Dealing with the loss of a child
June 26, 2008 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Do you have any advice for helping a family deal with the death of an infant, with the added fuck you from god that the mother can't have another child?

Nothing is certain yet, but I would like to be prepared in case as I have never experienced anything remotely as tragic. I know there are no magic words, but if you have any experience or words of advice that could help I would be very appreciative. If you have faith, please pray that I will not have to put this advice to use.

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Would it be possible for you to post a follow-up (a mod can do it for you, since you're anon) with more detail? Is this your child, or a friend's? Are you the mother or the father? It would help people figure out what resources there are for you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:49 PM on June 26, 2008

i could be off base, but i'd bet this to be a good friend or close relative of the family in question.

cook dinner. but not just for one night. get together with your/their church group and make sure they have someone bringing them dinner 3 nights a week. everyone brings something they can cook that night and a casserole they can freeze and cook the next night. if you're close with them and they aren't intensely private people, suggest picking up their laundry and either doing it yourself or dropping it off for a service. if they're staying in the hospital with the child, make sure their plants and pets are cared for and someone is bringing in the mail and newspapers. basically, think of all the chores it's hard for you to do for yourself when you're down or sad and offer to pick up the slack in those areas.

i've found that words are often empty but if you can do something that needs doing that they're too wrapped up to do themselves, then that's something that will actually help. it also has the bonus of you being able to do it now instead of waiting for the tragedy.
posted by nadawi at 5:05 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a terrible, tense and tragic situation that you (or your your loved ones) are going through, and I'm sorry you are dealing with it.

You might want to look into a grief counsellor- hospitals can set you up with one or your insurance agency (if you have health insurance) can give you a list of counsellors that you can choose from. You don't even have to wait for an event to occur, you can go beforehand, as in now, to get some coping strategies to handle the stress now and possibly later.

If you are religious, or even if you aren't, I'd recommend going to a priest, rabbi, minister, whathaveyou. They are very experienced in comforting people going through all kinds of stuff and they are (in my experience) surprisingly not annoying about quoting you scripture or anything like that. When I was in high school and having a hard time, I went a few times to sit and hang out with my rabbi and it helped a lot just having another perspective on how to view the situation. More recently, I was on a rough plane ride with a Baptist minister who managed to comfort me without being too religious about it. They are very practiced and soothing.

As far as practical things, try to do whatever you normally do (make pasta, sweep the floor) even though it won't feel normal for a while and you might not want to do anything at all. Everyone needs a good cry and a break now and then, but try not to collapse into the couch for a long time. Try to exercise to get out some of the nerves that I am sure you have while waiting.

On the bright side, in this modern world there are many ways to become a parent other than having your own biological child. You can have a surrogate mother or you can adopt a child. You could even start filing adoption paperwork now to distract yourself and have something else to be angry about (there are a lot of forms). Worst case scenario, you've gotten yourself into the lineup; best case scenario, now you have two kids and an even fuller family!

Good luck and best wishes.
posted by rmless at 5:06 PM on June 26, 2008

The Compassionate Friends
posted by buggzzee23 at 5:10 PM on June 26, 2008

Forgive yourself and forgive your partner no matter what is said. As much as possible, do not let it negatively affect your relationship with your partner.

Know that there are children out there whose literal idea of heaven would be to have a mother and a father who treated them kindly and with love. My uncle and aunt are raising children that aren't genetically related to them. They love them deeply, and the kids, they couldn't be in better hands. This fate does not end the possibility of you being a parent.

Don't cocoon. Don't hibernate. Or, rather, do so to the extent that healing is necessary, but don't close communication channels with those who can help you. Accept the help that is offered.

Go to support groups for people who have gone through what you have, even if they feel odd to you at first.

There may be a thoughtless comment said here or there, something well-meant but poorly phrased. As best you can, look to the intent and not the phraseology in such cases.

