Communicating with a family experiencing pregnancy or infant loss

What to say, what not to say

It can be very difficult to know what to say when someone is losing a pregnancy or experiencing the death of a baby. You may want to offer comfort, but can’t find the right words. Families report remembering what is said to them around the time of their loss, especially by health-care providers, so your words are important.

Sometimes, when a person is uncomfortable and doesn’t know what to say during a difficult time, they will to resort to platitudes. These words are said with good intention, but typically reflect a person’s personal beliefs and values. Rather than being helpful, platitudes usually come across as trite and hurtful. Your intended message is not what the family hears.

Here are some examples:

What is Said Intended Message Received Message
Everything happens for a reason. I hope you are able to find meaning in this. I’m being punished.
You aren’t given more in life than you can handle. You have the strength to survive this tragedy. You don’t want to hear how vulnerable and scared I am.
You’re young. You can have more children. There is nothing to prevent you from future pregnancies. You think I can replace this baby with another baby.
Everything will be okay. I want you to be okay. I need to be okay to make you comfortable.
Your child is in a better place. My faith tells me that your baby is in a good place. You think there is a better place for my baby than in my arms.
Go out and have fun. You’ll feel better soon. Take care of yourself. Grieving should be avoided.
Be grateful you have other children. You may actually love and cherish your children more now. The child that died is less important than my other children.
It’s better you miscarried because the fetus was probably abnormal. It’s not your fault.

You don’t think I could parent a child with a disability.

Miscarriage is common.  You’re not alone in this experience.

This is no big deal.

Parents generally want to be acknowledged, to know that their experience is not too awful to talk about, and that their baby won’t be forgotten. They want to be listened to. They want to know they’ve been heard. If you have said something hurtful, simply acknowledge it and say you’re sorry.

Here are some suggestions of simple, heartfelt words you can say to a bereaved family:

  • ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I’m sorry we are meeting under these circumstances’
  • ‘Tell me about your baby’ or ‘Will you tell me about your baby?’
  • ‘I’m so sad for your loss’
  • ‘It’s okay to feel devastated’
  • ‘It’s okay to cry’
  • ‘Take all the time you need’
  • ‘I will explain it as many times as you need me to’
  • ‘I will answer all of your questions, or find someone who can’
  • ‘I don’t know why it happened’
  • ‘We are here for you now, and in the future’
  • ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you’
  • ‘Can I contact someone for you?’
  • ‘It’s not your fault’
  • ‘I will contact you on this day, at this time’ (make sure you follow through)

Many health-care providers worry about what to say to a grieving person, but it’s actually more important to know how to listen. By listening with compassion, you take cues from a person about where they are at and what they want to talk about. By asking sensitive questions, you are inviting them to talk about their feelings, and not make assumptions. By accepting and acknowledging their feelings, you are letting them know it’s okay for them to feel the way they do.

Here are some common ways that people respond that are usually unhelpful, and some simple suggestions on alternative ways to respond that can make a positive impact.

What is Said Alternative
“What can I do?” Do something. Ask for nothing. Simple gestures mean a lot (blanket, meal, phone call, menstrual pad). It’s okay to ask what they need, but they may be in too much shock and grief to know.
“At least…” Any sentence that begins with ‘at least’ is undermining. Accept that there are no magic words that will cure or fix this.
Sharing Personal Experiences.
Saying “I understand…”

Offer simple information on what to expect.

No two people experience grief in the same way, so don’t assume you know what a person is feeling.

If you have a similar experience, share briefly what worked for you.

Try not to compare your grief to theirs or offer advice. The emphasis needs to be on listening to their feelings.

Assume they believe in a higher power, God, or Heaven. Ask if they have a faith that may be comforting at this time.
Saying Nothing. Avoiding. Offer small gestures of kindness. Sit in silence. Ask how they are feeling. Listen. Check in regularly. Normalize their feelings and thoughts.
Unsolicited Advice & Platitudes Offer simple and heartfelt words (please see below for suggestions).

Although you can’t take away the pain of a loss, you can provide a family with much needed comfort and support, and help them feel less isolated and alone. The most important thing you can do is simply be a supportive and caring presence while they travel their own grief journey.