Kathryn and Dane Nakamura’s story unfolded like a fairy tale on my Facebook feed. A photograph of an acquaintance transformed into that of an expectant mother cradling her belly while her partner hugs her from behind, pictures of a beautifully created nursery, shots of a glowing mom-to-be opening gifts at her baby shower.
But last November, those magic moments became artifacts of an unthinkable ordeal.
“I am heartbroken and sorry to disappoint you all by saying this,” Dane wrote in a post. “But we lost Coulter, my boy, last night.”
A month later, the mourning parents posted pictures of Coulter’s body on social media. The baby was swaddled, his eyes closed, his face slightly bruised. He appeared to be sleeping, but knowing the truth made it impossible to look at him without breaking into tears.
How do you help in these situations? Nakamura’s heart-wrenching post quickly prompted a stream of messages expressing shock, sadness, and support, and friends organized an online fundraiser. But it’s not always clear whether you even should respond when someone shares unimaginable sorrow.
“Take your cue from the griever about what they want or need,” says grief specialist Leeat Granek, an assistant professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel. “If you don’t know what to say, you can communicate that and ask the griever how they would like to be supported.”
Sometimes the decision to announce a pregnancy online is freighted with additional worries. When my grad-school colleague Theresa Juva-Brown announced her first pregnancy on Facebook three years ago, it was as if she were still nearby, not 200 miles away in Queens. But the rest of what she shared emphasized the real-world distance between us: She and her husband, Timothy Brown, had discovered during her 12-week check-up that her unborn daughter was not doing well. (She would later be diagnosed with Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder.)
“I was already showing, so I felt like people were going to start to wonder and ask me,” Juva-Brown says of her decision to go ahead with her announcement despite the less-than-encouraging news. “I didn’t want to have to lie and tell them everything was great. There was fear over how people would react. Are they going to think I’m crazy for sharing it?”
She was thankful she revealed the situation, because there was an outpouring of empathy and support, including from many mothers who’d had complicated pregnancies or lost a child themselves. “When people post about pregnancy, most of it is rainbows and butterflies, but there’s this other reality,” Juva-Brown says.
Amy Reinink knows that other reality well. She never posted about her first pregnancy online. “In a way, I felt disingenuous not sharing anything and keeping my mom and other relatives on lockdown,” she says.
Ultimately, she lost that child, a daughter she and her husband named Susannah.
When Reinink became pregnant again, she didn’t post about it until after her son, Henry, was safely born. Three months later, she chose to share the story of the daughter she’d lost. “I was past the point I was looking for solace,” Reinink says, “but it made me feel really good to let people know this was part of myself. I didn’t feel shame.”
Juva-Brown shared a series of increasingly emotional Facebook posts as the weeks passed and her unborn daughter’s condition worsened. Ultimately, Eleanor Marie was stillborn. A couple of days later, Juva-Brown posted a picture of herself holding Eleanor. “I wanted to acknowledge her,” she says. “She’s real to us. She’s still our first child.”
I remember feeling particularly powerless when I saw that post. I didn’t know if any comment I made or Facebook message I sent would be helpful or just seem shallow.
“The technology about how we communicate about grief and console one another has changed—writing texts, Facebook posts, or e-mails—versus drop-ping by with a casserole or talking on the phone, but the underlying principles are the same,” says Granek, who encourages making an effort to comfort a parent experiencing a loss no matter what the medium.
These days, Reinink happily posts pictures of Henry, a glowing and growing boy who is almost two years old.
Juva-Brown’s story has a happy ending, too. She and her husband decided to have another child. Now she’s posting pictures of her son, Timothy, a charming one-year-old with blond hair and a winning smile.
She doesn’t regret posting pictures during her first pregnancy. Neither does Dane Nakamura, who still plans on becoming a father: “I’m super-happy we have all those pictures and memories there, because it’s not something I ever want to forget.”
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Washingtonian.