With one in four pregnancies ending in miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death, the chances are we all know someone who has lost a baby. When we find out that a friend or relative is pregnant we think of the excitement, the joy and the celebration.
But what happens if it all goes wrong? What happens when the joy of welcoming a baby into the world is replaced by the unnatural death of a child? What, if anything, do you say? It is something I had not put much thought into, until it happened to me.
I was 35 weeks pregnant when my son's heart stopped beating for no reason. Stillborn is what they call it, a horrible and sterile term that can sometimes make us forget that we are talking about a child, a human life, my Benjamin.
One of the things that has surprised me the most on this impossible journey of loss has been the number of people who have ignored the fact that my son Benjamin ever existed. From those who meet us and say nothing, to those who just haven't contacted us at all.
In an alternate universe where Benjamin had survived, these same people would have sent us gifts and messages of congratulations. In this universe, however, there is only silence. The feelings of hurt and rejection, not only for me but for my son, can at times be unbearable. The anger and disappointment temporarily overshadow the sadness.
I think that we are all afraid. I am afraid that they will say nothing and they are afraid to say something.
As a result I haven't been out in groups very much since losing him. I'm afraid of the looks of discomfort and pity. I'm afraid of the small talk and the conversations that so desperately try to steer away from the subject of Benjamin.
The easy thing for me to do is just not go out. That way I can't get hurt. When I step back, however, I realise that by removing myself from these situations I might as well remove myself from life. This is not what Benjamin would want and it is not what I want either.
I know that those who say nothing are not bad people. I know that they are not trying to hurt me. Ironically, I think that we are all afraid. I am afraid that they will say nothing and they are afraid to say something.
I really do understand that it is difficult to know what to say. In the time directly after losing Benjamin I could see that it was hard for those closest to me. They would look at me with hurt in their eyes for what they were witnessing. I so much wanted to be able to tell them that I was okay or at least that I was going to be okay, but I couldn't.
What I want to do now is verbalise what I couldn't back then -- how I was feeling and what I needed. I want to help others who know bereaved parents to have the courage to speak to them and to not choose silence.
So here are my thoughts on what to say to someone who has lost their baby:
- Acknowledge that their baby has died. Even if you just say "I'm so sorry" or "I'm thinking of you". It means a lot to them.
- Trying to find the right words is impossible. They have just lost their baby. No words can make the pain go away.
- Don't worry about reminding them of what has happened -- it is on their mind 100 percent of the time anyway.
- Avoid using platitudes. Saying things like, "It wasn't meant to be" is not helpful and mostly just hurtful. You are talking about their child, a human being, a part of them. You would not like it if they said that about one of your living children.
- It's okay that they're not okay.
- If they cry please don't shy away from them. Try a hug instead. Or even better, cry with them.
- Use their baby's name -- their biggest fear is that their baby will be forgotten. Keeping their baby's memory alive is now more important to them than anything.
- Talk about their baby -- their baby will be their favourite topic of conversation. No matter what happens they will always be parents and will be just as obsessed with their baby as other parents whose babies are alive.
- It's okay to just sit in silence with them.
- They feel very lonely -- giving them excessive time and space only makes them feel more isolated.
- Ask to see photos -- proud parents love to show off their baby.
- Another baby will not fix things -- babies are so different and individual. Another 50 babies won't be able to replace the one who has gone. There will always be a hole that will never be able to be filled.
- Getting back into life is slow. Please be patient with them.
The list above is not exhaustive nor is it right for everyone. Traumatic grief is complicated and different for every person. If you're not sure you're doing the right thing then just ask. They're still your loved one, they're just really hurting right now so might be acting a little differently.
For those of you who have cried with us, sat in silence with us and missed Benjamin with us, thank you. For those of you who have found it too hard and chose silence instead, we know you are still thinking of us and of Benjamin.
I hope after reading this people will find the courage to reach out to their loved ones when something awful happens. We all need love and support to get through this rollercoaster called life.