Coping With Perinatal Loss During the Holidays

How to support your loved ones in this difficult time 

The holidays are a difficult time for families who have lost a child. For those who are grieving, the overt and unremitting emphasis on family and celebration can be both stifling and exhausting. Many holiday traditions also represent light and birth, which can be too much to bear for a family coping with pregnancy or infant loss. At the same time, it is understandably difficult for caring friends and family to know how to best approach the painful and taboo subject of perinatal loss in the context of the joy the holidays are supposed to bring.

My second son was stillborn in December 2005. The emotional distances I had to travel between true joy and abject despair at any given moment during that time were so vast I wondered how I could possibly still be sane – and whether I really was.

At Christmas dinner, no one attempted to talk to me about my loss. This was not, I know, for lack of love. It was actually because of love – they did not want to remind me of my loss. They wanted so much for me to be happy, but negotiating this impossibility was complicated and awkward.

It's this sort of well-intended silence that feeds a self-imposed gag order around loss. And that can make the bereaved feel especially alone and adrift in a season that emphasizes children, miracles, and family.

There are many responses to baby and child loss. And, like anything in life, there is no "right" or one-size-fits-all response. However, reaching out to people is very often far more appreciated than is immediately apparent. Even if a couple prefers to be private in their remembrance, they will appreciate your consideration in asking. Once a dialogue is opened, trust yourself to follow the lead and wishes of the grieving parents. Here are a few suggestions for connecting with someone who is struggling with loss.

Offer to establish a family ritual. Light a candle in memory of the lost child and in support of the bereaved parents. If you already light candles in ritual, ask if you can include the baby and bereaved parents.

Imagine the situation from their eyes. For example, if there is a baby at a holiday gathering, consider gently letting the bereaved parents know that you are thinking of them. If your sister-in-law had a loss and you have a baby, think of a way to reach out and let her know that you wish things were different and that you want to help her.

Consider making a memorial donation in the child's name. Pick a charity that is important to the family or one that supports grieving families. If the parents named their baby, ask if you can make a donation to a particular organization in his or her memory. Remembering the child by name can be deeply validating to a family coping with loss.

Remember the father is grieving too. A father's loss is often less acknowledged than the mother's. Let the father know you recognize his loss as well and ask how you can support him.

Don't be afraid to talk about it. The memory of loss stays with parents for a lifetime, and many bereaved parents derive strength and love from acknowledgment of their pain. And it is both ironic and understandable this validation of pain is precisely what draws the bereaved closer, cinching the fabric of complex and encompassing familial love even as it lifts a veil of silence.

A version of this article ran on the Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission.