A child who has lost his parents is called an orphan. A wife who loses her husband is called a widow. But there is no single word that encompasses the grief of a parent who has lost a child.

This monumental anguish is why President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October to be National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.

Awareness For Everyone

Not only is the month of October set aside to raise awareness, and grieve the loss of loved ones, it is also a special time to remember and love these children. Awareness provides comfort to those who have lost a child and an opportunity to express the love they have for their children with a wider population.

Whether you are a grieving parent or a supportive community member, there are 12 things everyone should know about pregnancy and infant loss.

1. Loss Can Happen at Any Time

When referring to pregnancy and infant loss, there are generally three categories.

  • Early pregnancy loss (miscarriage) is the death of a child before 20 weeks gestation. Most losses happen before the 13th week and are caused by problems associated with the baby or placenta’s development.
  • Stillbirths describe the loss of a baby older than 20 weeks gestation. The cause of death for more than 50% of stillbirths is unknown.  
  • Neonatal loss is the death of a baby shortly after birth, whether they lived for a few minutes or a few days.

2. Loss Is More Prevalent Than You Think

The American Pregnancy Association estimates 10-25% of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage (not including situations were conception wasn’t verified by a doctor). For women over the age of 35, the risk increases to as much as 35%. A woman who has had a previous miscarriage has a 25% chance of having another.

3. Grief Is Manifested in Various Emotions

Regardless of the age of the lost child, loved ones will experience grief. Symptoms often include:

  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Hopelessness and depression
  • Despair
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate

4. Family Members’ Grief Often Goes Unrecognized

Even the most caring supporters fail to recognize family members’ grief. The general population assumes mothers grieve more than anyone else. In reality, fathers and other loved ones might struggle with the loss of a child more than a mother because they don’t have the same support system.

5. Mothers Unfairly Blame Themselves

Mothers may question their actions or inactions, blaming themselves for the loss.

  • Why didn’t I realize something was wrong?
  • Why didn’t I go to the doctor sooner?
  • What did I do to cause this to happen?

6. Parents Should Be Prepared

Individuals don’t take a CPR class hoping to someday use their acquired skills. They do, however, appreciate the fact they are prepared when the unexpected happens. The same is true for parents. No one plans to lose a child, but those who understand what they are entitled to in these situations are better equipped to handle the unexpected. Parents of childbearing years should take the time to research their legal rights.

  • Could you bury your child according to your personal preferences and beliefs? Regardless of the age of the baby lost, parents can inquire as to how the body will be taken care of. Check with local funeral homes. Many provide very economical services for such situations.
  • Could you hold your baby? The unexpected loss of a child understandably catches parents unaware. Many later regret not holding the baby. Sometimes, parents want to take pictures with their lost love. If parents are unable (physically or emotionally) to handle the photoshoot, many nurses will oblige or call a local bereavement photographer volunteer.
  • Would people call the baby by name? Parents often have a name picked out for their preborn child or quickly choose one in the midst of an emergency. Parents can ask medical professionals and other people involved to call the baby by name and not something impersonal, like fetus.
  • Would you still get keepsakes? Ask hospital personnel for the traditional keepsakes: the baby’s wristband, footprints, bassinet name tag, etc.

7. Words Can Help or Hurt

Family and friends often struggle with how to interact with grieving parents. Consider the following conversation dos and don’ts.

Do say…

  • I’m sorry for your loss.
  • I don’t know what to say.
  • I love you.

Don’t say…

  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • There’s still plenty of time to have more kids.
  • There must have been something wrong with the baby.
  • It was meant to be.
  • Now you have an angel in heaven.
  • At least you didn’t get attached to the baby.
  • You are so much stronger than me; I could never deal with this.
  • At least you have other children.

8. Don’t Question People About the Timing of Their Family Planning

Seemingly innocent phrases like, “When are you guys going to have kids?” or “Isn’t it about time you started a family?” might just be rude and annoying to a traditional family. However, those same remarks can be hurtful to someone struggling with fertility or grieving the loss of a child.

9. Treat Pregnancy and Infant Loss Like Any Other Death

Friends and family are encouraged to treat the death of a baby just like the loss of any other person. Inquire about a funeral or memorial service. Send flowers. Offer to help. 

  • Be specific about offering assistance. Following the death of a loved one, it is easy to say things like, “Call me if you need anything,” or “Let me know if I can help.” Many people may not feel comfortable asking for assistance.
  • Offer specific help at specific times. Volunteer to bring dinner at 6 p.m. on Friday. See if breakfast Saturday morning would be well received. Would it be possible to do a load of laundry? Take siblings to the park? The worst that can happen is the parents say no.

10. Try Not to Overwhelm Parents With Personal Stories

Considering the prevalence of pregnancy loss, it isn’t surprising for grieving parents to happen upon a fellow parent with a similar experience. Friends who have also experienced loss can be a great support system, but the timing for offering personal reflections and advice is delicate. Everyone grieves at their own pace. It might be too soon to hear, “I understand how you feel.”

11. Remember Special Days

It’s okay for parents to celebrate special days in their own personal way. Recognizing those dates each year is a healthy way to remember and love the child. Family and friends will want to be sensitive of holidays like birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc. These days are constant reminders that the child is not there to celebrate.

12. Parents Grieve Longer Than Society Allows

  • When parents lose a child, the average period of intense grief is usually about 18 to 24 months. Within that time, there will be emotional highs and lows.
  • Every parent grieves and remembers their child differently, but it is insensitive to think parents will simply, “get over it,” or, “move on.”
  • Stay connected with the grieving parents. Most offers of help and attention to emotional needs taper off after the first couple of weeks. Family and friends need to remember the grief keeps going.

Increasing Awareness and Love

Who can you connect with this month? How can you help increase awareness for pregnancy and infant loss? Can you help a family member or friend remember and love their child right now?