September is NICU awareness month, an awareness month that is close to my heart due to my own experiences.
The short story is that when I was pregnant with my second son Finn my water broke around 26 weeks, he was born via emergency c-section at 27.5 weeks and he stayed in the NICU for 74 days. (If you’re interested in reading the long story feel free to check out Finn’s birth story here.) Those 3 months of my life are ones that changed and shaped who I am forever. My husband Sam and I often refer to our life story as before this event happened and after this event happened.
The impact of having a NICU baby is a life lasting one and unless you’ve been through it yourself it can be hard to know how to support the people that you love who are going through this trying time.
Here are some ways that you can do that:
- Please, please, please, try to refrain from saying “at least.” This phrase made my hair stand up and quite frankly made me a bit angry. “At least you have a healthy baby,” “At least everything turned out alright,” “At least XYZ.” Look, I know that you mean well and that you’re trying to be positive by highlighting the good that came out of the situation but when you say “At least” you risk negating that person’s experiences and emotions. Of course I’m happy that Finn is here and is healthy. I’m SO grateful for that! But that doesn’t change the fact that our family went through something traumatic and when you say “At least,” it can make people feel like their grief and trauma is unnecessary and unwarranted. Instead of saying, “At least you have a healthy baby,” maybe try saying, “I’m so sorry that you are going through this.”
- Offer to visit them at the hospital. This may not be something that every person wants, but I know that I could have used a bit more of it. Yes, the NICU staff became some of my favorite people and it was actually a little sad to say goodbye to them, but us NICU parents spend a lot of time alone in the dark behind that curtain. I spent countless hours watching monitors, worrying and fretting. Being in that environment for months felt so incredibly isolating, like I didn’t even know how to be in the real world anymore. It really lifted my spirits when someone would call or text asking if I could use some company at the hospital. And if I didn’t feel like it? Well, I’d just say no! But it felt good to have folks reach out.
- Do favors for them (bonus points for doing it without being asked). Make and drop off meals. Clean their homes. Do their laundry. Offer to care for their other children. Bring them coffee at the hospital. The NICU staff is awesome at taking care of our babies, but us parents need to be taken care of, too. And it’s not always within our emotional capacity to ask for what we need. So, please, feel free to just reach out and offer or even just do it!
- Don’t forget about them once they and baby are home. I remember talking with my counselor about this in one of our sessions. I told her, “I don’t really know how to move forward in the real world when everything feels so different now. Like, how do I just act normal?” Of course she said, “You don’t.” It was so confusing to engage in “normal” everyday conversations among people who existed in daylight for a long time. So, in order to support your NICU friends and family continue to check in with them for as long as they need. Keep asking how they are feeling. Keep validating their feelings about their situation. Because the truth is healing from this takes a loooooooong time.
Keep in mind that your NICU friends and family are probably having a harder time than they are letting on. They either don’t want to burden you with their sadness and worry or they just don’t have the energy to be completely real with you, but I promise they could use some encouragement and support in whatever way you can offer it. If they say, “no thanks, we’re good,” that’s fine, but the fact that you offered will mean a great deal to them.