Hi, my name is Lindsay.
And Mother’s Day is coming up. And I am that friend. The one who lost a baby.
I am probably the friend who you’re tiptoeing around. I might be the friend who has become a major hermit and cancels plans last-minute. I am the friend who you’re not sure about inviting to a baby shower. I’m the friend who might have unfollowed you on social media when you announced that you were pregnant (read: I did. I definitely did.). I can’t relate to your normal-mom conversations about late-night feedings and nap schedules and prenatal yoga. The truth is, I know motherhood in a deeper way than many ever will, but I feel left out and confused about my identity as a mom.
On January 1st, 2017, in Room 44 of the NICU at Children’s Hospital, I became this friend. I held my first and only son Afton as he died in my arms. He was just one day old.
It was every bit as painful as it sounds. For those first few days after his completely unexpected premature birth and death, I was sinking, slowly sinking, and eventually I crash-landed right there on the bottom of the ocean. No light, no air – just hard, jagged rocks and one thousand pounds keeping me pinned to the bottom. As time has gone on, I have vacillated back and forth from the top of the water where I find myself for just a minute, feeling the sun and breathing in the air and noticing the color of the water and sky, to finding the weight of loss pulling me back down to the lifeless bottom again.
In sharing his birth story, many-many-many people have reached out with “me too’s.” The obvious ones are from women who have experienced similarly life-altering losses, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, or premature infant loss, like my son Afton.
But you know who else has come forward? THE FRIENDS. The friends have come forward saying, “my friend, too.” And then the question that follows closely behind is: “What can I do for her? What can I do for my cousin, my sister, my friend who has lost her baby?”
If not for the help of my people – family, friends, and people that I barely know – I would still be on the bottom of the ocean today, four months later. Dear friends, you are asking the right question. You can and will help your loved one through this.
Before you dive into my thoughts on this, will you read my disclaimers?
- If you see something suggested here that you don’t think your friend would appreciate, just toss it. Grief is unique and you know your friend better than me.
- This is not a list of gift ideas. Because grief is not a buy-your-friend-a-book-and-be-done-with-it kind of thing. These ideas are personal and even more meaningful than books and big-time bonus: FREE.
- Because of my faith in Jesus, I have intense hope in life for our souls beyond our physical bodies. That being said, this post does not include what I would consider “Christian comfort phrases” because a) sometimes, even though they speak of hope, overly Christian-ese statements can make a person feel like she doesn’t have permission to deeply lament, and my hope is to help you figure out how to meet someone in the depths of their lament; and b) sometimes faith-related cliches are just downright rude and un-helpful. Shockingly, phrases like “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” or “God needed another angel,” do not validate my deep grief over the death of my son.
- If you are supporting a friend through an earth-shattering loss like this, just accept right up front that there will come a time where either she or you will say something weird, offensive, awkward, or generally “not right.” That’s the price you pay when you intimately share life with someone. And it is so worth it, because the alternative is missing out on all the beauty that comes with walking with a friend through her darkest hour. That type of friendship is a sacred one that not everyone gets to experience in this life.
I would be a complete ding-dong to not mention my friends and family and other members of my village. The only reason I can write this post is because you’ve given me so many examples of how to do this well. You have, in the most real way, answered the question of What To Do When Your Friend Loses a Baby.
above all else: Acknowledge. Saying Something is Better Than Saying Nothing.
That’s my number one thing, most basic, foundational, MUST-DO thing, you guys.
If you don’t read or remember anything else in this post, remember this: please, please, please acknowledge the loss, the grief, and the fact that your friend is now living without an actual part of her heart.
Of course I might cry when you bring it up in the grocery store. But of COURSE I want you to acknowledge my grief and the fact that my child has died. It is deeply painful to make small talk about the weather when my whole world has fallen apart. Please, please, please acknowledge this pain.
You could say:
- I just want you to know I’ve been thinking about you so much over the last few weeks.
- You’ve been on my heart.
- I just want to acknowledge that it’s probably really difficult for you to be here today.
It doesn’t have to be major, guys. These statements all acknowledge the pain AND (my personal favorite) they leave the option to either continue to talk more about it or to be done talking about it, which is going to be different depending on the person and the circumstances.
PS. If you think it’s too late, that too much time has gone by, think again. Statements like this are incredibly meaningful at any point in a loss journey: I just want you to know that I’m really sorry I didn’t reach out right away when you lost ____. I was intimidated by not saying the right thing, but I should have said something. I am so sorry for your loss.
