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When The Worst Happens: Helping a Friend Cope With Pregnancy Loss

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I would normally try to come up with some witty/eye-catching opener, but I’m really too upset to think straight, let alone be funny or creative. My question doesn’t really fit in the normal range of Smackdown topics, but you were the only person I could think of who might be able to give me some much-needed guidance. What follows is pretty horrible, and I debated whether or not to send it to someone who is currently expecting her own child, but I thought that made you uniquely well-suited to give me advice.

A friend of mine is nearly 4 months pregnant with her first child. She just had an ultrasound a few days ago and learned that the fetus has not developed properly and is missing a vital organ. She is now faced with deciding whether to terminate the pregnancy or attempt carry the baby to term. The baby is not expected to live more than 12 hours outside of the womb. Obviously, whatever happens from here on out is going to be horrific and painful, and there is nothing that can be done to fix it.

Normally, when I am faced with a situation that I can’t fix, I try to at least make things better. The problem is, I can’t figure out how to make this better. I feel like there is nothing I can do that will make this awful, traumatic experience suck less. If, god forbid, you were ever to find yourself in the same situation as my friend – what would you want your friends and family to do? Btw, my friend lives on the other side of the country, so my typical arsenal of “burden lightening” efforts (offering to cook, do laundry, run errands, etc.) is pretty useless. Any words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

Warmest Regards,

I have to admit that the first time I read this question I frantically zeroed in on the Back button and got the hell away from it, once I realized what it was about. It took a few days before I was able to go back and really read it. And then it took a few days after that before I realized I just couldn’t answer it. Not by myself, anyway.

I sent an email to the wonderful Cecily, who blogs at Uppercase Woman. Back in 2004, probably around the time I first found her blog, she was pregnant with twin boys. Two very much wanted and loved boys. And like your friend, G, the worst possible news hit — one of the babies died in utero — and then the news continued to get worse and worse and worse. Severe pre-eclampsia at 22 weeks, well before viability, no solution other than immediately ending the pregnancy. A medical termination was necessary to even have a chance at saving Cecily from the wreckage of suck.

Just…gah. What do you say? How do you help? I sure as hell didn’t know back then, while I sat there lurking silently at her blog, with big fat tears pouring down my face. (I actually met Cecily for the first time this year at Blogher, and was immediately shamed by the fact that she HAD NO IDEA I HAD BEEN READING ALL THAT TIME. I’m awesome!)

Cecily now has an adorable little daughter, but she was gracious enough look back at her experience and offer her perspective — what did friends do right? What did they do wrong? How does a chronic situation-fixer help in a situation that absolutely cannot be fixed?

I hope her words help you and your friend.


Dear Best Friend of This Person Ever,

First of all, I want to say that you are awesome. Many, many people when faced with this situation simply ignore it and don’t address it at all. When I lost my twins, there were friends that knew about it that never called, never emailed, and then never addressed it when I saw them in person. So the fact that you are even trying to sort out the best way to respond shows that you are a gracious and brave friend.

Secondly, I have to say that your friend’s situation SUCKS. There is no way to beat around the bush here. She’s faced with three issues; the fact that her child is ill, the fact that illness is fatal, and the fact that she has to choose what is best for her baby: deliver the baby at term and watch it die, or terminate the pregnancy now. Sucks, sucks, sucks. There is not a good answer, or a right one. She has to make the best choice for her and her baby and her family—the choice she can live with. Because losing a child—a much loved, much wanted child—is absolute hell.

I don’t know your friend, so I can’t say what will help her survive this trauma. I’ll tell you what worked for me when I lost my twins, and I can suggest some pretty universal things to avoid. By the way, I’m not sure you being across the country from her is a bad thing, actually. While you may want to be there to give her hugs and hand her tissues, I frankly could not STAND to be around people for very long. I didn’t mind my best friend too much, or my husband, but it was hard to try to talk about anything, and having people there, right in front of me, was a challenge because I always felt like I should be talking, I should be sharing about my pain, and I just didn’t want to.

What helped me the most was the food folks sent. Someone out of state sent a basket that included a cooked chicken (yeah, I didn’t know that was possible either). Someone else sent a fruit basket. Other people brought chocolate. This helped—the rare times I was willing to eat, not having to cook was awesome.

