All the things not to say to a parent experiencing miscarriage or infant loss

Story of Brittany Osborne’s stillborn son, Jacob, will make you think twice

Photo used with permission from Brittany Osborne

Each October marks another National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, intended to honor and remember those who have lost a child during pregnancy or infancy.

Maybe you know someone who has lost a baby or experienced a miscarriage -- or maybe that person is you. It goes without saying that this can be an incredibly painful time. People grieve in their own ways, so if you’re trying to be supportive for someone else, consider what the parent or parents would prefer. If you’re an immediate family member, maybe your presence will be needed or wanted. Otherwise, the couple might just want some space. Either way, and no matter your relation to the parent or parents, we want to help guide you as a support person.

For starters, we’ve compiled a list of things not to say.

Sometimes it can feel awkward to stay quiet and easier to fill the air with words.

But if you don’t have the right ones, it’s probably best to keep it simple and instead be a listening ear.

Again, these are comments you DON’T want to make:

‘Everything happens for a reason.’

We get it, people are often well-intentioned, and they just want to reassure you that this loss will fit into the bigger picture, somehow.

Still, it’s best to stay away from this line.

“Don’t tell me that my baby died for a reason,” said Brittany Osborne, who lost a child in early 2018. “There is no reason.”

‘God has a plan.’

The same idea as above applies here. We know no one is trying to be off-putting, but this is still hard to hear as a parent who’s grieving this type of loss.

“God has a plan to make my husband put my child into the ground? No,” Osborne said. “Just don’t."

‘I know how you feel.’

You might not want to say this, unless you’ve actually suffered a miscarriage yourself or had to bury a child. That might sound harsh, but consider that losing a grandparent or even a parent is not the same as losing your baby, Osborne pointed out. And that’s not to say that the death of a beloved grandmother, for example, isn’t painful. But in this situation, it’s best not to compare.

“Don’t act like you know what (someone is) feeling, because you don’t,” Osborne said.

So, what do you say or do instead?

“The best thing to say is simply, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Osborne said.

You don’t need to elaborate or go any further. Just acknowledge the parent’s loss. If you’re close to that person, you’ll know whether a hug or physical touch is appropriate. Sit with that person in silence, if that feels right, or know when to back off and leave the grieving mother or couple alone. Read the situation and consider keeping the encounter brief.

And if it’s you who’s going through this ...

Find a support group. Osborne said she found a group that met exactly two weeks after delivering her stillborn son. And although that might sound soon after her baby’s death, “They were the best thing to ever happen to me,” Osborne said. “I would not have made it without them. Friends Supporting Parents is the reason that I am OK talking about my baby today and (can) talk so openly about him.”

If you find yourself in a situation involving infant loss, hopefully you’ll find that this was a helpful guide or jumping-off point.

As for what made Osborne our go-to source on the subject, we’ll include her experience below.

Photo used with permission from Brittany Osborne

Brittany’s story

Brittany and Matt Osborne had been trying to get pregnant for only three months or so when they found out they were expecting their first child.

The Osbornes, who live in the Detroit area, went to all their doctors appointments, had two ultrasounds and announced the pregnancy to their families over the Thanksgiving holiday. This was several years ago.

Brittany Osborne took her prenatal vitamins, stayed healthy and did everything she was told to do.

“My appointments were always perfect,” she said. “I had the same nausea as everyone else, and I was exhausted, just as expected.”

Osborne had a doctors appointment one week before her 20-week anatomy scan, which is when the doctors like to take a look at how the baby is measuring and how all of his or her structures are forming.

At Osborne’s regular appointment, her baby’s heartbeat was perfect, and she was told nothing was wrong.

At the anatomy scan that followed, she and her husband learned the sex of their baby -- a boy -- and the ultrasound technician started to take the usual measurements.

“Then the tech claimed that the baby was not cooperating,” Osborne said. “Our little Jacob was punching and kicking away, so I thought nothing of it. She had me go to the bathroom, walk around, lay on my belly, etc. She tried to get pictures of his heart, but then she started acting funny and left the room.”

About 20 minutes later, the technician returned to look at Jacob Osborne’s heart again with a midwife. It was then that the Osbornes learned that their baby seemed to have an irregular heartbeat, so the doctors wanted them to see a maternal fetal medicine specialist to verify that. The office encouraged the couple to get it taken care of, which Brittany Osborne said they did, especially considering “we were nervous first-time (parents).”

But Brittany and Matt Osborne experienced something similar at the MFM office. The technician started the anatomy scan, confirmed Jacob was a boy and “acted funny, (leaving) the office,” Brittany Osborne said.

Next, the MFM doctor said she thought the baby had an enlarged heart, but that it was extremely rare to have dilated cardiomyopathy, like this appeared to be.

She called in a favor to have the Osbornes see her colleague, a pediatric cardiologist.

Meanwhile, Brittany Osborne was told it would be wise to get an amniocentesis, a medical procedure used to help diagnose any possible abnormalities in a developing baby. In this procedure, a small amount of amniotic fluid, which contains fetal tissues, is sampled from the amniotic sac surrounding a developing fetus.

Finally, one week after their initial anatomy scan, the Osbornes got some answers. After extensive work-ups and scans of the baby and his heart, a cardiologist spoke with the couple in a private room. He described the way that the fetus’ heart works, grows and changes over time.

“Our son’s heart was taking up his entire chest, and there was no sign of lungs developing since they had nowhere to go,” Osborne said. “His heart was working overtime, and there was almost no blood flow in one ventricle, so the baby would need a heart transplant the moment he was born.”

