Supporting pregnant family member who just got difficult news
October 29, 2020 6:21 PM   Subscribe

How do I support my family member who just found out her baby has serious birth defects?

My sister-in-law is 20 weeks pregnant and it is her first pregnancy. She just found out at an OB appointment that her baby has spina bifida and clubfoot and some brain abnormalities which may affect chewing and breathing. She just got the news today and is devastated and considering options, including meeting with a surgeon who does in utero treatments, and I imagine terminating the pregnancy is also something they are considering. I was just trying to figure out the best way to support them right now. I wanted to see if there was anyone who had been through it, who had advice, or if someone who hadn't been through it, had good ideas.

A secondary thing which is much less important because it can be figured out, but also advice welcome -- My sister-in-law's sister and I had been planning for her baby shower for mid November. I know this is early. My sister-in-law is someone who has very specific ideas about what she wants in terms of party planning type things and she really wanted to do November before the weather got cold so that people could come celebrate outdoors in person in a socially distant way. It was definitely what she wanted. She'd asked me if I thought people would think it was weird to do it early and I was totally supportive and told her I thought that people would understand doing it earlier than usual since we are in unconventional times. I didn't encourage her to wait longer, though now I realize I probably should have. I have been pregnant or lost a baby or anything. Maybe I should have known to wait longer, though. I had been mostly trying to match what she wanted and make things match with the Pinterest vision of what she wanted and finance things since I'm not a great visionary in terms of party planning. I let the sisters kind of handle that and was trying to just kind of execute the plan as much as possible. So anyway, all that said, invitations were sent out a few weeks ago so there is that too. Maybe it's not that complicated because if she keeps the baby it is still the celebration of a beautiful little kid's life and if she doesn't, I don't even know, but I guess it can be handled.

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to see if people had suggestions about how to be supportive.
posted by mermily to Human Relations (17 answers total)
Maybe it's not that complicated because if she keeps the baby it is still the celebration of a beautiful little kid's life and if she doesn't, I don't even know, but I guess it can be handled.

Cancel the party, cancel everything you possibly can and tell them you've done so and that you'll pick things back up when they're ready.

You are describing a couple struggling to make what might be the worst, most difficult decisions of their lives. Nobody needs more social-obligation burdens hanging over their heads while they're in the middle of that, and the best thing you can do to be supportive is clearing the decks of every possible obligation or burden of theirs that you can reach or see into, to give them as much free time and space for themselves as you can.
posted by mhoye at 6:37 PM on October 29, 2020 [18 favorites]

Speak with the sister about what to do re: shower--it sounds like they're closer. You should honor your sister-in-law's wishes about whether to proceed, and I think that asking her sister about that might be the best call (as opposed to calling her directly).
posted by kingdead at 6:44 PM on October 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

You don’t even know if they’re considering terminating the pregnancy, do not cancel. It comes off as a judgement that of course they would terminate. Just wait a bit. Nobody will be angry with you if you cancel last minute because the honoree is no longer pregnant. Ask whoever told you the news how you can be supportive. Don’t trouble your sister in law or those close to her about the shower unless they bring it up, pause planning.
posted by momus_window at 6:52 PM on October 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Be a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on and support whatever decisions they make. I think canceling is a good idea but talk to her about it first. This is a highly personal and emotional issue. If she wants to cancel, consider what she wants the cancellation message to be. "Husband and Wife's baby is experiencing medical issues and we're canceling the shower. Please respect their privacy while they deal with their baby's health issues." They may not want to be bombarded with well meaning calls. If they decide to terminate, they may not want that shared with all and sundry. Or they may want everyone's support and prayers; it's their call.
posted by shoesietart at 6:56 PM on October 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: I think they're processing the initial part now. When I spoke with my brother on the phone he mentioned that he didn't really know how to tell our family the news. We are small and close knit and no one would judge a potential abortion so I think they are feeling private feelings right now. I told him I didn't know if it was my place, but that if it would be helpful at all I would reach out to anyone they wanted or needed me to. Before he got off the phone it sounded like his wife had said they didn't want there to be any communication until they'd decided things so I'm hesitant to do that. They hadn't told anyone else when we talked a few hours ago. I'll figure out the stuff about the baby shower when it feels like an appropriate time to. I think they are dealing with the initial shock.

Thanks for the cancellation message feedback above. That's really useful.
posted by mermily at 6:56 PM on October 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Oh, what hard news! I second communicating through the sister about shower plans. I would give it some time, like as long as you can wait until you for-real need to cancel things so you don’t end up with 100 custom decorated cookies and no one to eat them, and see how this unfolds before doing any cancelling etc.

If you’re getting down to the wire and decisions are still being made, postponing (instead of cancelling) might be gentler language to use with the sister, your brother, etc. to avoid giving even the impression of pressuring them.
posted by MadamM at 10:17 PM on October 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Don't worry about whether you should have planned for the baby shower to be later. There is always some risk of things going wrong right up until the baby is born. The first trimester is considered by most people to be too early, but beyond that the odds are generally seen as good enough to do public things. I'm really sorry that the risks have crystallised for your sister-in-law. Please don't worry that you did something wrong, you didn't.
posted by plonkee at 3:33 AM on October 30, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Agreeing with plonkee that you did nothing wrong in regards to the timing of the shower. The pregnant person should have the say on timing of such an event and it's not on anyone else to try to talk them out of it because of the risks of something going wrong. Your SIL was trying to be as responsible as possible in planning an event which could be held outdoors. It just really sucks that this is happening to them.

I would give them a few days to process everything, but let your brother know that you are there for them if there is anything at all you can help them with. Could you send over some meals which they can keep in the fridge or freezer? I know it feels trite, but sometimes a hot, nutritious meal can be really helpful.

