Stillbirth can be an uncomfortable and intimidating issue to discuss which is why conversations surrounding stillbirth have remained taboo for so long. However, we sincerely appreciate that you have taken the time and initiative to learn about stillbirth and how you can help your friend or family members survive the tragedy of the death of their baby.
How can I support someone at the time of their baby’s death?
Stillbirth is a difficult time for many members of a family. If you are a grandparent, it can be hard to see both your child and their partner suffering in addition to trying to come to grips with the death of your grandchild. Similarly, it can be difficult to see your sibling suffering while you try to comprehend the death of your niece or nephew.
In the coming weeks, you will become an important support person as you help in both practical ways (e.g. shopping, cooking, etc.) and emotional ways. The most important thing you can do is acknowledge this baby by using their name and allowing his or her parents to cry and talk about their child as much or as little as they like as they move through their grief.
The baby’s death will have repercussions throughout the parents’ lives. Every Christmas, birthday and special family event will be tinged by sadness that this baby is not present. Some occasions will be especially poignant as parents reflect on what their child would be doing or would be about to embark on, such as their first day of school, buying a car, getting married or having a baby of their own. This is especially important to remember because your role in their support network will be lifelong.
For the parent of a stillborn baby, the pain will lessen but it will never be forgotten. They will learn to live a “new normal” without their baby. Your acknowledgment of these special occasions will provide immeasurable comfort and assurance that whilst this baby is no longer with you, they have not been left behind by all the people who would have loved them in life.
What are some practical things I can do to help them?
The most precious gift you can give someone who is grieving is patience and a shoulder to cry on. Listen to them relive those final moments, allow them to question why this has happened, and just be there or hold them as they grieve in the way that feels right to them.
Understand their grief
Below is a list of emotions and thoughts your friends may (or may not) experience. Remember, there really is nothing normal or abnormal at this time. There are only two parents, their baby and their grief.
Gender differences can play a role. You may find that the mother feels responsible for the death of her baby; that she did something wrong. She may also feel ashamed that her body has let her down. On the other hand, fathers may feel helpless to do anything to change what has happened. They may also feel incredibly alone if attention is focused only on the mother; though this can also occur for those men who rebuff any sort of attention to their own emotional well-being in favour of their partner’s grief. We recognise that not all couples are heterosexual and feel that feelings of helplessness can apply to any partner, male or female, who finds themselves confronted with supporting someone as they give birth to a stillborn baby.
Anger, frustration, irritability, and inconsolability are all responses which may or may not be directed at you at one time or another. The words and actions of a person who is grieving should not be taken personally, irrespective of what those words and actions (within reason) might be. If necessary, you may find it better to step away for the sake of your relationship – particularly if you feel that your proximity may be aggravating that person.
Intense sadness often manifests as a kind of numbness. A bereaved parent may seem vague, forgetful or confused. They may find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions (and should not be pushed or expected to do so).
For some people, bursting into tears suddenly and for long periods of time is a way of releasing sadness. This shouldn’t be discouraged particularly as your friend may feel a need to apologise for crying. Attempts to stopper emotional releases like crying and wailing hinder the grief process. To truly move forward, people need to feel free to express their grief. Alternatively, you may find that your friend will not cry. They may feel guilt that they can’t or just don’t feel like crying. This too is a natural response and may change with time if it is a symptom of the initial shock and resulting numbness. Whether or not your friend cries is not important; learning to cope with their grief is key and they may do so in ways other than crying.
Ways you can help
If the parents don’t feel capable of taking mementos of their baby, offer to do so for them and keep them safe. While some people may feel it is an odd thing to do at the time, one of the greatest regrets for some parents of a stillborn child is not recording enough of their precious baby, particularly photographs. They may not want to look at the mementos for months or even years, but we hear many stories about parents who are grateful that they have photos, notes, handprints and locks of hair to have with them later on. Even the mere thought that there are mementos to look at when they are ready can be a comfort in itself.
Often, people are happy to offer help or a shoulder to cry on. What they may lack is the follow through. In their current state, your friends or family may not be thinking clearly and certainly may find it difficult to think of what you can do for them. They may also feel guilty for grieving but may not want to burden you with a phone call or by asking you to come over.
If you aren’t sure if stopping by unexpectedly is a good idea, call first. If there is no answer, leave a message of support. Leave messages as often as you think is appropriate. Get in touch with other family members and discuss real ways you can help with:
General support: such as preparing home-cooked meals, doing grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, and paying bills.
Alerting others: Sometimes parents will feel exhausted by the the mere prospect of having to tell others that their baby has died, particularly if it will mean repeating themselves over and over. You may want to offer to do so for them and alert their employer and work colleagues, family and extended family, and friends in the most sensitive and appropriate way.
The funeral: Depending on the parents’ wishes, you might want to offer to assist with planning the funeral. Arranging flowers or catering, or even finding something for the parents to wear are all things they may not feel up to organising themselves.
Note: In the midst of grief, some people may feel pressured to make decisions or may make snap decisions in their varying states of anger and grief. Some of these decisions can be life-changing such as selling their house, quitting their job, or separating from a partner. In your role as a support person, you may be able to offer the parent alternatives or find ways to postpone their need to make a decision.
Be aware of your own grief. Often, when someone we know experiences a loss, it can bring up memories of those we have lost ourselves.While it is difficult and while you may think your ways of coping with loss, particularly if it was the loss of your own baby or child, are something you should share, we seriously recommend that you be cautious. Offering your experiences can make the person feel like they are taking too long to grieve, that you are saying their grief is the same or less painful than yours, or even make them feel like they have to comfort you. This is their baby; their grief. Only offer to share if it is asked for and try not to draw comparisons; just offer suggestions and always be wary of platitudes like “I made it through, you will too”. These can be viewed in a bad light depending on that person’s frame of mind. If you feel your own grief becoming unbearable, seek help but do not lean on that person.
