The newborn period is hard on many families. Young babies are extremely needy and give very little in return. Add in the hormones, lack of sleep, and newness of most parenting activities, and new parents are overloaded and overwhelmed. In general, we have improved on education and openness about how trying this time can be (even without postpartum depression).
Families with a newborn after loss experience many of these challenges and more due to grief and previous trauma. However, there is intense pressure on these families to just be happy now that they have a living child. Of course families are happy to have a living child, but they also need support and understanding after a subsequent child has arrived.
1. Acknowledge the new baby is not a replacement or a fix.
Having a living child brings light and joy to our lives, but it doesn’t erase the grief and pain from losing a child before. Many new parents after loss worry that this is how outsiders see it. We worry we are being judged as “over” our loss or “all better now.” Stay away from phrases like “now you can move on” or “now you can be happy.” Acknowledging that the mother and family are still grieving throughout this time is a way to support and validate them. You can do this by including the baby who died in conversations, on cards, honoring birthdays and anniversaries, and continuing to be sensitive around pregnancy and baby topics. Phrases like, “remembering Obie” or “keeping Oberon’s family in our hearts” are ways to include the name of the baby who died.
2. Offer to help.
Offer to bring over a meal, or go for a walk with the new mom, to watch the baby for a couple hours, to keep her company on a shopping trip, or anything else you can think of. New moms often feel very isolated, and this is especially true for loss moms because we don’t want to be seen as ungrateful now that we have a living child. It’s better to offer help that isn’t ultimately needed than to withhold the offer from someone who could really use it.
3. Listen without judgment.
Sometimes new moms complain about things that seem minor to others. It happens! And the simple act of naming an annoyance or frustration can help overcome it. One time, I broke into tears because my husband put a dirty dish in a clean dishwasher – I felt that doing the dishes was my only household accomplishment that day and my emotional reaction to it being ruined was intense. I knew how silly it was, but I couldn’t control the extreme emotional swing. A new mom after loss is not wishing away her baby or unappreciative of her living child. At the same time, sometimes babies cry incessantly and we haven’t slept and it tries our patience. If we also cannot vent our frustrations, we bottle up and that’s not healthy for anyone. If a new mom after loss is complaining, just listen. Don’t remind her how good she has it or tell her she should be happy. (Caveat: If taking care of yourself means not listening to new moms complain, you don’t have to sacrifice your well being for a friend’s. Be polite, but firm, if you cannot be a support person in this way.)
4. Don’t count only the living children.
Don’t talk about a first baby if it isn’t the first. Don’t ask when they plan to have number two if it’s really number three. Don’t call them a family of four if it’s really six. If you aren’t sure what numbers a family uses for themselves, don’t use them at all. If you are close enough to ask about subsequent children, just ask if they are planning for more children or another child. There’s no reason to number it.
5. Don’t minimize concerns or fears.
It doesn’t matter if you think she should be willing to take the baby out in this weather, or if you think allergies are made up. The best way to be supportive is to be supportive. If you have to share information (you think she truly doesn’t know something, you are concerned for baby’s or mom’s safety, etc.), acknowledge that you are sharing something that was helpful to you and you thought it might be to her. That’s it – don’t get into a debate. She might have good reasons for her fears, and she might not. Now is not the time. If she wants to stay indoors for sixty days, or has a sleep monitor, or goes in for weight checks every two days – that’s her choice. To be supportive, support her choice and see how you can help within her boundaries. Don’t patronize or belittle her for doing things you consider over-the-top.
6. Give a gift.
Waiting to give a gift until after baby arrives can be supportive for a couple reasons. The first is that many loss families don’t have a shower or can’t handle opening gifts before baby arrives safely. The second is that gifts make us feel loved and cared for, and during the newborn period moms can really use that reminder – especially if baby is fussier than normal. It’s even more special if you can somehow include all the children in the family with birthstones, initials, or totems. Some gift ideas include jewelry or self-care items for mom, little sibling or rainbow gear for baby, meaningful books, and burp cloths (everybodyneeds burp cloths).
7. Don’t disappear.
We lose a lot of our connections when our child dies. We don’t have the same energy to put into relationships, plus some people are scared to be around us. New babies also limit our abilities to keep in touch and get together. Those two things combined can take a social support system from thriving to nothing in a shockingly short span. Don’t disappear. Keep e-mailing, texting, planning lunch dates, weekend hikes, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be huge or constant, just don’t disappear. Neither the crippling rawness of early grief nor the busy business of raising small children last forever, and we’ll remember those that stuck around. It means a lot.