Supporting Parents during Baby Loss

It was cold in the doctor’s consulting room. Carry* was laying on her back, waiting to hear their baby’s heartbeat.  But then she realised it was quiet – too quiet. Seemingly from afar, her doctor said in a soft voice, “I am so sorry Mr. & Mrs. Jones, but there’s no heartbeat.” Their precious baby girl, that she has been carrying for 38 weeks, was dead…

While many people still believe there are 5 stages to grief, the fact of the matter is that grief is an individual process that does not fit into any formula.   Dr. Christina Gregory, PhD, explains:  “Grief has certain common characteristics, but no straight-forward pattern or behaviour.”

The following are some common characteristics of grief according to Dr. Gregory:

  • fatigue/ extreme tiredness
  • anger (often irrational)
  • uncontrollable weeping
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • changes in appetite (either loss of, or gorging) with the resultant changes in weight
  • changes in activity levels (hyperactive or under active)
  • anxiety
  • guilt
  • fear
  • needing to be alone/ withdrawing from community
  • needing to be with people
  • needing to talk and tell your story
  • forgetfulness
  • nightmares and/or dreaming about your baby
  • as sense of loss of meaning and purpose

“All these are natural and there is nothing ‘wrong’ with bereaved parents if they are experiencing any of these characteristics,” says Dr. Gregory, “Parents may experience all of them, or only some. They may experience them for weeks and months at a time, then never again, or they may find they experience them in a cycle – sadness, then anger, then numbness, followed by sadness again, etc.”

It is obvious that there is no right or wrong and parents should not be made to feel guilty about any of them. However, if there are prolonged incidences of the above, it is always safer to approach a health professional.

Carry says one of the hardest things to deal with is that amid a parent’s grief, there are practical considerations that need to be dealt with, “To me it was incomprehensible, but life carried on after Savannah’s death. I still had to think about shopping, cooking and general life issues.”

Hopefully there will be people supporting parents through their grief. For the mother particularly, eating healthily and sensibly is vital at this stage, even though it is often the last thing they want to think about or have energy for.  Family and friends can support bereaved parents in many ways.

Practical ways to assist parents who have lost a baby:

  • Meals:  Contrary to popular belief, taking meals to grieving people is not an outdated practice but a very much needed one! Be practical and make them home-cooked meals that they can freeze.  Lisa* is a bereaved mother whose son Connor was stillborn three years ago.   She says, “It was such a relief to know that there was something to eat on those days that I could barely make it out of bed.”
  • Administration:  File and respond to messages of condolences the parents have received after they have read them.  “My friend Elly sent text messages to thank people for their support on our behalf. It really helped to know that people knew we were grateful for their support, yet I didn’t have to sit down and figure out what to say,” explains Lisa.
  • Shopping:  Shopping for the family is another great way you can help.  Make sure that you make a list of what they need and make sure practical things like payment for the groceries have been taken care of.
  • Household chores:  There are quite a few things one can do for bereaved parents in and around the house. Washing dishes, doing the laundry and even gardening if they don’t have someone to do it, can take a huge burden off the bereaved parents’ shoulders.  Something practical like making sure their dustbin is outside on garbage day makes a small, yet important difference
  • Other children:  Another loss mom, Sam*, says that people offering to look after their other children when they needed a break helped a lot, “I knew the kids were safe and I could cry without them being upset.”
  • Doctor’s visits:  It is often forgotten that even though her baby was stillborn, the mother still goes through all the aftereffects of having had a baby and as such, she still needs to keep her doctor’s appointments! You can volunteer to drive her there if her partner cannot, and you can even accompany her to the appointment if she is comfortable with that.

However great their support systems are, there will come a time when parents must face life alone. Carry explains, “Nobody can lean on other people forever. There comes a time where you must face reality, and the world, without someone there to hold your hand.”

These parents are members of a dreadful club that nobody wants to belong to and they must deal with the emotions that it entails.  Supporting them in practical ways can go a long way to help them cope.

The ‘do’s’ after a stillbirth or pregnancy loss

The Oxford dictionary offers two explanations for the word miscarriage: 

“Miscarriage:  The spontaneous or unplanned expulsion of a fetus from the womb before it can survive independently; and:  An unsuccessful outcome of something planned.” 

The latter is not only applicable to miscarriage, but to stillbirth and all child loss situations. Lisa says, “Losing a child that was very much wanted and loved was devastatingly painful for us. We needed all the love and support we could get.”

Although there are no hard and fast rules about handling perinatal grief and bereavement as a family member or friend, being mindful of a few important things can make the difference whether a bereaved couple feel lost, lonely and unacknowledged, or understood, loved and validated.

Here are some “do’s” that may help you to support bereaved parents:

DO:

… say their baby’s name, especially when talking about him or her. Sam explains, “Parents will not burst into tears when hearing their baby’s name but will more likely appreciate the fact that you acknowledge their child.  We will never forget Ella, so nobody else needs to.”