The doctor said Jacob wouldn’t make it to full term.

This conversation marked the first time that a doctor recommended that Osborne have her pregnancy terminated, at 21 weeks, considering his slim chances at survival -- and the fact that, even if he made it to full term, the chances of a heart lining up for a transplant are almost 0.

But “It was there that I chose to carry no matter what, because if he can’t get a transplant, I will give him a chance and carry him so that his organs can save someone else,” Osborne recalled thinking. “But I needed to give him a shot to live.”

The couple had the chance to get a second opinion, which they did, at the University of Michigan. When that day rolled around, Osborne arrived at the hospital for her third anatomy scan, and the technician once again left the room for more than 20 minutes.

“I had, at this point, seen enough scans to know that the blood flow around the baby didn’t look normal, so I think I knew that he was gone before I realized what I knew,” Osborne said.

But she chose to remain positive and hopeful.

A teacher, she focused on all the work she needed to grade for her high school students, and tried to distract herself by thinking about her upcoming baby shower.

“Then, the specialist at U of M came in, started the scan again, and stopped after just moments,” Osborne said. “She then had me clean up, sit up, and she touched my leg, saying, ‘I am so sorry, but there is no longer a heartbeat.’ Then I felt cold running through me. My heart stopped. I didn’t believe her. I just stared.”

She didn’t have many options, and was told that another hospital could likely get her in for an induction in a matter of days, but even that wasn’t confirmed.

“I was to go home and carry on with my life and carry around my big, 22-week pregnant belly, with a dead child in it,” Osborne said.

The couple were given some time and privacy to cry, talk and figure out their next steps. This is when they decided his name was Jacob John Osborne.

“I have no clue where it came from,” Brittany Osborne said. “It just came. We called our parents. My parents jumped into the cars and drove the four hours to my house. So did my brother and sister-in-law.”

The time that followed was a blur.

The couple had to go on with their lives, all the while checking out cemeteries, funeral homes and filling out paperwork as to what casket they might want and determine whether they’d have floral arrangements at the service. Osborne thought she’d be enjoying her baby shower around this time -- not planning a funeral. All the while, she was still carrying Jacob.

“No one told me what to do,” Osborne said. “I just floated.”

The couple was able to finalize a funeral home, which donated rooms, services and memory cards. The Osbornes bought a headstone for a plot at a cemetery.

And then, 13 days after the initial anatomy scan, the couple arrived to the hospital -- not even knowing if there was even space for Brittany to be induced, but she insisted, and they “eventually found me a room,” she said.

“After numerous rounds and nearly 24 hours of the balloons and Pitocin to induce labor, I finally started having contractions,” Osborne said.

And then, on Feb. 19, 2018, just before 7:30 p.m., Jacob was born.

“I didn’t do an epidural because my heart hurt so bad,” Osborne said. “I wanted to feel everything.”

The nurses kept yelling for her to push like she learned in her childbirth classes, but she yelled back that she was four months early. She hadn’t taken those classes yet.

Jacob was 11 ounces and 11 ½ inches long. He had blue eyes, long fingers, a beautiful nose and nails long enough to trim. Osborne said she was able to hold him, kiss him and love on him, but after about three hours, his skin started getting dry and changing from a red color to a bit white.

“My parents, my in-laws and my husband and I held him for as long as we could,” Osborne said.

They had a priest say a prayer, and then just before midnight, they took the boy away.

“(He was) my baby -- that was never going to talk, cry, roll, walk (or) anything,” Osborne said.

Reality had set in. And after nearly 20 hours of waiting, the couple was discharged from the hospital.

“I sobbed in the hallways,” Osborne said. “I had to be held up walking to the car. I saw a happy and glowing man walking into the hospital with a baby car seat, as I was walking out, without my baby.”

Osborne said she doesn’t remember going home or much of that night at all. She just cried for days on end. It took more than a month to make it 24 hours without crying, she said.

In the meantime, she laid on her couch, browsed the internet and watched TV.

“Every TV show has babies, FYI, even ‘Big Bang Theory,’” Osborne said. “I ended up watching 'Mean Girls' because I needed cheap laughs without babies.”

And then she found her support group, which she credits fully for helping her grieve and slowly recover. In hindsight, she said, perhaps she did go back to work a bit soon. Osborne waited two weeks before returning to school, but called her timing “a horrible decision.”

“I didn’t give myself time to heal and to be all right,” she said. “But distracting myself was necessary.”

In her support group, she learned that talking about Jacob would actually help her heal.

“If I didn’t talk about him, I felt as though I was hiding him or ashamed of him, and he was my child,” she said. “We talk about Jacob in present tense mostly because he is still our baby. We visit the cemetery when we can, and we do not want people to forget about him. He was our whole world for so long.”

Osborne left us with a few final pieces of wisdom. If you’re a friend of someone who has experienced any type of loss similar to this, don’t be afraid to bring it up -- especially if it’s been awhile.

“Talk about their baby. Do not tiptoe around it,” Osborne said. “Use their name, ask about him and just listen.”

Obviously, you don’t want to do this right away.

In the days and weeks following a loss, a better approach might be dropping off food and leaving.

“I loved the people who would drop off food and then leave. No, I didn’t want to talk about my stillborn child at that moment," Osborne said. " ... And don’t overstay your welcome. Sometimes, while grieving, you just want to be alone.”

To end on a high note, the Osbornes now have two more sons, with another child on the way. Below you see the couple and the older boy, Jamison, in a photo provided two years ago.

*This story was first published in 2019. It has since been updated.

Photo used with permission from Brittany Osborne