SAY Her BABY’S NAME.
“I am so sorry for your loss.” is really meaningful.
But “I am so sorry about the loss of your sweet baby boy, Afton. Will you tell me about him?” is much more meaningful. Because for me, the death of my baby is not a generic loss. It is the loss of a specific person and a specific future. And when you speak about him as a person – not just a pregnancy or a baby, but a person with a name – that validates my grief.
“If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died — you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.” – Elizabeth Edwards
You could say:
- I’m thinking about you and missing ____ with you today.
- _____ is still so precious to us. We love her.
- I know I never got to meet ____, but feel like I know him because I know you.
Ask to See Pictures of Her Baby.
I remember sobbing, telling my friends: I know he doesn’t look like a normal baby, but I think he’s so, so cute.
Many loss moms, especially those whose babies were premature or stillborn, have pictures of their baby but fear that people might not like looking at them. Think about that. Think about what it might feel like as a mom to think that people won’t like looking at your baby.
The baby might have discolored skin. Their lips might be blue. They might have a physical deformity or their eyes might still be closed tight. It is hard to look at pictures of babies who aren’t “normal.”
But do you know what your friend thinks? She thinks this is the most beautiful baby in the world. It can be such a healing gift for you to ask to see her baby and to admire her baby with her.
You could say:
- Do you have any pictures of _____? I would love to see him.
- Oh my gosh, look at her adorable nose! Do you think that’s mom’s nose or dad’s nose?
- What a beautiful baby. I’m so honored that you would share those pictures with me.
Offer Specific Help.
This is an actual text message that my friend Melissa sent me after we lost Afton that is all kinds of right.
“I keep staring at this screen, at your pictures, and your words, and trying to muster up some kind of response that would be a hint of sufficient. But nothing. All I probably need to say is that we can’t stop thinking about you guys. 1. He’s beautiful. I love his name is his little nose that looks like it might have been Lindsay’s. 2. Thank you for sharing this publicly. You guys are amazing people and even better parents. 3. If you guys need anything, like groceries, dinner, deodorant or Kleenex, will you let us know? We’ll be your Prime Now and your Bite Squad. 4. No response needed. Just want you to know we can’t stop thinking about you.”
Here’s what was so awesome to me about this – instead of saying “let us know what we can do,” she told us what she was going to do. She wanted to be our Prime Now and Bite Squad- our delivery team.
I don’t even think I responded to the message, but I saw it and I remembered it. And the morning after we got home from the hospital, when I went to find something for breakfast and realized we had no milk and COULD NOT muster up the courage to face anyone at the grocery store, I knew who to text. She said YES, I’ll be there in an hour, do you need anything else?
And here’s the real magic – even though I didn’t have the strength to respond (again), she came with the milk AND a bunch of other ready-to-eat groceries. She just took it upon herself to make her best guess about what we needed and wanted rather than waiting for us to give her a grocery list. She brought ready-made soups, crackers, bagels and cream cheese, pre-cut fruit, and more.
Grief is exhausting and many parents facing loss just do not have the mental strength to even think about what they might need, so if you can help put the pieces together for them, you are lifting a huge burden.
You could say:
- I would love to deliver some groceries for you this week. What day works best to drop them off?
- I’m going to make a Target run and I’d like to drop some stuff off for you later today. I’ll just leave it outside the front door.
- What do you need for ___’s funeral? Let me run some errands for you.
Related: I’m a big believer in the power of bringing FOOD (hi, food blog!) to hurting friends in a season of grief… as I’ve made a point to say 1,000 times through our Feeding a Broken Heart series.
Honor Her Baby Publicly.
A few of our friends honored our baby publicly on Facebook and Instagram (after we already had) by writing about him or sharing our pictures and our posts about him. It’s so simple, but just knowing that others cared enough to share something with their own family and friends really meant a lot to me. It showed that they were impacted by our son in a deep and profound way.
You could say:
- This week we’re heartbroken about the loss of our friends’ baby, ______. We will always remember her.
- Today, as I’m spending time with my family, I’m remembering my friend and her baby _____. She has shown me what it means to really love my kids.
- It was a beautiful day to remember a beautiful baby. I was so honored to attend ______’s funeral. We will miss him forever.
Send Her a Text.
Texts are the best, easiest, cheapest, fastest way to participate in supporting your friend. Seriously. Just text her right now.
