The Paradox Mummy guide to being a good friend to a loss parent

I am two and a half years into this strange old world that is baby loss. Before I had pre-eclampsia at 22 weeks, before Rory died less than a week after my diagnosis, I’d only ever met one person who had lost a baby (a neo-natal death) and perhaps a few people who had suffered a miscarriage. I was aware of course of their sadness and I never knew quite what to say or do. I was guilty of changing the subject, of silence, of putting my foot in it and just not knowing what was best. In two and a half years I have lost two babies at 23 weeks and I think I’ve seen the best and worst of peoples’ reactions to a loss.  

I’ve written this guide as it might be helpful, it might open eyes and help people to help their loss parent friends a little. It does sound a little confrontational in places, it is not meant that way, living with loss is a constant battle and whilst it has broken me time and time again, it has made me stronger and harder than I ever contemplated it would. I speak with a matter of fact tone as my losses are ‘normal’ to me, part of me and the making of who I am today. I am sensitive, I am strong, I don’t suffer fools gladly and I don’t have time for those who don’t acknowledge that I have three sons even though the world can only see one.

One major lesson is that after a baby dies your relationships with the outside world will change, accepting this fact is hard for the parents and even harder for friends of those who have suffered a loss. Nobody knows what to do and with emotions running high, a small error can feel like the end of the world to loss parents. I really hope my advice and observations help reduce issues like this. During my loss journey I have lost friends, I have gained friends and those who were acquaintances are now good friends – it is funny how things work out!

In the early days and beyond:

Message your friend, write to them, send a card, if you are close give them a call. Don’t be offended if there’s no reply or acknowledgement. When your baby has died, knowing that people are thinking of you is enough even if you don’t have the energy or strength to reply.

Say the baby’s name to your friend, on social media, anywhere, honour that they lived. If you don’t know the baby’s name, ask. Ask why the name was chosen, what it means and the same goes for middle names. Loss parents love their baby’s name and they’ll love you asking about it! Say their baby’s name often. If you feel able to honour their baby – writing names in sand and taking a photo is a nice easy one.

Don’t make empty promises. If you say you will pop over or help, do it. Don’t say ‘if you need anything let me know’ and leave it at that, make a tangible offer and follow it through. Ask if they need help and make suggestions of what you can do if they don’t know. Simple things like nipping to the shops, or feeding their cat – anything that is helpful will be appreciated.

When I arrived home I wasn’t up to making dinner and my husband was so frazzled neither was he. Meals left in the freezer were a lifesaver. Take food around to your friend, don’t ask to come in or expect to be invited in, it’s a difficult time – it will be appreciated though. If you aren’t close send Cook vouchers or arrange for a food/shopping delivery.

If you feel up to it, ask if your friend has a photo they’d like to share. Comment on the baby like you might with a regular newborn. When Henry died, Margaret the midwife told us he was beautiful, she cooed over him and spoke about him like he was a normal baby. The reality was that he was the size of an 18 week baby, with red skin and a puffy battered little face but to us he was beautiful (he is beautiful) and the spitting image of his big brothers. We needed those kind words and will never forget them. Before Rory died I didn’t understand why people took photos of dead babies, I thought it was odd, I get that it might appear morbid to a non-loss friend but photos are all parents might have of their babies. Imagine only having a handful of photos of your baby, imagine how precious they are. I recall being really frightened of sharing Rory’s photo on facebook for the first time, I was nervous, I made sure I shared one of him alive rather than dead. I only received lovely comments from those who took the time to reply. We have had negative comments about our photos, they hurt, no doubt about it, but I know the comments come from a place of not understanding the importance of these few photos, of not appreciating the beauty behind the sadness.