When life feels senseless, know that simply enduring can be its own triumph. It is one step through a hard rain towards a better day that does come.
posted by WCityMike at 5:23 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

i once heard some good advice: don't ask what you can do, just do it. they're going to have a ton of people bringing them food in the first week. be on hand to get it all bagged and stored appropriately. deal with the flowers. take care of arrangments for the wake/funeral reception if it comes to that. check in with the dad and get the bills paid. put gas in the cars. do their laundry. make sure they actually eat. make sure they have paper towels, soap, toilet paper, shampoo, dishwasher detergent--all those household items that can run out unnoticed. (this will come in handy even if the baby is all right!)

as for words and gestures--i don't think anything you say will really even be sinking in at this point. their emotions are going to be on a rollercoaster, so the thing to do is just hang loose and be there for them.

i'm really sorry you're going through this and hope that baby and mom come out of this okay.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:24 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Having lost a child I can offer a few pieces of advice, along with my most sincere prayers and wishes that you never have to use it.

One of the more obvious things is, make meals for them. It's very easy to forget to take care of yourself. Call them and talk to them regularly. If they want to talk about the child, talk to them. Don't avoid the subject. When they're ready, help them get out of the house. Sometime just something as normal as going to a movie is a huge step. It may be a week, or it may be months before they're ready to take that step. Also, keep offering support for the long-term. The loss doesn't go away after a year, or after 3 years. A simple "I'm thinking of you" of the anniversary, or any other time can work wonders.

Depending on how close your friendship is, help them find support from people who have been through the same thing. My wife and I found The MISS foundation(which is also avialable in Spanish) and National Share Office to be helpful, especially the forums. We also atteneded a support group at the hopsital where our son was born.

One other thing I'd like to mention is that many times the mother gets a lot of support and the father is somewhat overlooked. Frequently the father is expected (by himself, as well as others) to be "strong" in a situation where merely remaining functional takes all of your strength.

Obviously, everyone deals with grief and pain differently, and you know your friends better than we will, so you will have to be sensitive to their needs. But stick with them.
posted by Morydd at 5:26 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hmmm. I responded as if the poster was one of the parents of the child. Not quite clear which way to go on this one.
posted by WCityMike at 5:35 PM on June 26, 2008

My heart goes out to you.

You don't say how old the baby is (or if it has yet to be born), but Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is a national nonprofit who offers very high quality portrait photography to parents with terminally ill newborns. It sounds a little weird at first, but they've taken photos for thousands of families, and often having those photos can mean everything to parents who only had their child to hold and love for a few minutes, hours, or days.

Its very important to remember this baby, always. This baby will always be a part of the family. Do whatever you can to help the parents keep the memory of their baby alive.
posted by anastasiav at 5:40 PM on June 26, 2008

i would suggest if you're at all emotional over the topic of losing a child you don't actually click on anastasiav's link until you actually need those services. i agree that for some what now i lay me down to sleep offers has helped a lot, but it can also be distressing to the poster who hasn't actually had to go through the worst case scenario yet.
posted by nadawi at 5:59 PM on June 26, 2008

This has happened to my family (my cousin on my mother's side). My sister and I determined that is was best we not approach the parents (and grandparents) directly unless they requested it. We decided that their grieving was a private affair, and that they would have plenty of support from siblings and other immediate family (and people who just can't help themselves, despite their good intentions). We sent flowers to the parents and grandparents.

When my other cousin (and best friend, AND brother to my aforementioned cousin no less!) died at 19 almost 10 years ago, the best way I could think to honor him was to name my son after him. My other cousin did the same.
posted by Brocktoon at 6:08 PM on June 26, 2008

It's difficult to know how to answer this question without a little bit more detail...

Having lost my eight month old daughter to SIDS last September, I can tell you that these were the things that were most helpful to me from others:

A friend dealt with finding a reasonably priced funeral home. He was surprised at how much the prices varied, and we were totally unprepared to deal with this on any level.

Family and friends cooked for us for weeks. Had they not, I wouldn't have eaten. Family absolutely swarmed into town, normally my wife and I are happy to have them a bit away, but without them around I'm not sure what we would have done.

A co-worker dropped off some food and I asked him to gently suggest that I didn't want to talk about it when I got back to work. To date I've never had to have an uncomfortable discussion. I got a couple of big hugs, but no long drawn out discussions...

The things that have helped the most for us:

Going back to work. I can't tell you how nice it was to have something "normal" in my life. Even if "normal" meant quietly weeping while doing an fsck of a server that was down.

Grief counseling has been invaluable, we go individually and as a couple. We've been together 13+ years, and this is by far the hardest thing that we've dealt with.