The other thing that helped was when I did want to talk about it, I had people I could call and email that would listen. I needed the distance of phone and internet—like I said, one on one was too painful—but I know it was hard to be the person on the other end of the phone; sharing raw pain is tough. So if you can find it in your heart to be one of the people your friend can talk to, you’ll be helping more than you know. But you have to not only be willing to talk now, when the pain is acute. You need to be willing to be there six months from now, a year from now on the anniversary of the loss, or even maybe two years from now when she has another child and it made her miss the baby she lost even more. Long after people think we should be “over” it, us mothers (yes, because we are mothers even without a living child) who lose children NEVER get over it. It is always there, part of us. That loss is unending.

But before you pick up the phone to talk, here are a few things you NEVER, EVER say: “At least your baby is in a better place.” Or “He/She is with God now.” Or “Don’t worry, you can have another baby.” Or “Well, it’s not like it was a living baby.” (of course, if she chooses to deliver, then it will be). Yes, people said all of those things to me when I lost my sons.

Don’t say anything—not ONE THING—that dismisses or minimizes the loss of THIS PARTICULAR BABY. When people told me that at least my sons were with God, I said, “Well, then, God’s a selfish bastard and should give them BACK.” It doesn’t help. Even if your friend is deeply religious, it will not help.

The only spiritual thing that helped me was a tenant of Buddhism. In the Buddhist tradition, babies that are miscarried, lost, or still born are souls that are only one step away from Nirvana (the Buddhist idea of heaven, where all souls go when they’ve completed their journey on earth). All those souls needed were to be wanted and loved one last time and they get to move on. That, for some reason, didn’t make me angry. It makes me happy to know that there was a point to my absolute love for my sons, even if they couldn’t stay with me.

The last thing I’ll say is just a technical point—if your friend is more than 16 weeks pregnant and ends up terminating the pregnancy, she might lactate. I did, and it was like God punched me in the face when I came home from the hospital and my boobs were all swollen with milk. She might want to ask her doctor about it (there is apparently a shot you can get to prevent it). The best treatment is a tight bra and cabbage leaves (I know, weird but it works). Um, don’t mention the cabbage, though, unless it becomes a problem.

Again, I just want to say I think you are a great friend. Let your friend know my prayers are with her and her family.

Cecily of Uppercase Woman

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Samantha

    September 5, 2008 at 10:46 am

    I have yet to have children, but this scares the hell out of me. I just don’t know how a mother could remember to keep breathing after a loss like this.

  • April

    September 5, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Holy crap, I am shocked that people said those things to you, Cecily!!

  • Jen

    September 5, 2008 at 11:18 am

    I am so sorry. That is such an awful thing for your friend to go through.
    There are a lot of blogs about similar situations on Mel’s giant blogroll. You can find it here. I’ve ‘met’ several women who have had to face similar situations that are wonderful and wouldn’t mind talking with you or your friend.

  • Liz C

    September 5, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Cecily, that piece of Buddhist lore you posted was beautiful. It helped me makes sense of the one miscarriage I had. Even though it was years ago, I still think about it.
    I’ll be back to read this article over and over. I think it’s priceless info for anyone who’s struggling to help someone with any kind of loss.

  • hydrogeek

    September 5, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Someone who has faced this is julia at
    I am so sorry for your friend’s loss. Many kudos to you for trying to help her though this awful time.

  • Angela

    September 5, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    OK. So I have been your friend. A year and a half ago, we found out at our 20 week u/s (after finally getting pregnant after infertility) that our baby had a severe birth defect that would make his quality of life at best sub-par. We made the incredibly wrenching decision to terminate the pregnancy. It was the worst thing I have ever gone through.
    I totally agree with Cecily (whose blog I also read, and whose experiences helped me get through our loss)–contact is really important,and not just in the early days. Your friend is going to have a lot of difficult dates coming up whether she decides to carry to term or end the pregnancy–things like her due date, the anniversary of the loss, even the months marked since the diagnosis, or since the end. From my experience I can say it will mean a LOT to her if you remember those dates, even if all you do is send an email or give her a call to let her know you were thinking about her. At the same time, be prepared, in the early days, that your friend may not want to talk at all. I couldn’t even bring myself to answer the phone in the weeks after our experience. But, don’t take that to mean that she won’t want to hear from you eventually. Email is an ideal method of communication here.
    And yes, for Pete’s sake, avoid platitudes. Another to add to Cecily’s excellent DO NOT SAY list: “God only gives us what we can handle” (uh, so if I were a weaker person my baby would be OK?). The best thing you can say is, “I am so sorry. I love you. I’m thinking about you.”
    Other things that meant a lot to us: people who made donations to charity in our baby’s name; people who sent us flowers, sympathy cards, or food; people who actually acknowledged that he was a real baby by referring to him by his nickname.
    Also, I wanted to mention that there are online support groups for parents who are making and have made the decision to end a pregnancy OR carry a nonviable pregnancy to term. We found it so helpful to find other people who had been through the same experience, because it is truly isolating. I’m a little reluctant to post a link to the one I participate in here–sadly, we have to maintain a low profile to minimize the crazies–but it is a safe, private place with supportive women and men who have ALL been through this experience. I will email the link directly to Amy and she can pass it along; she is also welcome to contact me directly (although for obvious reasons I’m not posting my email here, but I’ll send it to Amy).
    I am so sorry for your friend. It sounds like you are already being a good friend to her, and that is what she needs most right now.