In my opinion, text messages are better than cards because a) why is the post office always 100 miles away, b) you can send them every day! and c) my personal favorite – your friend can text back. She might not, because sometimes in grief you are overwhelmed with everything, including sending a text message. But she might be lonely, and a text might give her a mid-day lifeline in case she wants to talk.
You could say:
- Hey! Thinking about you today. How has this week been? (easier to answer than “how are you?”)
- Saw this sunset/flower/sign/animal tonight and it reminded me of ______. Missing him tonight. (these reminded-me-of texts are my all-time favorite and I will never get sick of them.)
- Hey, I’m guessing this has been a tough week. Do you want to grab coffee tomorrow?
Write Something To Her Baby.
Cards written to your friend are great, but cards written to my baby are rare, intimate, and incredibly special.
My sister wrote a card to Afton on his due date and it is one of my most treasured possessions. It says things like, “Dear Afton, Today is your due date. We miss you every single day and we still can’t believe that we got to meet you a few months early. Your mom and dad loved you so well. You are so precious to us.”
Bjork’s brother wrote Afton his one and only birthday card on the day he was born. It says things like, “Hey buddy, it’s your Uncle Erik. Happy Birthday! We’re so glad you’re here and we love you so much.”
We got a letter written to Afton from his nurse, and a few other letters to Afton from family members.
I am crying now even as I write this.
It is powerful and moving to see and hear other people love your absent child in their absence.
You could say:
- Dear ____, I have known your mom and dad for a long time and they’ve never been as happy as they were to welcome you into their family…
- Dear ____, we will miss you everyday and we will always think of you every time we…
- Dear ____, today is your birthday! We are celebrating that you would have been __ years old today. We wonder what you would have been like, and we love you…
Make it Personal and specific.
I’m not really going to try to explain this one but I am going to give you a bunch of real-life examples of things people have said to me, unprompted, that have made me feel like our friends and family really know how to love Afton well. I cannot even begin to describe to you how much these words mean to me.
Real things people have said or texted:
- Our friend Eric: “Afton is such a cool name. Right away when I heard that was his name, I thought of crisp, cool air and spearmint gum. I thought of being at the top of a ski slope with big snowflakes slowly falling down. It’s peaceful and it reminds me of nature, especially winter. It’s got such a great Minnesota vibe to it.”
- My friends: “We planted these perennials to celebrate Afton, in hopes that each spring they will come back as a reminder of him and of new life. We also included a lavender plant. We love you and Bjork and sweet Afton. We’ll always miss him.” – giving us a beautiful planter for Afton’s due date.
- My sister Kristin: “My boys are still asleep, so I’m sitting here with my coffee, looking at this beautiful sunrise, and I’m just thinking of Afton. I feel like I’m spending time with him here this morning.”
- My dad: “Never forgotten.” // “Looking at a beautiful moon tonight and thinking of our little guy.” // “Hanging out here tonight with our special guy.” – all with pictures of sunsets, colorful “after light”, and Afton’s grave.
- My mom: “Today we’re celebrating Easter but we’re also remembering the people who we love who aren’t here with us. We feel their absence and we miss them. So we have one candle for Grandma Joan, one candle for Uncle Rich, and one candle for sweet Afton.”
- Bjork’s parents: “Adding this to our treasured family pictures in our home.” – a picture of Afton’s birth announcement in a frame.
What you could do/say:
- Many loss parents associate some kind of symbol with their baby. For us, it’s snow, and the moon, and what we call “after light” which is the time between afternoon and evening. When you see a symbol, take a picture and send it to your friend and tell them that you’re reminded of their baby. Even if you’re not sure if it’s a symbol for them or not, I would always love to get a text from someone saying that something, somewhere reminded them of Afton.
- Put their picture up on your fridge or somewhere in your home. At one of our friend’s houses, we noticed that they had the program from Afton’s funeral hanging up with their other Christmas cards. Those little things mean a lot.
- Tell them what you think of when you hear the baby’s name. It was such a cool gift for us to hear that from our friend Eric. We don’t get to see Afton grow up and live into his own self-identity, so having others to help us build an identity for him is so incredibly precious. You could say, “Here’s what I think of when I think of ____.”
Supply The Weird Post-Birth STuff.
Hey, guess what? Your friend lost her baby AND she also probably just gave birth or went through some kind of excruciating physical experience. So along with the overwhelming grief, she’s dealing with all the same boatload of weird stuff that women deal with after birth, and she probably is not able to think about self-care right now. This was one of the single-most helpful things that anyone did for me.
