When My Baby Died, I Was Shocked By What People Told Me. This Is The 1 Sentence I Wish They’d Said Instead.


My second child, Ben, was stillborn at full term on New Year’s Eve 2003. It was an out-of-the-blue, devastating shock that started my indoctrination into living with grief — and other people’s opinions of how I should live my life with grief.

Weeks after the initial devastated reactions from friends and family, and the agony of a memorial service, I found that people had a lot of opinions about how I should handle my loss. As I was dealing with a confused 3-year-old, trying to be an OK-enough parent and partner and feeling unsure of how I would manage to get out of bed the next morning, I also had people freely telling me what I should do, and they continued to do so over the next year and beyond.

I know, in another person’s shoes, I may very well have parroted back the same awkward platitudes, which are meant to ease the speaker’s mind more than the recipient’s. Grief is hard — we don’t talk about it much as a society — and Ben’s death opened my eyes to just how grief-averse most of us are.

There’s no time to prepare for or process this kind of loss. The future that my husband, Simon, and I had pictured was ripped away from us, and we were left with a closet full of diapers and clothes, a crib ready to hold our son, and a 3-year-old who wondered when her baby brother was coming home. I was left with a grief so deep that most days I didn’t want to move, and I was convinced I could not survive my pain.

What I wanted was a map to direct me through the loss, to pinpoint the landmarks at months three and six and 12, like mile markers on a highway, so I knew where I was and how far I had come. But there isn’t a map, or directions, or a guidebook. And Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ famous five stages, which are so often cited in books and articles and therapy sessions, were originally meant for those who were specifically facing dying, not grief. People telling me that it sounded like I was getting to “acceptance,” or “anger,” or any other stage, and therefore I “must be making progress,” did not help me.

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“This hands/feet print was done for us by the hospital where Ben was born,” the author writes.

Courtesy of Virginia Williams

I’ve thought a lot about grief over the last 21 years. Here are the comments that I wish no one had ever said to me, and my responses to each:

“Be grateful for your living child and focus on what you do have.” 

Please, let me grieve. I have always been grateful for what I have, but that doesn’t make what I’ve lost any easier to bear. It’s possible to be both grateful and grieving.

“God must’ve needed another angel.” 

Then, I’m sorry, but God is a jerk. I needed my son. My family needed my son. If there is a God, he or she is cruel.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I believed this, once upon a time, before Ben died. This took me months to accept. Simon and I asked ourselves, over and over, why us? What did we do wrong? Did we need to learn a lesson? Eventually, we found some peace when we realized that sometimes shit just happens. There was no more reason for our son’s death than there was for any of the good things in our lives to have happened. Life is random and awkward and painful, and many of the things that happen to us are out of our control.

“You can always have another baby.”

You don’t know that. No one can say or know what struggles anyone else has gone through to have a child. Please don’t say this.

“Move on from your anger,” or “it’s time to play it down.”

How exactly do I move on from anger or play down the fact that my child is dead? The anger dissipates with time (a lot of time), but don’t tell someone to move on from their anger because you’re uncomfortable. That’s the crux of the issue here: The speakers are uncomfortable with anger and grief, and therefore uncomfortable with me being open about what I’m feeling.

“It’s too horrific for me to think about.” 

This one left me speechless. Horrific? Yes. But not for you.

“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.” 

Maybe not, but again, that’s an easy answer, akin to “cheer up!” My son is dead. We lost a future of possibilities and a life we pictured. I will always be sad that he’s gone. And while that sorrow has changed and eased over the years, it is always there. How could it not be?

“It’s time to stop talking about him.” 

I don’t talk about him every day, or even every month, but like my living children, Ben is always in my heart. Sometimes I just want to say his name in a safe place, to say how much I miss him, how old he would be, just to remember him. He might be dead, but he existed. And he is still part of my life, no matter how uncomfortable that makes you.

“You’re so strong — I couldn’t survive this.” 

No, I’m really not strong. I wasn’t given a choice, and I am falling apart. No one feels strong in a situation like this — we’re just doing the best we can. If you were in my shoes, you wouldn’t feel strong either.

“Use it as a learning and growing experience.”

It’s neither — please just let me grieve what I have lost. It hasn’t made me better, but it has irrevocably changed me. Give me time to feel the grief, mourn what I have lost, and figure out how to move forward.

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The author and her husband, Simon, are pictured in 2023.

Courtesy of Virginia Williams

There is no comfort in hearing any of the above, no matter how well intentioned the speaker may have been. Whenever I did, I would listen, nod, say thank you, and wonder how the hell I could keep going. I longed for the chance to have honest conversations about what I was feeling.

I also wanted to meet others who had been through what I had been through and had survived, because I didn’t know if or how I could do it. This is why I’m still speaking and writing about my son and the grief that I experienced and still experience. Perhaps some other parent may hear or read my words and know that their grief will always be with them, but it will change and soften. I want them to know that there is life after loss, even if it looks completely different than life before loss.

I also want people to know the only thing that I wanted to hear after Ben’s death, so that if they find themselves looking to comfort a loved one dealing with this kind of unthinkable tragedy, they’ll be better equipped than so many people in my life were. It’s just one sentence: “I don’t know what to say, and I know there aren’t any good words to make any of this feel better, but I’m here for you, however you need me.”

It was such a relief to hear some version of that from the few people who said it, who understood there is no silver lining — no “getting over” anything. It meant that Simon and I didn’t have to pretend to have a strength that we didn’t have, and that we were safe to fall apart in front of them if we needed to. The friends we have who still remember Ben and say his name have also given us the great gift of including him in our lives the only way we can: by keeping his memory and his story alive. No parent wants their child to be forgotten.

For a very short space of time, Simon and I got to hold our beautiful boy in our arms and tell him we loved him. It’s not something I will ever forget. What I know for sure, after 20 years without him, is this: You don’t get over a love or a grief like this. You always carry it with you, and eventually it becomes a part of who you are.

Virginia Williams is an American writer living in southeastern England. Her work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Metro, The Independent, Fresh Cup, and two anthologies on grief: “They Were Still Born: Personal Stories About Stillbirth,” and “Breaking Sad: What To Say After Loss, What Not To Say, and When To Just Show Up.” She’s currently at work on a memoir about grief and loss after the death of her son. You can find her at virginialwilliams.com.

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