When someone we love suffers a tragedy, we want to help. Yet many of us – my pre-loss self included – fumble with exactly how to help. And more specifically, what to say.
It’s easy to dissect our words after we say them. Countless times I’ve rolled my eyes at myself wishing I’d said something – anything – different. In the spirit of not being too prescriptive and still trying to be helpful, I offer some word choices to consider.
Proceed with caution. ‘If’ should really be reserved for those at the center, in this case the mom pregnant after loss (PAL) and her immediate family. (If you haven’t heard of ring theory, you should read about it. Comfort in, dump out.)
Wondering about the “what ifs” is a thing I sometimes do as Oberon’s mom. What if I hadn’t been so active? What if we had gotten a third, fourth, fifth medical opinion? What if we had made different choices? To be honest, that “what if” game has never been one I like to play, but other loss moms may be different. That said, I’ve never heard from a loss mom who likes listening to someone else play the “what if” game about her children.
That’s the crux of it – leave the ‘if’ to them.
- If only you had known.
- If you had listened to the advice.
- If you didn’t eat that turkey sandwich.
- If it was meant to be.
- It’s impossible to know everything.
- You did the best you knew how, you are a good mom.
- You didn’t cause this.
- I’m so sorry.
Yes, yes, and yes. Pregnancy after loss is an experience straddling two very different worlds. Hope AND fear. Excitement AND exhaustion. Future AND past. Using ‘and’ to validate this dichotomy is an empathetic and supportive thing to do. To make this more obvious, let’s talk about…
Don’t go there. It’s very hard to make the ‘but’ come off as anything other than dismissive. Possible, but hard. Trying to thread the needle while supporting a grieving friend is probably not the best use of your mental energy, so instead let’s look at how different things look when you replace one word.
- I’m sorry your baby died, but your living child needs attention too.
- You must be very sad, but you have a lot of support.
- Losing your pregnancy is awful, but you weren’t very far along.
- I’m sorry for your loss, but you got the chance to hold him.
- I’m sorry your baby died, AND your living child needs attention too.
- You must be very sad, AND you have a lot of support.
- Losing your pregnancy is awful, AND you weren’t very far along.
- I’m sorry for your loss, AND you got the chance to hold him.
Using ‘and’ does two things – it expresses the thought without judgement AND it opens more discussion. With the sentences using ‘but’, it sounds like the end of the thought. The statements using ‘and’ seem like the beginning of a conversation, inviting more thoughts and responses.
I hope this practical advice helps you think about what to say when your friend is pregnant after loss, or really any time your loved ones need you. The point isn’t to get mired in trying to say the exact right thing at the exact right time, the point is to use language that helps communicate and support the way we want to. And, I hope this perspective helps.