’t” list entitled “How to support a grieving parent”, written by Shawna Clouthier (one of the sisters), who works for Perinatal Bereavement Services Ontario. It’s a good, solid list – she has obviously listened compassionately to what babylost parents have to say. For the record, people have said many of the things on the “Don’t” list to me without upsetting me, because my brain works along those same lines; but I do relate to what she says, and how it could produce negative reactions.

I also agree very much with the “Do” list Clouthier gives. It has inspired me to write my own list. Obviously, I can only speak from my own perspective, and don’t presume to speak on behalf of all bereaved parents… but maybe this can at least be a starting point for people who know a babylost parent, and who are wondering what on earth to say. So here goes…

Things You Said/Did That Were Great:

  • Hugs. Some of the best hugs ever, actually.
  • The tears you shed for us. There are no words for how much this means… even though we didn’t want to make you sad.
  • When you brought food. I am such a kitchen type myself, it felt weird to accept offers of meals… but also really good. In this case, food and nurturing were synonymous.
  • When you said, “I’m so sorry.” (I have heard before that you’re not supposed to say sorry to people who are grieving because it makes them feel they should comfort you, but I don’t agree. It’s simple and heartfelt – and I don’t feel like I have to say “It’s okay”; I just say thank you.)
  • When I told you, right after the birth, as I was still figuring out how to talk about this, “He was going to be Sebastian,” and you said, “He IS Sebastian.” You were exactly right. (This is a big one for many babylost parents: it is very validating when people ask the name of your child.)
  • That you asked about him, how he was born, what he looked like… asked to see pictures, and the scrapbook. It’s the same thing – questions that would be completely expected for a live baby are much-needed acknowledgement for a stillborn one.
  • When you said, “You were a good mama to him.” Even now, for reasons I will never be able to articulate, this one makes me the saddest… but I still needed to hear it.
  • When you asked if we would hold a memorial. Without your encouragement, we probably wouldn’t have, but thank goodness we did – all parents who lose a baby need to say goodbye.
  • When you continued to express your concern, even after weeks had gone by. You never expected us to just “get over it”.
  • When you say, “How are you doing?”… and mean it. Especially this month. September has been a hectic blur in which I have not cried about Sebastian nearly as much as the previous two months… but I still think about him many times a day; he is present in everything I do. It is still tough. Thanks for letting me know that you remember, too.
  • The love… that you have felt, sent, written, spoken, shown, so many times. I guess really, all of the above boils down to this. This love is why we know we will be okay.

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5 thoughts on “What to say to the parents of a stillborn baby

  1. Carrie says:

    Di, Thanks for including the links. I appreciated knowing about other services offered out there for greiving parents. It’s comforting to be aware of. There is never “too much information” or “oversharing” if it helps you: speaking from a ‘friend’ perspective, if there is ever anything I could ever do to alleviate even one iota of your pain, I’d do it in a heartbeat! You rock, and DiLovely rocks…and I will be around for the next Dilovely too!

  2. Amanda says:

    Just last night Lili and I were talking about things that were helpful and not so helpful when my dad died. As we talked on we came around to talking about the service for Sebastian. One of things I told her was how bad I felt that when I came up to Sean for the first time that day I was crying, sobbing really. I told Lili how I felt that it was so un-supportive of me to bee crying at that moment. When I got home, there was your blog update thanking people for the tears they shed for your loss and for Sebastian. A new perspective. Perhaps that crying really was showing my support after all. Thank you for the new perspective on it all.

  3. Shawna says:

    I found your post and I just wanted to say thank you for sharing the article with your readers. It means so much that you liked it – I’d love to connect with you. Shawna Clouthier

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