We decided that there were too many memories associated with our home and are in the process of selling it and moving.

Exercising together (think walks along the river, not weightlifting) has helped a ton. In fact we're off for a bike ride right now.

If you have any questions feel free to MeMail me.

My thoughts go out to you.
posted by togdon at 6:28 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but do not try to cheer them up. That's the wrong approach.

Grieving is important and valuable. Attempting to cheer someone up too soon will make them feel guilty about grieving and apply pressure to them to conceal their grief and to stop the grieving process before it's completed.

Be there for them. Be nice to them. Cooking dinner is a good one. But let them cry; hold them when they do. Don't try too soon to give them a positive message, not even "Well, you can always adopt". Bad move.

Positive messages and encouragement come later, after the grieving has finished.
posted by Class Goat at 7:01 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the 19th century, women often embarked on large quilting projects to help cope with the death of a family member. At the end of the project, they had a work of art to help them remember and honor their loved one.

There is one story that moves me from the book, "Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers." It describes the quilt made by a mother after the loss of her child to an 1892 diphtheria epidemic.

"Grandmother was so laid out by the death that she was unable to go on with her life. And so Grandpa ran or took a horse over to the neighboring couple, an older couple, who had lost their only child many years ago. The neighbor gathered up scraps of velvet and silk and old linsey-wool and strands of thread and showed Grandma how to fashion pieces and then embroider flowers and birds and so forth on it....Each night she would work by the light of the kerosene lamp...gradually she got better. Grandma got hold of her life again and finished the quilt and folded it up and put it away. When we'd ask to see the quilt, she'd get it out, but she never used it because the memory in each scrap would just tell her about her baby daughter."

Sometimes it is helpful to have something to do with our hands when we are grieving.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:43 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be willing to listen, even if you are very uncomfortable with it and it reminds you that this could happen to your family or that you, too, will die someday. Don´t draw back in horror and internally deny the reality of death.

Listen and help even after everyone else has decided that the ¨official¨ grieving time is past.

Thank you for being there for this family.

If the family is at the hospital now, even if they don´t want company there you might let them know that you are available if they need anything bought at the store and dropped off for them. Say ¨I´m going to the store. What do you need down there?¨.
And OP, if you are the mother or father, I fear I don´t have anything to say that will help. There really isn´t anything we can say here that would help. Support from those around you is something I hope you will have.
posted by yohko at 10:21 PM on June 26, 2008

If there is anger over the supposed religious/theological aspects of this, I highly recommend, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", despite the cringeworthy title.

It was written by a rabbi whose son was born with progeria, and therefore condemned to a short life full of physical ailments. His verdict: God doesn't kill babies.
posted by availablelight at 10:23 PM on June 26, 2008

My sister went through this with her first child (luckily she was able to conceive again), who was only alive for 24 hours before they discovered she had a congenital heart condition that couldn't be cured. They spent the next nine days with her waiting for her to die.

This would be a good time for you to be patient, caring and above all try to think of things they might not be thinking about, ways you can ease the pain they're feeling. For instance, they had decorated the house with baby things before leaving for the hospital; my father and I went to the house ahead of their arrival from the bad news to take down the decorations and store everything inside the intended nursery behind a closed door, so that they wouldn't have to see it when they got home yet could confront it when they were ready.

The Ronald McDonald House charities also served them very well during this period, as far as giving them a place to stay while waiting for her to pass and providing access to counseling and such.

Here's hoping that you'll end up not needing any of the advice in this thread.
posted by davejay at 12:03 AM on June 27, 2008