  • annie

    September 5, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    It still hurts, 2 wonderful children later, I still think about the one. The only thing that helped me- my husband told me that our baby only knew the perfect warm cozy world of my uterus, oddly that helped me- the baby only knew happiness. I wish your friend the best.

  • Sarah

    September 5, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    This is a page for parents who decide to carry to term with a fatal diagnosis. It is less making the decision and more about how to survive, pragmatically and emotionally, if they decide not to terminate. It is written by a woman who carried to term an anencephalic baby, and I think the tone is very compassionate. The page does have pictures, but they aren’t scary or explicit.

  • Jennifer

    September 5, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Cecily is EXACTLY right. I lost my first set of twins at 21.5 weeks, back in 2004. We had some friends feel awkward and not really talk to us for a while. We had folks tell us “well, at least you know you can get pregnant,” and “God has a plan” (we heard that one so many times and I HATED it. You know what? I had a plan and it was not to have my babies die.) I think the best thing I heard was just a simple, “I”m sorry.” It’s true that you never get over it, and as the years pass & you still mourn it’s very comforting when family & friends remember their birthday, or just mention them in general, or lend an ear to listen. I’ve been blessed with another set of living twins, and that pregnancy was mentally very difficult. To this day I still have trouble being around pregnant women, and attending a baby shower? Forget about it. G, I think you are a very good friend to be concerned about how to reach out to your friend. I’m sure that you wish you were closer, but hopefully you can offer her some comfort via email/phone/etc.

  • Issa

    September 5, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    People say horrible things in wanting to help. The best thing someone said to me is this: I’m here for you. Four of the most simple words in the world and the only thing anyone said that didn’t make me want to smack them. (I knew they meant well, but it still didn’t help.)
    Give her space, but be willing to listen when she’s ready. You’re obviously a great friend for asking, so I’m sure you’ll be a great friend to her.
    Oh and I second the meal or treat basket. It’s a lifesaver and a sweet gesture.

  • spacemom

    September 5, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Having been the same position of the OP (the friend, not the woman who was pregnant)- Can I offer some assvice?
    1)Be there. Do not be afraid to hug, hold or say “I’m sorry”
    2) The four best words in this situation are “What can I do?” Ask her what you can do for her. She has to make the decisions. Listen. Don’t answer if she asks what YOU would do,turn it back to her because this is her decision.
    3) Consider flying out if you can to visit her. She needs to not be abandoned right now.
    In my friend’s case, they didn’t find out until week 26. Termination was not an option. She asked me to be the photographer at his birth. I agreed. It was NOT the most fun day I have ever had (to photograph a dead child and his parents) BUT the photos mean so much to her and her family that it was the single most important thing I could do for her. Give her what she needed at that time. HUGS to you and your friend.

  • Lori

    September 5, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    I lost twins at four month gestation. My heart still bleeds every day, even sixteen years later, with the agony of that loss. The minute the pregnancy was confirmed, I was planning graduation parties.
    Ha. Tell God your plans and He laughs.
    I lost my faith for a while, my sense of humor for about two months, and my relationship with my mother suffered horribly for years because she had tried to console me with the platitudes, “It happened for a REASON. It wasn’t meant to be. You can try again.” (I swore the next well-meaning person who said that was going to get a chop to the kidneys.)
    I was lucky. I conceived a little girl (who is now 15) who is an absolute treasure. Had my twins been born, we would not have her. She is the silver lining in that horrible cloud I thought would never lift.
    The reality of my silver lining helped. The suggestion that there might be one did not.
    Time and love ameliorated the pain of the loss, and the silent hugs of well-meaning friends.
    I will keep your friend in my prayers.