Don’t change the subject if your friend wants to talk about what happened. All you need to do is listen. They don’t want you to give advice or solve their problems, just listen and share their sadness for a moment. If your friend cries, don’t stop the conversation, they were probably going to cry anyway, they might be crying because they are happy you are taking an interest. Ask if they want to carry on, give them a hug (and a tissue) and let them do and say what they need to. Ultimately don’t be frightened to mention their baby, you will not be reminding them of what happened, they won’t be forgetting that in a hurry, but what you will be doing is acknowledging their baby which will be very much appreciated.

Don’t say their baby is in a better place, or that it wasn’t meant to be, or worse, that it happened for a reason. Such phases are well meant but they are not always a comfort to loss parents. Don’t say ‘at least’ you are ok, or ‘at least’ you have a child already. There is no ‘at least’ when a baby dies.

Don’t compare their loss to your pet/granny dying, it is not the same. When a baby dies you lose a lifetime, you lose every milestone, every sleepless night, every birthday. It is not the same.

Don’t say, well at least you hadn’t bonded, at least you didn’t know them, at least you hadn’t seen them grow before they died.

Siblings born before or after a loss are not consolation prizes. Do not say, at least you have X, or you’re so lucky to have X, or you need to be strong for X. Loss parents with living children know how lucky they are, it is not helpful. A good way of supporting parents with living children might be to offer to look after them for a while, or organising a play date. Parenting a living child after loss is hard, it is isolating and it is draining – any help on that front is appreciated.  

Don’t say – you can have another or you can adopt, or you can find a surrogate. There is no quick fix or easy decision for a loss parent, all of these options do not have guaranteed outcomes. Not every loss parent gets a happy ending baby. 
Don’t pretend that you understand what it is like, if you haven’t lost a baby you can only imagine. Be honest and say you can’t comprehend how they are feeling. Your friend will appreciate that far more than empty platitudes.

Don’t assume because someone appears happy that they are ‘fixed’. I am a very good actress, I can ‘do’ normal, I can laugh and joke and pretend that I’m fine. When asked how I am I will reply that I’m fine before commenting on the weather. Scratch below the surface and you will notice that I avoid bumps and babies, you will see me put my headphones in when the noise of the real world gets too much, you will notice that the smile when my son plays with a toddler is paired with eyes that are sad, you will see me staring into nothing as I wonder what might have been. Ask me how my Thursday was and I might tell you that I spent an hour and a half in an EMDR therapy session to treat PTSD symptoms associated with two traumatic losses.

Include your friend in social invites, even if they keep declining, keep asking. Loss parents are lonely, they might not be strong enough to call and ask to meet up. Not only have they lost their baby, they have likely lost themselves too. Reaching out to someone will not go unnoticed and will really make a difference. Often your friend might decline, or cancel at the last minute but keep asking them out as one day they might be strong enough to come out for some ‘normal’.

Message them to check they are ok every so often. Don’t be offended if there’s no reply.

If the parents have special dates (it is likely they will have lots), ask what they are and honour them with them. Send a message or a card, or light a candle and send them a picture.

Follow the parents’ lead. If they acknowledge their baby in cards then it is lovely to reciprocate if you feel able to. An extra kiss or star is enough to show you remember that their baby is part of their family.

Don’t judge or pass comment on the dates that loss parents hold dear and the rituals associated with them. Dates and memories are all they have, there will be no firsts, no milestones. Things like pregnancy test dates, scans, first movements, concerts, dates of bad news, birth dates, due dates, funeral dates are all remembered and might be a trigger or sensitive time. As a loss parent I cling on to every date as it’s a memory, something to cherish.

Don’t ask your friend if they are feeling better now or if they are over it yet. Many parents who have suffered a loss are experiencing some sort of trauma. If the baby was born in the second or third trimester the mother would have had a labour and given birth to a dead or dying baby, the father would have seen this happen – that is not something easily forgotten or ‘got over’ in a flash.

If you are having a party or meeting with friends and you know babies or bumps might be present, tell your friend in advance. Let them decide if they can face it. Perhaps suggest a safe place where they can go if it gets too much, we really like escape plans!

If your loss friend sells their baby stuff to clear space (and their minds), don’t ask to buy things. Consider the weirdness of your baby using something meant for their baby, think of how your friend will feel when they see it in use. Don’t be offended if they would prefer to sell to a stranger.

Don’t forget the dads!

Dads grieve too, often this is behind closed doors as they are the ones running around looking after their partner and running the house whilst working and having to process this life changing event.

Ask the dad how they are, offer help, offer to have a drink with them – anything to show that they are not forgotten is great!

If announcing a pregnancy/arrival of a baby:

Be discrete, send a message before a main announcement is made.

Don’t hide your pregnancy and tell your loss friend at the last minute or only when you have to tell them for another reason. The fact you couldn’t trust their heart with your good news hurts. The decision is likely to be well intentioned but tell them when you tell the wider world, don’t hide it as them finding out much later will be far worse for your friendship.

Don’t be offended if they don’t reply to your announcement, don’t be offended if they’ve stopped ‘liking’ your posts on social media, they’ve probably unfollowed you. If they unfollow or unfriend you on social media, it is done to protect themselves, not to annoy or offend you. For me, I need to keep my social media feeds ‘safe’ and that essentially means no bumps and babies but lots of cats!

In your announcement don’t say, ‘we’re not excited, we know what can go wrong’. That makes bereaved parents feel they are putting a downer on happy news. To them it might feel like a lie because of course you are excited – you are perfectly entitled to excited so please don’t dismiss it. Saying that you are being cautious and that know what can go wrong, reminds them that it did go wrong for them (not that they’ve forgotten). An alternative turn of phrase could be ‘we don’t want to upset you so we will be discrete with baby talk around you, we imagine this might be difficult so we’ll be guided by you’.

If you have a pregnancy scare, remember, telling your loss friend about it might cause them to get upset, they might worry that things are going wrong for you. If they have anxiety or trauma associated to their loss (which is very likely) you might set off a trigger. If you need to tell them something or need advice, wait until you know exactly what is happening, this will avoid causing undue stress. If in doubt tell someone else or seek advice elsewhere.

Do acknowledge the difficulty the pregnancy may cause for them. Don’t be offended if they don’t respond to messages or don’t want to meet up with you. Don’t be surprised if they are quiet or distant around you, they are adjusting to your news. Give them time and space to grieve for the change in dynamic.

If you are pregnant and you are going to see your friend try not to draw attention to your bump – there is no need to hold it (it won’t fall off!), or rub it. If you can, wear loose floaty clothes – skin tight tops which accentuate a bump are not helpful. If I’m honest, baby bumps repulse me, I’m frightened they will touch me – ridiculous I know but for me they are very traumatic, the bigger they are the worse it is.

If having a baby shower, text them before you send invites, some loss parents would love to attend, others would prefer to send apologies with a nice gift. If you don’t want to ask direct, ask their partner or a close friend. The same goes for Christenings and other baby related celebrations.

When the baby arrives they may want to see you, they may not. Respect their wishes and don’t be upset if your friend doesn’t visit. If they do come to visit don’t answer the door with your baby in your arms, if you can, pop them in their Moses basket or go out for a walk. Some loss mums love to hold babies, others don’t – be respectful of either choice and be guided by your friend.

When sending cards or gifts that contain pictures of your baby, stop and think how this might make your friend feel. Either check in advance (and be prepared for a ‘thank you but no’ answer), or send a plain card/alternative gift.

Final thoughts:

If you don’t know what to say or do ask the parents or their families for guidance. SANDS do some really useful leaflets which cover advice for friends and families, they are free to download.

If you don’t know what to do just give your friend a big hug and tell them how crap and unfair life is.

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Strong 

I saw this meme today and it struck a chord as it covered babyloss and infertility. 


Baby loss and infertility are all consuming and both have the ultimate goal of a (living) baby. 

I can recall doing all of this when we were trying for a baby before Toby arrived:

  • I knew exactly what day of my cycle I was on without looking at the diary 
  • I could feel ovulation pains
  • I spent every day second guessing the slightest twinge or change in my body
  • I would count ahead 9 months all the time
  • I put fun stuff on hold ‘just in case I’m pregnant’ when it happens
  • I changed what we ate
  • I consumed more supplements than they had in Boots
  • I thought of wanting to be a mum from the moment I woke to the moment I went to sleep

Those points are the tip of the iceberg and infertility did consume my life. 

Then babyloss happened and the all consuming feelings returned, not with the detail but after Rory the longing for another baby was all I thought about. I thought a new life would make me feel better. It consumed me in a way I cannot describe. 

As soon as I was pregnant with Henry of course I knew a new baby was never going to fix me. 

When we lost Henry we decided enough was enough, no more babies. I said it in June 2016 but deep down I didn’t really mean it. I’ve had wobbles since then and trawled the internet for stories of hope, they are there of course but there are no guarantees. 2017 has been the first full year since we had Toby where there has been no vague plan for a sibling. At the start of the year I wondered if I was strong enough, if I truly wanted that journey to end.

Now, I sit here and think about things with the meme in front of me I realise that baby loss and infertility doesn’t consume me anymore. The phrases did relate to me but now they don’t. The all consuming feelings are in my past, not my present or future. Ask me today and I can’t tell you anything about my reproductive cycle as I’m not interested in it. I have no plans to have a baby. I don’t want another baby. I feel free.

People say that I’m strong and I don’t think I am, I just take life as it comes and I muddle through. I’m not strong when I avoid bumps and babies. I’m not strong when I duck out of social situations because I’m frightened of people asking how I am. I certainly wasn’t strong at work on Friday when I cried in the loo as the baby talk in the office just got a bit too much.

At the gym today (whilst I tried to improve my physical strength), I noticed that it takes a different kind of strength to walk away from something that consumes your life for so many years. This year I have made a choice to carry on without a baby in my arms. I have made a choice. 

For the first time in a long time I think I might actually be strong. I want to hold my head up and tell people I lost two babies and it’s crap but I’m still here. 

I’ve spent most of the last year looking for stories of hope after loss which don’t feature a baby at the end and I’ve not found many. 

I didn’t get a happy ending but I think I’m finding an alternative that doesn’t feature pregnancy and a baby. I think I’ve found my own story. 

Participation 

A lovely loss mama friend shared this link (below) and it resonated with me. Still Standing Magazine

Rory wasn’t stillborn but I did have to participate in his death, I couldn’t believe it when the doctor refused a c-section. I didn’t want to participate, I couldn’t believe I’d have to be ‘there’, that I’d have to take part, that I’d have to give birth naturally. I told the doctor I didn’t want to feel anything. I’m still reeling from it now. It has come up in my therapy sessions several times. I can’t shake off the horror that I had to birth a baby I knew would die. 
Henry was stillborn, we knew he would be and I still had to participate but I was prepared for it, I knew his gestation and size would mean I couldn’t have a c-section. I knew once again I’d have to take part in birthing my baby boy and he was dead. Every minute that ticked by would bring us closer to the end. This time they gave me morphine to numb the pain, it didn’t of course, you can’t numb the pain of your heart breaking.
Most days I don’t think about my labours, they are a small part of me, of my baby boys; however when I’m doing the most mundane of tasks, usually when I’m driving in my car, the realisation that I birthed two babies and they died, they actually died and I had to participate in that, it simply hits me. I cannot believe that it happened, then of course I remember that it did happen, it happened twice and there’s nothing I could do to not be there.

Forgetting Harry Potter

It is Harry Potter’s birthday today, I love the Harry Potter books and the films (the films will never ever be as good as the books though!). Last year I was excited to read the script/book of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It had been a long time since there was a new book out so I bought it and in my usual style, I devoured the book in two evenings and I loved it. 

Today some colleagues were talking about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I said that I had read it and as the conversation went on it was clear that I couldn’t remember a single detail about the plot, the twist at the end of act one, the new characters. With some prompting I could recall the job of Harry, Ron and Hermione, and the names of Harry and Ginny’s children but that was it. There was nothing else. 

I made a jokey comment about having a bad memory and my brain being wonky and wondered out loud if I perhaps needed to read the book again.

Inside I was shocked. I know details from 2016 are sketchy and a bit blurred in places, I know I forgot the Olympics happened last year, I know my trauma bruised memory is rubbish these days. But, I forgot Harry Potter. How could I forget Harry Potter? I used to think I was a bit of a wizard of world expert, but how can I be if I can’t even recall the basic plot line of one of the most recent books? 

I’m frightened I’ll never remember much of 2016, it feels like I have wasted a whole year of my life. 

I think I need to accept that much of it ain’t coming back but first things first, I need to re-read that book! 

No joy at the end of the rainbow? 

I was all set to write an end of school year celebration and then this popped up in my news feed. So Toby will have to wait. 

Here’s the link: Still Standing Magazine
The writer acknowledges that not everyone gets a rainbow (brilliant I thought!), and then she goes on to whine about the difficulties of a rainbow pregnancy 🙄 

I can empathise with her, I really can as I felt all of those things when pregnant with Henry, I get it. I get that you just want a baby, I get that you want your dead baby back, I get that you don’t want baby showers, gender reveals and the general merriment associated with pregnancy.  

But my rainbow died – the unimaginable happened and I have to navigate life without a happy ending, without the joy that a rainbow brings. I know a rainbow doesn’t take the pain away but I’d imagine it makes it a lot softer. I can only imagine the bittersweetness of those newborn cuddles, but my gosh, the joy of cuddling your new baby must be amazing. I know I have Toby, I’m lucky I know I am, but I carry his grief too, he doesn’t have a rainbow to cuddle and sometimes he gets cross and upset about that.

I don’t have a problem with someone whining about their rainbow pregnancy but I do have issue with the opening gambit  of the Still Standing post as it acknowledges people who don’t get their happy ending but STILL goes on to whine about a rainbow pregnancy.

It’s a bit like someone with a pizza, saying to their friend who is nil by mouth ‘this is your favourite isn’t it?’ and then proceeding to scoff the lot and then moaning about indigestion and then saying you wish you hadn’t eaten it. You wouldn’t do it would you? So, rainbow mums, please don’t tell me how joyless your life is, cuddle your baby a little harder and think for a moment what it might be to navigate your life without them.

I’m going to speak to my therapist about that…

The title is something I’d only heard in films or in TV, so part of me finds it mildly amusing that I do indeed have a therapist (and a very nice one at that!).

A few months ago as I stood in the playground surrounded by bumps and babies feeling the usual sense of dread in my stomach I realised that I needed to take charge of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggers. 

The bumps and babies will always be there – at school, at work, in our friendship circle, in our family, at Sainsbury’s, on days out, the list is endless. I can’t spend my life avoiding and ignoring the things that trigger me so it was time to do something about it. 


In our area we have a self referral service, I called up and registered my details and within the week I had a telephone assessment. During the call I mentioned that I’d heard good things about EMDR therapy, told the lady I had no interest in more counselling or going back on medication. I said I was safe but my normal daily activities were becoming difficult and full of triggers. In short I needed help beyond that of my family and friends could offer. I’m rubbish at asking for help, so this was a big thing for me!

A few days later I had a call back to say that I was being treated as a priority and an appointment was booked with the peri-natal psychotherapist covering the area.

Two gruelling sessions later where I told my story from start to finish* I was deemed suitable for EMDR therapy.