Talk to your SIL's sister about the baby shower in a few days. You all have time to make a decision about this.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:15 AM on October 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I lost my daughter a few days after her birth (and 4 weeks after her shower) so adding that the shower timing is on no one. Remember that at its root, a shower is about a community helping a couple prepare for a baby practically by supplying baby items. Support and care. I would definitely try to let the parents (your brother and SIL) decide as late as possible.

For support it sounds like you’re doing great. When my husband and I were in the middle of tough decisions, we really needed to be left alone. But other people are different. I would follow their lead.

The people that helped me the most understood that a relationship with a child starts in pregnancy. If you’re nearby some practical help that really touched me was some friends did my laundry, a neighbour mowed my lawn all that spring/summer/fall, that kind of thing.

Two things I didn’t want to hear: “you can have more/when will you have another?/etc.” and “it’s God’s plan/Jesus needed another angel in heaven*/god never gives us more than we can handle.” F— that noise. Also a lot of my case my daughter’s brain damage was very profound, but it took a while to understand how profound. I was pretty shocked at a few remarks I cannot repeat to this day.

I don’t know where your sil is but in some areas of the US I believe she may be on a clock for termination (not offered after 22 weeks). This can add to the trauma (emotional and physical), or require travel. I know from my days in the infertility community that practical help if she needs it for those things (travel costs, house/pet sitting) can be huge. I hope this is not the case but support for that is also a big deal.

Finally as an aunt you are also allowed to be worried and if things go that way, grieve. If possible remember the circle of support - support in towards those closest to the situation, look outwards for your own support. But you deserve some too.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:44 AM on October 30, 2020 [11 favorites]

Nthing speaking with the sister re: shower plans, but FWIW a friend of mine had to terminate ~20 weeks for similar reasons. We were also having her shower "early" and the invitations had been out for a couple weeks. Because we were using PaperPost or eVite or whatever, canceling was easy, but even if you have to call every single person yourself, just do it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:00 AM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

1. You come across as very empathetic in this post. I'm sure that IRL your sister-in-law knows that you are motivated by kindness and a desire to help her.
2. Tell your sister in law, in person if you can - "I love you and I want to support you in any way I can. When you decide what you want done with the shower, tell me and I will handle it."
posted by pintapicasso at 6:47 AM on October 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate the information about the struggles with terminating pregnancy if that ends up being the decision. I was up kind of late last night reading about different women's experiences who had serious serious medical complications with the baby and what they had to go to traveling to other states and paying thousands of dollars. I never knew that much about kind of the direct experience of late term abortions and it just made me want to rip someone's eyes out. It's so horrible.

I don't know what they will decide. From inane reading I did on the internet getting half the facts about stuff as you do, it sounds like the version of spina bifida my brother was describing on the phone might be the type that would cause extensive quality of life issues. She had worked at a pro-choice nonprofit for years so I wouldn't be surprised if they were considering it. It seems like it must be so hard if you have carried a baby inside you and you have the physical connection of feeling it and also have all of the hopes and dreams and immediate plans. She just lost her mom about 4 months ago and my brother and I lost our parents a decade ago so I just kind of hate to think of them walking through it without those key people. Our aunt and uncle and grandfather are definitely there for us in the important ways but it's not the same. Anyway, thanks everyone. All of these are good ideas and thanks for your empathy.
posted by mermily at 7:44 AM on October 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

To anyone finding this AskMe in the future who is in a difficult position of contemplating ending a wanted pregnancy due to diagnosed fetal abnormalities that are incompatible with life, a few resources for you:

Longest Shortest Time Podcast with guest Margot Finn
Ending a Wanted Pregnancy Online Support Group
Grieving Dads Online Support Page

To the OP: Know that if your brother and sister-in-law decide to continue the pregnancy, they've decided that the life their child will live is worth living, and you should absolutely get on board with that. Once the decision is made, don't let anything stop you from being a loving Aunt!

Parties can be postponed. People will understand. You don't have to give a reason.
posted by juniperesque at 8:45 AM on October 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm available via MeMail for anyone who needs to talk about those decisions personally.

For the record, my extremely-wanted daughter's injuries were extensive (no swallow reflex, no pupil dilation, no hearing, no sight, etc.) but we did have to make the decision to remove supportive measures, and we had a very short time to decide for various reasons.

We had an amazing, supportive medical and ethical team on our side who provided just the best information, and those are the best resource - if you have them. But there are people like me who have been there and can at least just listen or answer questions like what it's like for us afterwars. It's so very personal though, as so many parenting decisions are. Having these kinds of decisions being among the first is a unique level of difficulty. I'm really glad they have you, OP!
posted by warriorqueen at 9:10 AM on October 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

I would consider 'postponing' the shower -- postponing can easily turn into a cancellation down the road if necessary.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:14 AM on October 30, 2020

It might sound like the smallest thing, but using "fetus" rather than "baby" might make a big difference.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:35 PM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I disagree. She has been feeling a little life moving inside her and dreaming about his future for months and asking her about her fetus sounds extremely insulting to her pain.

Anyway, we spent a long time together last night and had a good cry and talked for a long time. She said the specialists she talked to as the day went on told her the birth defects were extensive and that if she were a candidate for fetal surgery she would be unable to have a child in the future because of the nature of the surgery. She decided to have an abortion and she'll have a chance to say goodbye to him. She chose a name for him and what she wants to do for a memorial. Because of shitty laws in my state insurance won't cover the medical expenses. Anyway, it is completely horrible. Thanks again to all for your kindness.
posted by mermily at 8:56 PM on October 31, 2020 [7 favorites]

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