  • Elena

    September 5, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    I lost a baby at 23 weeks. I never had to make a choice because my child died within me. When he was born he was perfectly formed and beautiful. I would give anything to have been able to hold him and comfort him and just mother him for even a minute before he passed. Any amount of time would have been very precious to me.
    Be Not Afraid is a site that offers women support and advice if they choose to carry their babies to term.
    Another beautiful site that your friend might want to know about is Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep that has volunteer photographers that take keepsake photographs of stillborn or terminal babies. The site is breathtakingly beautiful.
    On a practical note, a baby that small will not fit into even preemie clothes. If you are handy or know someone who is, a burial pouch would be a lovely way for them to wrap up their baby for burial.

  • Kristin

    September 5, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Absolutely brilliant advice. I have been through a similar situation twice with close friends and was on a forum with someone who was going through this. Both my friends told me the best two things I did were listen and remember them on the first anniversary.

  • Becca

    September 5, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I agree–just being there, acknowledging the loss and calling the baby by his/her name is helpful. No one can ever understand, even those who have been through similar situations, because each person is different.
    There is a website I go to:
    Here is a blog of a woman (openly religious) who decided to carry her baby to term:
    Being there for your friend, from now until forever (even in 10 years, or when she is pregnant again, or when that child turns 1, or whenever she might need you) is what is most important. Pregnancy loss is HARD and isolating, and having someone who will just listen to you sob and not offer false condolances (like all the afore-mentioned, even when offered with sincerity) is ideal.
    Wishing you the best.

  • -erica

    September 5, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    After my miscarriage, one great friend sent flowers and a stuffed bear. I still have that stuffed bear and I still hug it and I will never ever get rid of that stuffed bear. It’s like it fills my arms with something when I think about that baby that never was.

  • Crystal

    September 5, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    When I had my miscarriage the thing that made my explode was when people said
    1-It was for the best…
    2-You know you can get pregnant!
    3-It wasn’t meant to be
    Or a general flat out refusal to acknowledge that Hope was our child and that I was (am) Hope’s mother.
    This people need smacking.
    The things that helped were knowing that friends were there (I’m there for you, I’m so sorry) who made me feel like it was okay to talk about Hope and that I didn’t have to pretend I was okay. Who I could fall apart near.
    VERY IMPORTANT–for me, the thing I needed most was when Mother’s Day rolled around…I needed people to acknowledge that I too was a mother. A card or a note would have meant the world to me.
    One other word of advice…
    When she becomes pregnant again…expect her to need extra support. I’m currently 31 weeks and being pregnant after a loss has been horrifyingly hard, requiring therapy and lots of additional support just to cope with my fear of repeating the loss (even now, long past when I lost Hope).
    The thing that people do that is still hard is those who don’t want to hear about Hope, or who think that Elanor somehow cancels out or replaces Hope. Elanor is going to be my first born, but she’s my second child. And people forget that.

  • Jenn

    September 6, 2008 at 10:37 am

    I lost my son at 22 weeks… so I have to wholly agree with what everyone is saying. Send food, listen, don’t say the “it was for the best” lines (My grandmother got the brunt of my frustration on that one. I was a single mom and she pulled that line, I hung up and didn’t speak to her for 2 years.) Send her a stuffed animal. My baby brother (who was 13 at the time) gave me a bear with angel wings that he bought. He told me it was so I could have something to hold when I was lonely (I just started crying, cause it meant so much!) I carry that thing around on his birthday every year. (It’s been 4 so far).
    Whatever you do, (and I don’t think you will, you seem like a great friend) Don’t dismiss it like it was nothing. Lot of people did that, and it hurt. I have a son, and even if I was his mom for a hour, it was very very special to me.

  • Angela

    September 6, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I had another thought today which I wanted to add. You don’t mention whether your friend is married or in a relationship or what, but: don’t forget about her partner. It’s his/her loss as well. Someone up above mentioned Mother’s Day, and yes, that really, really sucked, but some people made a point of dropping me an email or whatever on that day, which meant a lot. On Father’s Day, just a month or so later, the only person who thought about my husband was me. A lot of support groups etc are also moms-only, and there aren’t many resources for the partners who are also going through a loss. So make sure that you reach out to both parents, if you can. BUT, don’t expect that both parents will follow the same grief path, either; they will likely have very different needs.

