Tips to Support Someone After the Loss of a Baby

Experiencing pregnancy or infant loss is devastating. Here’s how you can help a loved one who is grieving.

pregnancy and infant loss awareness day

The loss of a pregnancy or the death of an infant is devastating and sadly happens more often than many realize. About 10% to 15% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (pregnancy loss up to 20 weeks of gestation), and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1% end with a stillbirth (loss of pregnancy after 20 weeks). In more than five out of 1,000 pregnancies in the United States, an infant dies in the first year of life, according to the CDC.

A lack of meaningful support from others can compound the feelings of loss. But often friends and family members aren’t sure how to care for those who are mourning, says Leah Gooen, a licensed clinical social worker and advanced clinician at NewYork-Presbyterian Alexandra Cohen Hospital for Women and Newborns.

“People don’t like to think about death in general but especially when it happens to a baby or an unborn child,” says Gooen. “They don’t really know what to say, and they fear saying something wrong, so they don’t say anything. Then those who are going through it feel like they have to hide their pain to make other people comfortable.”

But asking those who are grieving how they are and how to support them can make a significant difference in their ability to cope, Gooen says.

If you want to be helpful for people experiencing this kind of grief, she suggests, follow these steps:

Allow the space for grieving.

“It’s natural to want to protect people in mourning from their pain,” Gooen says. “But that pain is a reminder of the love that they had for their child who’s no longer with them. We can’t take the pain away, but we can be there with them in their grief. And that is a very powerful thing.”

Sometimes there isn’t anything to do or to say. “Just being physically with them can be really comforting,” Gooen says. In the words of Melissa Trull, a chaplain at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, “Be present and willing.”

Invite those in mourning to speak about their pain—and listen.

Simply asking, “How are you?” or “How are you feeling?” can help the bereaved begin to process their pain knowing that others care, Gooen says.

Asking the name of the child they lost is also comforting. “I’ve had couples in my support group say that it’s very meaningful to them when people ask them their child’s name, because they feel like they don’t really get to say it,” Gooen says. “It’s so special to them to hear their child’s name said aloud.”

Offer practical assistance.

Many people who are grieving need help to get through the day. “Grief can be such an emotionally exhausting experience in the immediate aftermath,” Gooen says. “People going through that loss might not have the energy to make sure that they have food at home or that they are able to get up and take a shower.”

Check in to see if those experiencing loss have what they need or would benefit from your assistance. You can offer help with a task. For example, you can ask if they need you to coordinate funeral arrangements or a ceremony for the child or pregnancy they lost.

“A big need that I’ve heard from couples is help removing the baby items from the nursery at home,” Gooen adds. “That can be a very painful thing to go through. While some people feel like they need to do that as part of their grieving process, others really don’t want to look at any of it.” Make sure the help is wanted before pitching in.

Continue to check in.

Grieving doesn’t stop after a year—or 30. “Many parents report they feel supported right after a loss, but the support disappears over time. This can be very isolating and lonely,” Gooen says. “Keep asking how they are and if they’d like to talk about it.”

In the past, people may have been encouraged to try to move on from their grief, Gooen adds. “We’ve learned that that’s actually not helpful and that maintaining a connection to those that we’ve lost is really what people need,” she says. “Helping them to maintain that connection is healing.”

When holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries roll around, Gooen suggests asking if you can do something special to include or honor their child during these “grief hotspots.”

“Those are the moments in life when all your loved ones are supposed to be there,” Gooen explains. “People who have suffered a loss are reminded that the child that they were going to have or that they had is not with them and will never be with them in the flesh.”

 Avoid hurtful questions and comments.

Gooen cautions against asking people when they are going to have another child or reminding them that they can get pregnant again. “Everyone’s situation is different and private,” she says, noting that such questions could convey that the baby they lost isn’t worth being sad about and can be replaced.

Similarly, avoid using “at least” statements (as in, “At least you have another child.”) “There’s just no amount of positivity that’s going to negate a loss,” she says.

Above all, acknowledge the loss—don’t stay silent as if nothing happened. Says Gooen, “Not speaking about it sends the message that their loss is invisible and adds to their feelings of loneliness.”

Tips for Survivors: Coping With Pregnancy Loss or a Loss of an Infant

Be gentle and kind to yourself.
“Grief can be very overwhelming and isolating,” Gooen says. “It may appear in waves and make it difficult to think, sleep, or eat.” You may feel a range of emotions or you may feel numb and in shock.

“Sometimes people feel like the loss was their fault or feel guilty, that maybe something they did caused it,” Gooen says. But try not to blame yourself. “In the majority of these cases, we don’t know why it happens. It just happens,” she says.

Consider “memory-making” with your baby.
Hospitals may ask if you would like to meet or spend time with your baby. “Sometimes this may not be possible due to the baby’s gestational age,” Gooen says. “But other ways of memorializing the baby might be comforting.” It can be healing to hold a funeral, memorial service, or other spiritual ritual for your child.

Take the time to process the loss.
Gooen suggests reaching out to your employer as soon as you can to let them know you will need time off. You may need your doctor to fill out paperwork to have the time off approved.

Do what feels right and take it one day at a time.
Some days you will be engulfed in your grief, “in touch with your emotions about the loss, openly expressing pain over the loss, and needing to be connected to that sadness,” Gooen says. “Other days will be more reconstructive as you take steps to move forward.”

Try to eat and sleep and spend time with those you love, Gooen advises. “Accept support from those you trust during this time.”

Respect your partner’s way of grieving.
Everyone moves through grief differently, Gooen says. “Sometimes it might be painful or difficult to see your partner who you’re going through this with be in a different place than you are. That’s normal,” she says. “Even though you’ve both suffered a traumatic loss, you’re not going to be in the same place at the same time with it.”

Share your loss with others.
Join a support group, attend a retreat for bereaved parents, or connect with a peer counselor—someone who has been in your shoes. “It can be helpful to meet other people who have been through this loss and see how they have moved through their grief,” Gooen says. “And it helps to know that you are not alone.”

If you are having trouble performing daily activities, it’s wise to speak with a therapist. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-TALK) if you are having recurrent thoughts of harming yourself or no longer wanting to live.

Additional Resources

  • NewYork-Presbyterian Alexandra Cohen Hospital for Women and Newborns has a virtual support group for the hospital’s patients, and other grieving parents can join. Call 646-697-1826 to sign up.