Do the things that you can do, but don't feel compelled to fill a grieving silence with chatter. I've stuck my foot in my mouth that way even when I knew better. YMMV.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:41 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I also hope you do not need any of the advice in this thread. I lost my daughter unexpectedly shortly after birth. Some random thoughts: shopping for her funeral dress the day after she died was hard and one of my worst memories - I ended up having my family find a dress for her (from a high-end doll shop because she was too tiny even for newborn clothes), I really didn't need to arrange the funeral - I wish someone else had. Let acquaintances know - my neighbour shouted out congratulations to me when I was receiving yet another floral delivery - I felt bad for her when I had to explain the sad news, some co-workers were so dense they didn't even know/care I had lost a child and when I returned to work they asked how my holiday was. I hate flowers and won't have fresh cut flowers in my house now, make sure flowers are what the family wants, I still have her teddy that my aunt gave her. Distractions are good, the night of her funeral I choose a film at the video shop that did not mention in the plot summary that the major plot point ten minutes into the film was the death of a child and the rest of the film was about the parent's reactions - it was a great film but something light would have been better. Buy the family dvds of comedies you have vetted, video games, beach read novels and graphic novels. Take them on day trips out. Have photos taken of the child and give them to the family in a sealed box to do with as they like. If there are siblings, take them out for fun trips so the parents can get things done. Pay for a cleaning service, especially if their is going to be a wake at home (I couldn't have her wake at my own home because I didn't have the desire to clean.) I am so sorry you are going through this.
posted by saucysault at 7:59 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you are a friend, and not one of the parents, put the date in your calender for the next 5 or so anniversaries. Send a card or make a call. One of the hardest things is accepting the loss over time, and it can be wonderful to have someone else remember. There's a big flurry of initial support, then most everybody gets on with their lives. Checking in with a phone call, meal, note, etc., is a nice thing.
posted by theora55 at 12:25 PM on June 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding two things from above: remember the anniversaries, it will mean a lot to the family if friends don't just sort of forget about the baby who was only with them for a short time.

Do not give uplifting advice like, "you can always adopt." Maybe they will decide to do that someday, but this is not the time to mention it to them. Likewise, "There's a reason for everything," "God must have really wanted your little angel with Him," and similar.
posted by not that girl at 2:01 PM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

In terms of the immediate aftermath, internet chat rooms/support groups pretty much saved my stepmom after my baby sister died. Here's a whole bunch of people who really, actually do know what you're feeling. You can share this huge burden with all these other people and have them say "me too" and "I get it." That can feel like a miracle when everything else is a nightmare.

Another thing she's done which I think is completely remarkable: Every year on my sister's birthday, she and my 7-year old sister (who was 3 when our 6-month old sister died) put together a pretty care package/gift basket of baby things and new mom things. They go together to the hospital where she was born and ask the nurse on duty to give the basket anonymously to the first baby girl born on her birthday. It's a tiny gesture that ends up being beautiful way to celebrate her life.

Become an advocate - get involved in a charity or organization dedicated to preventing whatever it was that caused such a tragedy. My sister's death was related to an improperly diagnosed heart condition, so we've become active in the American Heart Association, doing the HeartWalks, etc.

One of the worst things about grief is the utter helplessness, that there are things beyond your control that can change everything without warning. Actually doing something, anything, that will help others, even giving blood, can be surprisingly fulfilling.

I am so terribly sorry you had to ask this question, but you have some great advice on here no matter what the specific situation is. Best.
posted by ultraultraboomerang at 3:38 PM on June 27, 2008

I wish I couldn't answer this question with experience, but: I have been in this position - without going into too much detail, a close friend of the family's baby was murdered (breathtakingly horrific, and it's something I think about nearly every day). All I can say is BE THERE. Talk, don't talk, but don't act like it hasn't happened. If you can't face a phonecall, write a letter. Don't act like the baby never existed, and if possible: share how much you loved him/her and all the funny little memories if you have any.

Counselling from day one is absolutely crucial and effective and holy crap does it help. If possible, start now, because even if the worst doesn't happen, it will still help the family get through the situation without any long term damage.

Keep going like normal, because they'll need a lot of help staying on track - if people want to go shopping, go shopping. A few weeks after the funeral, we went to Matalan and bought jeans. There is no appropriate behaviour for someone who has lost a child. The mother involved (who also had a long battle to conceive) kept his pushchair in the back of her car until she felt comfortable enough to remove it. If they want to keep certain things around the house intact, that's alright. Doesn't hurt anyone.

If it comes to there being a funeral, everyone who wants to go should go, even if they only met the baby the once. Even if they're a little kid. Strength in numbers is incredible. Crying is good. Once you recognise that you'll never get over it, it becomes an easier burden to bear.

Apologies if this is a little shorthand, but there are no great sentences for this kind of situation. I hope you never have to use this information.
posted by saturnine at 4:33 PM on June 27, 2008

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