As a culture, we can generally be pretty poor at dealing with death and the bereaved. Death in general remains a huge taboo, and many people do not know how to respond to baby loss in particular.
Bereaved parents suffer enough without having to bite their tongue at something someone has said to them – however well-meant.
Here is a list of some of the things that have been said to me in the six months since Hugo’s death that have annoyed me in some way. Many of them are well-used platitudes and I would imagine those who utter them haven’t stopped to think about the meaning or implication. So, I thought it useful to outline why they make my hackles rise.
Nothing Funnily enough, one of the worst things people can say is nothing at all. It happens quite often when Hugo’s death has been mentioned to a stranger. I can see the look of panic in their eyes: if I am being kind, I will think they say nothing because they are worried about saying the wrong thing. Fair enough, but saying nothing inevitably creates awkwardness that I usually try and fill by explaining what happened. What irritates me about that is that I am trying to make the other person feel better. Do you see what is wrong with this picture?
Tip: if you’re stuck for something to say, a simple “I’m so sorry” is sufficient. Even better, you can ask the baby’s name.
I know how you feel Most people have suffered some kind of bereavement, but it doesn’t mean we feel the same way. No one, not even another woman who had pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome at 24 weeks’ pregnant and whose baby died as a result would know how I feel, and nor I her. That’s because everyone responds to everything in their own individual way.
This is usually said in an attempt at empathy, but expressing it like this is rather irksome, to say the least. It is better to ask how the person feels, or say “I understand how you might feel because…”.
You should… Linked to the above, we are all individual. What worked for your grief might not work for me. While advice is usually well-meant, people are often falling over themselves to offer it – it can be overwhelming. Ask before offering advice.
Everything happens for a reason Really? What reason would there be for my pregnancy to nearly kill me, my baby having to be delivered 16 weeks early and him dying because of that prematurity? It is all so senseless.
People are only given what they can handle So my baby dying is some kind of twisted reward for being a strong person?
They are in a better place Where could be better for Hugo than with a mummy and daddy who loved him very much?
Are you feeling better yet? It’s another question that is asked with the best of intentions: they want you to be ok because they love you. However, in the context of baby loss asking a bereaved parent if they feel better is almost like asking if they have stopped grieving for their baby. Grief has no time limit. There is no day where you will suddenly ‘feel better’ as one might from an illness or ailment. The loss of a baby is carried with the parent forever.
I have had a sense of needing to feel the pain of my loss, and I understand other bereaved mothers feel the same way. This means that no matter how masochistic it might seem, there is a big part of me that never wants to feel better.
Yes, over time the pain feels less raw and you are able to do more ‘normal’ things. But a bereaved parent is often changed irrevocably. Fragments of their old personality may emerge given time, but they are unlikely to be wholly the same person as they were before.
You can have another baby Technically yes, hopefully. Besides the terrifying possibility that the same thing could happen in another pregnancy and the unimaginable thought of losing another baby, Hugo cannot be replaced. Hugo could not be replaced even if I had 100 more babies. To put it another way: it’s like asking a parent which of her children she would miss least. You just wouldn’t, would you?
Don’t feel guilty Rationally, I know I have no reason to feel guilty: the illness was not my fault, and if I hadn’t delivered Hugo when I did I probably would have died and Hugo would have been stillborn. I still feel a mother’s guilt: I failed, quite spectacularly, at being pregnant and at motherhood.
Being told to not feel guilty is patronising and dismissive. It has denied me the opportunity to talk about it and discuss my feelings – and it is crucial to be able to do that.
I got to a point a few months ago where I was tempted to thump the next person who told me I shouldn’t feel guilty.
So, no matter how irrational the guilt may be, never tell them not to feel guilty. Unfortunately, there is no switch to turn off the guilt, no matter how many times we are told.
They were too beautiful for this world Oh, please. Hugo was a handsome baby, but no more beautiful, or deserving to still be here than any other baby.
What thoughtless or insensitive platitudes could you add to this list?