*everything was in there my childhood, the hip operations, school, meeting Matt, work, our infertility, my fear of flying, Toby, Rory, Henry – EVERYTHING.

In the third session I was prepared for the treatment by trying out some things to calm me down and desensitise things when I was triggered outside of the sessions as well as helping me to leave a session in good mental shape – grounding, visualising a safe place, distraction techniques – all useful and weirdly counting things to distract me was my favourite! I also had to consider my first, worst and last traumatic memory (in my case twice over as there’s Rory trauma and Henry trauma).

So, what is EMDR therapy? Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing is a form of treatment for PTSD, I’m not a medical professional but the next couple of paragraphs hopefully explain things… 

PTSD happens because of misfiled and uncategorised memories – imagine a desk covered in papers next to a filing cabinet with papers shoved in randomly and spilling out of the drawers – that ladies and gents is my brain. When Rory and Henry died there were too many traumatic memories to process so my brain dumped them wherever there was space, it is an untidy disorganised place at the moment! 

PTSD can happen to anyone who has experienced some sort of trauma.

When I am triggered my poor brain rummages through the messy desk and filing cabinet and throws up the first traumatic memory it can find and off we go with the dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, zoning in on the thing causing the trigger and an overwhelming wish to run for the hills. 

EMDR will help my brain to organise and file the memories – liken it to a good sort out, filing, and archiving session!

The process itself is interesting, the therapist (a lovely Swedish lady) moves two fingers from side to side really fast and I follow them with my eyes whilst reliving a traumatic memory (yes, I know it sounds ridiculous), EMDR mimics rapid eye movement in sleep which is the time when our brain categorises and processes information, the therapy essentially allows my brain to have a sort out.

I’ve had one full session of EMDR so far and it was exhausting. I had to relive the same memory over and over, I cried a lot, big fat snotty tears in fact. I remembered things I’d forgotten (this was good and bad). Sometimes I lost my train of thought completely just like she said I would. I had to think about my feelings at the time and talk through them. My brain hurt a lot.

I was told not to drink alcohol for two days so as not to interfere with the process (my little face fell a bit when she said that!) and the therapist said to note down anything that sprung to mind in the time before the next session. 

The one thing I’ve noticed that I’m hyper sensitive to noise at the moment, everything seems too loud, too annoying. I have fairly low tolerance levels anyway and find lots of things annoying but this has increased tenfold at present. But I’m hopeful the negatives will be short term and I’ll start reaping the benefits over the next 16 sessions. 

The therapist said I’d come to hate the sessions and love them all at the same time. I think she might be right! 

31st May

I knew this day was coming, I knew it was coming when the flashbacks to the scanning room started way back in April. On this day last year we had Henry’s 20 week scan, it was the day after bank holiday Monday. Matt was late stuck in traffic so I was in a panic and entered the room crying. Perhaps deep down I knew it was going to be bad news.

The scan commenced and they promised to take it slowly to give Matt time to arrive, he came not long after I’d gone in. 

As soon as there was more poking than normal and questions about dates I wondered. We were told baby was in a bad position, to go for a walk and come back. In hindsight that was their delaying tactic. 

We wandered about for 10 minutes and went back to the ultrasound department. The ladies carried on with the scan and told us that Henry was measuring small (2 weeks behind). Some photos were hurriedly printed off and we were told it was a boy (of course it was a boy, it is always baby boys). The lady gently told us she was referring us to the fetal medicine team for a more detailed scan a couple of days later. She gave us a letter and if we went in shock that it was going wrong again.

In that moment we knew we’d probably be saying goodbye before we said hello for a second time.

I don’t think I’ve shared many of Henry’s scan photos, mainly as we were trying to protect our wounded hearts and latterly as his final three scans were not happy events. How can you share such painful pictures? 

But today a year later I need to share his scan photo. In that moment he was small but we still had a tiny bit of hope, he was alive and I was well. Henry lived and this is the proof.