The Power of Your Words When a Baby Dies

How to think about what to say to grieving parents.

Posted Nov 20, 2019

My previous two posts looked at: 1. why bereaved parents find platitudes, jargon, and euphemisms upsetting rather than comforting, and 2. how speaking this way actually creates distance between you and the parents you are trying to support. This post looks at the power of your words, and provides insights on how what you say can deeply affect parents.

When you provide bereavement care, what words do you use in your efforts to support parents? Are you using words that protect and direct parents? Or are you using words that accept and connect with them?

Words are powerful because they reveal how you see, feel, and think about a given topic. Whatever your beliefs or intentions, your words show your true colors. 

For example, when a baby dies, do you believe that grief is a problem to be solved, or a journey that unfolds? Do you believe that parents benefit from setting their own pace, or moving on as soon as possible? Do you intend to encourage and advise parents, or simply be a witness to their experience? Do you intend to hold space for their thoughts and feelings, or direct them toward reframing and feeling better?

As a caregiver or supportive friend, whatever your beliefs and intentions, your words will speak volumes. To demonstrate this, here’s an exercise:

To begin, first, put yourself in the parents’ shoes. Imagine that you are a mother or father, mourning the death of your beloved baby. Your shock, heartbreak, and sorrow are profound, and you truly don’t know how you will survive this tragedy. Now consider what it would be like to hear these two different offerings of support:

1. I’m so sorry for your loss. You know, most parents go on to have a healthy baby, and I bet you can too!

2. I’m so sorry your baby died. What has this been like for you?

Can you feel the difference? At first glance, #1 may seem fine. After all, someone is expressing condolences and also hope for your future. Perhaps you feel inspired to be brave and optimistic. But then, when you read #2, do you feel a sense of relief? Do you get the sense that you can lean on this person and that they truly care and want to understand? Here’s why:

"Protect" versus "Support"

I’m so sorry for your loss” is vague and euphemistic, avoiding any mention of “baby” and “death,” as if trying to protect you from the harsh, tragic reality of what happened.

In contrast, “I’m so sorry your baby died” affirms your baby’s life and death, and shows their willingness to support you in facing this harsh, tragic reality.

"Protect & Direct" versus "Accept & Connect"

You know, most parents go on to have a healthy baby, and I bet you can too,” has the effect of moving you away from your present grief and on to imagining a better future. While this may seem kind and encouraging, it actually indicates that the person offering support cannot sit with you in your grief, and is eager for you to feel better and “move on.” Ultimately, rather than benefiting from this effort to protect you from sorrow and direct you to think happier thoughts, you may feel abandoned, misunderstood, or wrong for feeling buried in grief, and perhaps very alone.

In contrast, “What has this been like for you?” stays in the present moment with you and accepts your grief as it is. It shows a compassionate willingness to connect with you by holding space for you and your story. And because this person is willing to accept your experience as you're living it, you are likely to feel accompanied, understood, normal, and supported.

As you ponder these two different sets of words, examine your beliefs and assumptions about perinatal bereavement, grief, and adjustment. And think about the kind of care and support you want to offer. By clarifying your beliefs and intentions, you can become more mindful of the kind of support you actually want to offer and then consciously align your words to your intentions. The more mindful you become, the more carefully you can choose your words, and the more powerful your impact can be—plus the more satisfied you can feel, knowing that you’re having the therapeutic impact you intend.

The next post explores the commonly held beliefs that drive the urge to “protect & direct” bereaved  parents.