If you find yourself with serious fears for the parent’s health or safety, it may be appropriate to discuss this with their social worker, midwife or obstetrician. Be aware and observant of their behaviours and the things they may say to you. If they express questions such as ‘why am I still alive and not my baby?’, feelings of incredible despair, hopelessness and rage, or even hint at considering self-harm, medical intervention or professional help may be appropriate.
What are some things I should not do?
It is important to be aware of how you feel. For example, if you don’t feel capable or willing to be a key support person it may cause tension for you and your friend or family member.
It is also possible to be ‘too supportive’. Constantly asking if that person is alright, looking at them sadly, and doing things for them which they’ve asked you not to bother with or not to do, can create problems in your relationship. Be wary of your actions. Are you doing something because it will help the parents or will it help you?
Our most important piece of advice is that you not pack up the baby’s room unless the parents have expressly asked you to do so. Imagine coming home to an empty nursery that had been so lovingly put together in preparation for your baby. Not only are your arms empty but now so too is the nursery. This well-meaning gesture can be incredibly traumatic and heighten the intensity of the emptiness a newly bereaved parent will be feeling. Packing up the room themselves – in their own time and way – may be an important step in the grieving process for the parents.
If you have been asked to pack up the baby’s room, consider if you can simply move the baby’s things to a storage space. Parents can often regret getting rid of everything in the heat of the moment and may later appreciate having the baby’s things still there. Alternatively, you might suggest that they simply close the door until they feel ready to open it again.
What can I say to someone who has had a stillbirth?
If you don’t know what to say, simply say that. For a parent to hear the words: “I’m so sorry that your baby has died, and I don’t know what to say but I want you to know that I am thinking of you”, can be an immeasurable comfort.
Resist the temptation to say something, anything, which could be construed as your advice about how to move through this grieving process. It is important to simply listen to the parents, sit and cry with them, and to respect their wishes with respect to grieving, the funeral and moving forward with their lives.
What shouldn’t I say to someone who has had a stillbirth?
We strongly suggest that you not recommend anyone ‘pull themselves together’ – and it certainly shouldn’t be expected. Likewise, saying things like: ‘it’s time to move on’, ‘you need to get on with your life’ and ‘you can have another baby’ should be avoided – especially the latter. This can make it seem like they have failed in some way and that this baby needs to be forgotten.
If you are uncomfortable with grief, either because it reminds you of someone you have lost or simply because you don’t feel you can adequately support this person, it may be better to admit this to someone who will be able to support your friends while you bow out.
At the very least, platitudes, whether they be religious, spiritual or generic, should be avoided in lieu of feeling like you have nothing else to say.
How can I support someone over the long term?
Though you may find your friends will begin to grapple with life after the death of their baby and soon enough begin to find a new ‘normal’ where they return to their usual activities, return to work, and return to life, remember that the loss of their baby will always be felt.
To continue to demonstrate your support, give them a call or send them an email, or consider making a Donation to mark Christmas, birthdays or special family events. These occasions will all be tinged by sadness that this baby is not present. Remembering your friend’s baby at these times will assure them that their baby is loved and important. Please click here for ways you can mark birthdays and special events.
How do I talk to my children about stillbirth?
The best approach to telling children and adolescents about death is honesty. Depending on your religious or cultural background, your family’s previous experiences of death, and your children’s ages, you may have to think very carefully about how you deliver the news. However, as with well-meaning platitudes, expressions such as ‘the baby is in heaven now’ and ‘the baby had to go away’ or ‘the baby is sleeping’ can be incredibly confusing.
Each child and adolescent will respond to grief differently, just as adults will experience grief in their own way. It is important that children and adolescents experience their parents’ grief as well, as this will give them cues on how they can grieve. Don’t be afraid to cry in front of children and to let them know that it is ok for them to cry or not depending on what they would like to do. Allow children to be as involved or not as they would like to be to ensure that they are all being given equal attention at this devastating time.
In an attempt to equip you with an understanding of how you can best help them cope, we have included some strategies and information about how children and adolescents will experience grief differently below.
Children, depending on their age, will often find it difficult to comprehend why this tragedy has occurred – though most children will understand what death is. Children can often act out their grief through play, and arts and crafts. It’s important to watch over these practices to be sure that the child doesn’t suddenly become fearful and overly preoccupied with death. Children will also likely ask questions days, weeks and even months on. Sometimes, the timing can seem inappropriate but children shouldn’t be fobbed off with generic expressions or be told not to ask anymore. Similarly, children should be allowed to engage in remembering their stillborn family member as a way of processing the death. It can be difficult for parents to allow their children to attend funerals and it is ultimately up to them to decide. However, children should also be asked if they would like to attend. They shouldn’t be forced to attend or not attend as this can be traumatising. As a way of preventing disruption at funerals, it is a good idea to have a family member or friend who can take the child outside if they suddenly decide they no longer want to be there or become restless.
Adolescents, unlike children, will likely understand and process the news more easily. They will likely ask questions immediately about why this has happened and if there is anything they can do. Everyone processes grief differently and just as children will grieve in their own ways, adolescents will also have ways which may not be considered particularly mature. They may play music loudly, become sullen and moody, refuse to talk about it, and act out. However, just as we try to cope with grief and hope for understanding from those around us, so too should teenagers be allowed to express their grief (within reason) in their own ways. It can be difficult for parents to allow their children to attend funerals and it is ultimately up to them to decide. However, adolescents, like children, should be asked if they would like to attend. They shouldn’t be forced to attend or not attend as this can be traumatising.