Some of the best gifts (yes, I’m calling these gems GIFTS) that I got from friends after we lost Afton were medical and very weird and now I’m going to write them on the internet:
- c-section underwear (you’re welcome)
- high-waisted soft pants – like, 80 pairs of soft pants (if debating on the size, go larger. she has just had a baby.)
- magnesium chewy gummies to help with sleep
- eye mask for sleep
- girl-type products
- digestive-type products
- tummy wrap to wear under clothes
- c-section scar treatment strips
- etc., etc., etc.
You could say: …..
Actually, there’s really not much to say about this one. Best case scenario is just hitting up Walgreens and looking for the weird, unmentionable medical stuff that she probably needs that no one else is buying for her.
Make Returns For Her.
Just a few days before Afton was born, I had ordered a bunch of new maternity workout-wear. And I had been so excited about it. Of course, the package arrived to our house just a few days after we came home from the hospital. I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I didn’t have a baby. It was painful just to look at it.
A friend came over and saw the unopened package and said: here, let me return that for you.
Whether it’s new maternity clothes that won’t get worn or baby products that won’t get used, your friend might have some brand-new, returnable stuff laying around that you can just swoop in and return for her. Super, super helpful.
Just be wise – make sure that she wants it returned. Sometimes, even though the items might never get worn or used, they have emotional value. For example, we have some baby clothes and toys that could easily be returned, but we will always want to keep them because they were Afton’s clothes and toys. So just tread delicately and ask first.
You could say:
- Is there anything you want me to pick up or return for you when I go to the mall this week?
- Do you think you’ll keep ___’s things in a special place?
- Are there any things you want me to return for you?
Help Her Socially.
One of my most-dreaded things after losing Afton was making small talk in social settings. When strangers (or not) would go on and on about their favorite salad dressings or the latest movies or their new clearance sandals, I would be beyond done. I had some not-very-nice thoughts, such as: my son just died. stop talking about your pointless shoes.
So yes, I am a social treasure.
This was and still is especially true when the conversation moves to the topic of babies, baby showers, baby’s due dates, where was so-and-so going to deliver, and how cute other people’s babies are. I would stand there, phsyically present in these conversations, but just completely dead inside. I could not, for the life of me, think of a way to interact properly. Am I supposed to coo over the baby? Ask something about motherhood? What’s worse is that I felt like people were watching me to see how I was responding. Like a car accident or something. Here comes the mom who just lost her baby – how will she react around other babies and pregnant moms? Answer: awkwardly. This is hard. Please stop looking at me.
If you are in a social situation with your friend, you can support her in a big, big way by being aware of how social dynamics might be affecting her. If you can stick close to her, change subjects when needed, and be a little extra talkative and friendly to others so she doesn’t have to, it gives her that space to just sit back and be socially awkward. And she needs that space.
You could say:
- (to others) So what is going on with you at work?
- (to others) Do you guys have any big plans this summer?
- (to her) Hey, let’s sit in the back row / stay home / head out early tonight.
Grieve WIth Her On Important Days.
There are important days in the calendar now that your friend will never, ever forget. The day my baby was born. The day that he died. The day she was due, the day of the scan, the day there was no heartbeat. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Christmas.
Loss moms feel the pain of loss every day, but these specific days are especially painful. Be intentional about reaching out to your friend on these days and even in the days leading up to the day, because sometimes the anticipation is worse. Set a recurring reminder in your calendar and have it end: never. Because even 20 years from now, Afton’s birthday will still be his birthday, and I will still want people to remember him.
You could say:
- Thinking of ____ on his birthday. I know today is a hard day and I am remembering ____ with you.
- I’m guessing this holiday season is a hard one since it’s your first without _____. I’m thinking of you.
- Hey, with Mother’s Day coming up, I would love to get together and celebrate you and ____. Are you free tomorrow?
Bless you, bless you, BLESS YOU, friend.
That was a lot of words, and you are a rare and beautiful gem of a person for wanting to support your friend, cousin, sister, or loved one in this hard season.
“To the woman comforting a grieving friend: it is ok if you don’t know what to say to her. Although your words can’t make her heartache better, your presence and stillness can help ease her loneliness during grief. You don’t need fancy words. Just show up. Just be still. Just listen a lot and say little. Bring coffee and sit on her couch and light a candle and listen. Let her know that her new rhythm is your new rhythm for however long she needs.” – @laurelbox on Instagram
I’m sending so much love to you and your brokenhearted friend as you navigate these challenging waters of motherhood and loss. ♡ You are brave and you are strong and I’m proud to be doing this thing with you.
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