When The Worst Happens: Helping a Friend Cope With Pregnancy Loss
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.
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 WomanPublished September 4, 2008. Last updated March 27, 2018.