… ask if the parents are ok.  Carry’s experience was that she wasn’t always honest, but she very much appreciated the fact that her friends had asked, “Friends must also be prepared for the emotions that may follow the question. It happens but no one can predict when.” 

… make sure that you are led by the needs of bereaved parents.  Let them feel comfortable to say, “We are not coping,” or “Please give me some space.” Make them feel at ease to be honest about their emotions. 

… remember their stillborn child.  Lisa says, “Even though Connor was born still, he was still born. I need people to remember and acknowledge the fact that he existed even though he has never breathed the air we breathe.” 

… understand that losing their child changed them forever and they may do or say things you don’t understand or that’s even upsetting to you. That’s ok.  Do not take anything personally as it is not meant to hurt you. The bereaved parents are trying to survive the unimaginable and, in this process, they may hurt your feelings. Do not take it to heart.

… talk to their other children about their sibling.  Even to smaller children that you think do not understand.  Sam says, “My sister told my children they have an angel in the sky that looks out for them. She even held a little ceremony for them to send pictures and messages to Ella to help them deal with their loss.  This really helped so much to console them.” It’s ok if you are not religious or a ‘believer’ – children are.   Let them lead you. 

A note on religion and stillbirth:   Most belief-systems in the world agree on the fact that children are innocent and will immediately be in better hands and receive better care than any earthly parent can give them when they die. It is imperative that you adhere to a bereaved parent’s religious views and beliefs when it comes to the death of their baby – even if you don’t agree at all. This is not time to impose your religious beliefs on others. Respect them and respect whatever they belief about where their baby is.

Bereavement language – think twice, speak once

It is extremely important to be mindful of what we say to bereaved parents.   Know they may be overly sensitive about their child and even the most innocent remark about their child may be misconstrued.

Carry explains, “The loss of Savannah caused untold heartbreak and despair and what made those days even darker were some well-meaning friends who said things that were tactless or hurtful.  You are in such a dark space that you are overly sensitive of the things they say but it would have helped a great deal if they were a bit more mindful of their words.”

Here are a few things to remember when talking about stillbirth or pregnancy loss to bereaved parents:

The Top 10 things NOT to say to a bereaved parent:

“At least you know you can get pregnant.”“This is God’s plan”“Just be glad you didn’t get to know her. This way you won’t have to suffer the grief.” “Luckily men get over it much faster.”  “You can have others.”“It just wasn’t meant to be.”“Be grateful for what you have.”“Everything happens for a reason.”“It could have been worse – the baby could have been born with a severe defect.”“Was it something you did?”

Positive bereavement language: Top 10 things you can say to a bereaved parent:

“My heartfelt condolences with your loss. Nothing I can say can make it better.”“You didn’t do anything to deserve this loss, it wasn’t your fault.” “I love you and you can talk about your baby to me anytime, I will listen.”“It’s ok to be angry or sad or bitter – ANY emotion you feel is ok.”“Grief knows no timeline, take all the time you need.”“Be gentle with yourself through it all.”“I imagine you must be in pain right now. I may say the ‘wrong’ thing sometimes, but I am always here for you.”“How do you feel?”“What can I do for you right now?”“It’s really bad and it’s going to hurt for a long time, but at some point, it will get different and I will journey with you until it does.”  

Every parent grieves differently. Carry says, “I felt guilty because I was experiencing deep grief over Savannah’s death. Statements made by well-meaning friends caused me to question the validity of my deep feelings of sorrow.  It is so important that people realize that things they say to a bereaved parent have an impact on them.” 

Supporting bereaved parents is not about what you are saying or doing, it is about the fact that you honestly do not judge or pretend to understand the situation they are in. Sam says, “It is about unconditional support when it matters most – where the rubber meets the road so to speak.”

No one can ever be fully prepared to lose a child and no other person can take away a bereaved parent’s pain. What we can do is to help them in practical ways, use sensitive bereavement language and keep space for them in this painful and devastating situation.

Losing a child makes your heart break in places that you never knew existed   Unknown

*Not their real names


By:  Nicci Coertze

Nicci is an experienced SBD Birth, Bereavement & Adoption Doula®, Curriculum Developer and Trainer, and Remembrance Photographer. Nicci has developed an online course for grieving parents to help them cope with pregnancy and infant loss and she has also developed SA’s first online perinatal bereavement training program.  She has written an E-book called ALMOST PREGNANT (under the pseudonym Hannah Amos) about her infertility and adoption journey that is available on iTunes. For more information, please visit:  www.ncot.co.za  or email ncot2017@gmail.com

This article was originally written and published in 2018 by Nicci Coertze for the Baby Yum Yum website:
https://babyyumyum.co.za/