The day my best friend called to tell me that her baby had died is etched into my memory. We’ve been friends since we were four years old – raised our Cabbage Patch Kids together, took the babysitting course side by side, and grew into young women who sometimes wondered what life might be like if we had kids of our own one day.
In all our years of friendship, we never imagined the day when her baby would become tangled in his umbilical cord and die, just weeks away from his due date. It’s an unfathomable loss. But that’s what happened and it was devastating, for my best friend – most of all – and for all us of us who love her.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss (PAIL) Awareness Month, in North America and in countries around the globe. October 15th is the official PAIL Awareness Day, when a wave of light travels along the time zones, as people light candles at 7 p.m. (local time) in remembrance of little ones lost.
It’s been more than 10 years now since she lost Malachi, and every year I light a candle for him. One of the things about that time that has always stuck with me is the heartbreak she experienced when her loss often went unacknowledged. It seems unthinkable, but some people simply said and did nothing.
In my work over the years, I’ve connected with countless mothers who have experienced miscarriage or later pregnancy loss and have encountered the same reaction from people. Much of the time, it’s because people don’t know what to say; it’s an uncomfortable conversation, so we avoid it. But tip-toeing around miscarriage and loss is what leaves families feeling alone and isolated in their grief.
We need to keep the conversation going, sharing stories and breaking the silence the around loss. The 16 Percent, is an online place dedicated to providing a safe space for couples and individuals to share their stories of infertility and loss. It was created by three women who, in January 2019, also released Through, Not Around, a collection of stories of pregnancy loss and infertility.
I connected with Caroline Starr, one of the co-founders of The 16 Percent and an editor on Through, Not Around, to find out more about how the projects began. She’s the mother of two busy boys – ages one and five – and has also experienced loss.
“The 16 Percent was born of a deep need I felt for more community when I was going through loss and infertility,” she says. “Ariel (one of our co-founders) and I miscarried around the same time and found so much strength in knowing we weren’t alone, and spent a couple of years having brunch once in a while and talking about how we could help people feel less alone. When Allison (the third co-founder) lost her baby, the three of us got together and mapped out The 16 Percent.”
The three co-founders had all worked together in publishing before and knew they’d be compatible creating a project like this.
“Working on this project while I was in my first trimester with my youngest son was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Caroline recalls. “It was deeply personal, editing those essays, and I’m so glad we had the opportunity. We get so many messages through our social media channels and emails from people who found this book, and The 16 Percent at the perfect moment. Knowing that there is a space to share your experiences, even if it’s not time for you to do it yet, seems to be very empowering for many.”
When it comes to acknowledging and supporting someone through miscarriage or later pregnancy loss, it can be hard to know what to say. Sometimes we just need to be present.
“Sometimes the right thing is just to hold space for someone and be open to hearing them without judgement. Sometimes, letting someone else tell you what they need and following it to the letter is really powerful. We all feel this need to project what we might like on a person, but these experiences are so visceral and individual that what might have helped you might make someone else feel sad and terrible,” she says.
“The best thing I could recommend would be to meet someone where they are in their grief. If they want to talk about it, go for it and listen away. If they want to not talk about it, that’s perfectly okay too. There’s no right response. For me, personally, I wanted to hear other people’s stories, and that reaction was part of the reason this project came to be. I wanted to know that people were okay, and that okay could look like any number of outcomes.”
So, how can you support a friend through a loss? If you know someone who has experienced a miscarriage, later pregnancy or infant loss, here are three things you can do:
Let her know you are thinking of her. Call or send a card. Skip clichés, like: “Everything happens for a reason…” and reminders that she can try again or has other children. It’s okay to stumble over your words or not know what to say. As human beings we protect ourselves from difficult emotions, like sadness and grief.
Encourage her to reach out to a local support organization, like The Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network, where she can connect with other women coping with loss and counsellors who can help guide bereaved parents through their grief. Do not rush her. Do bring over a meal if you live nearby, or offer to take care of older children if she has them. Listen if she’s ready to talk or simply sit with her if she isn't.
A person who has experienced loss usually does not want to forget about their baby. If the baby has a name, don’t be afraid to say it. She will be happy to hear it, even if it makes her sad. Many families plant a tree or have a ceremony of some kind to remember their baby. Ask about those plans and if there’s anything she needs. As the years pass, reach out and let her know that you remember.