When someone becomes a bereaved person, at some point in the grieving process they start to encounter what are known as triggers: statements, moments, or events that recall the traumatic event, remind the person of what they lost, and unleash the pain all over again.
Think of the widow who has lost her lifelong husband to cancer or heart disease. Upon hearing of relatives’ or friends’ 50th wedding anniversary, happiness for the couple in question might be overshadowed by her own sense of loss—the knowledge that, if her husband had lived, she too would have reached such a milestone.
A friend who lost her dad in her early 20s speaks of triggers at other people’s weddings: the bride being walked down the aisle, the daddy-daughter dance. She has to leave the room to compose herself.
For baby loss moms, it’s almost impossible to avoid triggers. Social media, the local park, TV, and the supermarket are full of them. Baby showers and birth announcements can trigger a tidal wave of emotions, and the bereaved parent may wish to withdraw herself from the celebration. Many baby loss moms struggle with witnessing milestones and life events of other children born around the same time their child died: speaking their first word, taking their first step, attending their first day of kindergarten. The moms see a ghost in all those posts and photos.
These situations can be uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t make bereaved parents into pariahs. Instead, I offer these suggestions.
- Ask the bereaved parents what ground rules for communication they would prefer. If you are expecting a baby or have a newborn, understand that the bereaved parent may wish to avoid discussing the situation with you. Pregnant moms in particular should be careful to avoid complaining about pregnancy or treating it casually. These feelings may dissipate over time or they may last a lifetime.
- If you are a parent, be extremely sensitive when discussing living children. Even casual remarks about something as innocent as baby clothing could trigger a sudden wave of wistfulness or remorse in the grieving mother or father.
- Reach out to bereaved parents when other family members or mutual friends are celebrating a life event. The parents know and understand that life goes on despite their loss, and usually they want to be happy for the person in question, but it can be difficult to feel anything but sad and alone, particularly when they see the person being inundated with congratulations when all they received were condolences. A simple note to say, “I heard about xx and just wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you today” can go a long way. I wish my husband’s co-workers had done this in the early days whenever one of his colleagues discussed his newborn, born alive at around the same time Luke was born still. If you are the person experiencing the life event, I can assure you that the thoughtful note will mean that much more to the bereaved person and may actually help in the healing process.
As an example of the latter, a coworker of mine sent an incredibly thoughtful note on Halloween saying she was thinking of me in knowing how kid-centered the holiday is. It lifted my spirits and help ease a sense of loneliness that has been settling in.
These suggestions require empathy: being able to project yourself into the thoughts and emotions of the bereaved person. I understand that this will bring some people uncomfortably close to thoughts of death and mortality that they would prefer to avoid. However, for those who have asked what they can do to help and who truly mean it, know that for the bereaved it’s not the casseroles and the flowers and the gift cards that carry lasting meaning, but rather the simple acts of kindness and reaching out that take only a few moments to execute but reverberate forever.