  • Mary

    September 6, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Cecily, I read you on your blog, and followed you here to read this as well. It breaks my heart every time I read stuff like this – doesn’t help that I’m all hormonal right now. However, one thing about “the shot” to stop milk production is that I don’t think they give it anymore. Too many women died as a side effect. I know how you are about giving out correct information! Other than that… I can’t imagine being as strong as you are.

  • Heather

    September 6, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    When I lost my first child at 11 weeks, I heard so many platitudes. They made me so angry. I was mourning this child that my husband and I had made so many plans for and wanted so much. I didn’t strike out at those people because we knew they were saying what they thought was right at the time. (I was seething inside.)
    The people who just said “I’m sorry” or just listened to me really made a difference. I had to have a D&C and then a trip to the emergency room because of cramping a few days later due to some “unremoved tissue” (isn’t that such a lovely term?). It was a horrific time.
    Six weeks later, I was pregnant again. During that entire pregnancy, I was holding my breath. I was so anxious, and I was afraid that this one was going to be another miscarriage. I was so sad throughout the pregnancy, especially on the original due date of the first pregnancy.
    Just be there for your friend. Call her, email her, listen to her. Definitely send food. What’s she is going through is so awful. It’s an club no one wants to join.

  • Jen

    September 7, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Thanks for reaching out to find out how to be a good friend. I echo the many kudos for that.
    I lost my son at 37.5 weeks back in May. Routine appointment, no heartbeat. What really helped me was when people would talk to me about it. If you are very (sisterly, family-type intimate), I would suggest how sad YOU are, not just for her, but that you felt like you had lost someone as well (if that is how you feel). My stepdaughter, her mom, my husband, my sister – I have realized that them acknowledging they lost someone too makes me feel less alone.
    It’s weird, I know, and there is a tricky fine line – i resented feeling like i had to comfort my “sympathizer” – I felt guilty if someone felt sorry for me, and then angry.
    “I don’t know what to say” is like THE BEST thing to say. Because I know. I didn’t know what to say either.
    Good luck, but you sound awesome so I think you will do the right thing no matter what.

  • Jenn

    September 8, 2008 at 10:24 am

    I’m positive they don’t give that shot anymore. My Mother asked my Dr. (who had just gone into his first practice, I had been seeing him as a resident prior) about it and he had to go ask my high risk OB, who said they didn’t give it anymore due to health risks.

  • Alison

    September 8, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    I lost a son at 18 weeks. Sometimes people who don’t know what to say simply say stupid things rather than nothing at all. Know that they mean no maliciousness.
    The drug one can take to stop lactating is called Parlodel (sp?). I was able to take it after the birth of my son (who is now a 6yo 1st grader) for medical reasons.

  • Jen

    September 8, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    oh, on the lactating thing – get a nice long ace bandage and bind those jokers up TIGHT. They wouldn’t give me the shot either because of the side effects, but binding helped – I only bound mine for a few days (and I was full term) and got a small bit of milk, but no more than a trickle if I REALLY tried. And no leakage at crying babies in restaurants (except maybe from my eyes).
    One other thing I did, that I am still proud of myself for, was having the presence of mind to make the decision to have and insist on a c-section. Mentally I could not handle the thought of the pushing, knowing what was going to be the end result. I had to justify myself – my doc took me aside to make sure I was making a rational, informed decision, and reminded me that i’d have a scar which could be a painful reminder, but respected my wishes in the end (like, for real, a reminder? I’m not likely to forget anyway).
    That is just an example, not saying to tell your friend to have major surgery. But if you want to give her any advice at all, encourage her to make informed decisions about her health and to have the courage of her convictions, and to know that she deserves the best, most compassionate care out there.

  • Stacy

    September 10, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Amy, Thank you for tackling this often-taboo topic. You and Cecily really did a good job of suggesting how to manage a situation this horridly upsetting and unfair. I had some bad test results when I was 12 weeks pregnant that later proved to be a false positive and a fluke, and I am eternally thankful for that luck, but I did have to consider some of the options.
    Just, thanks for covering this topic with dignity and honesty.