Giving Support After Stillbirth

The tragedy of stillbirth can unleash a rush of pain and grief that threatens to overwhelm the would-be parents and their friends and families. As the initial shockwaves are still rippling through the bereaved parents’ closest circles, it can be extremely difficult for their loved ones to know what to do or say. If you are the mother, sister, friend or close relative of a couple whose baby has been born dead, it’s important you do your utmost to offer appropriate and sensitive support to the grieving mother and father.

Accept The Parents’ Reaction

The legal definition of a stillbirth is the death of a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Up to 14 percent of stillbirths may occur during delivery. Losing a baby in this way is always one of life’s cruelest experiences, all the more so if the baby died during the delivery process with no prior indication that he or she was in distress. You should therefore expect the mother and father of the deceased child to experience emotions ranging from shock, denial and numbness to uncontrolled outpourings of rage, anger and sorrow. Your role in this process is to accept and validate their feelings, and acknowledge their loss. No matter how difficult, try not to shy away from their grief. Grieving parents may need to tell their story over and over again; you should try to give them your full attention each time. Don’t impose a time limit on their grieving process; it does not always conform to social norms and parents may still need to talk long after the rest of the world has moved on. Remember that professional support and counseling is also available and if parents are repressing their pain or simply being overwhelmed by it, it could be time to gently push them in that direction.

How To Talk To The Parents

The first visit to the hospital room or home of parents who have just lost a baby can be a daunting experience. Many people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. You should begin by accepting that there is nothing you can do to ‘fix’ the situation or take away their pain; you can only help them survive it. The best way to do that is by talking, but more importantly, by listening. Genuine listening requires patience, attentiveness, eye contact and responsive gestures. When listening, you should know when to be silent. Sometimes parents will not be seeking a reaction to what they tell you, rather a simple outlet for their own emotions. Remember that if a grieving parent senses you are tired or no longer interested, they may clam-up and begin to suppress their feelings when they are with you. For this reason, listening may require a super-human effort at times and you should prepare mentally for this. When talking, you should call the baby its name, if the parents want you to. If appropriate, you may discuss the family’s hopes and dreams for the baby which now sadly will never be. Some parents find it comforting to know that other people were also ready to love the child and contribute to its life. Listen to what they say and take your cues from them. Try to be sensitive at all times.

What Not To Say

When a baby has died, well-meaning friends and family may be tempted to say things in the heat of the moment which are less than helpful and even hurtful to bereaved parents. Try to bear these in mind and avoid them. First of all, you should not minimize their experience or speak in cliches. For example, phrases like ‘You can always try again’ or ‘It was God’s will’ should be avoided.  If you are tempted to put the experience into a religious context, don’t forget that the couple may not share your convictions. It could be that they are listening to you out of politeness and the only person you are truly comforting is yourself. Do not criticize them or ‘hijack’ their grief by telling stories of your own loss. Do not put pressure on them to get back to their normal routine as soon as possible. When you come to visit or call to check up on them, always ask after both parents. Men and women mourn the loss of a child in different ways and both the mother and father should have their feelings acknowledged. Don’t try to force them to talk at a certain time if they aren’t willing. There are times when they might simply want to be silent or alone.

Practical Help You Can Give

Support does not only come in the form of talking and listening. Many grieving parents struggle to cope with the demands of daily life. If they already have children they may welcome some practical help with childcare and household chores. Children may need the stability provided by a calmer adult at this time of great sadness for mom and dad. The parents themselves may be finding it hard to eat and get enough sleep. Therefore you might be needed to prepare food and give them a chance to rest. You could also offer to take care of baby memorabilia for the family until they are ready to have it in their own home, or by returning baby goods to the store if the parents don’t want to keep them. Many parents want to hold some kind of funeral or memorial service for their baby, but the pressure of handling technicalities and paper work may be too much; ask if you can help. Lastly, don’t forget that special dates and family holidays may awaken feelings of grief in the future. It may comfort the parents if you send a card, flowers, or some other form of remembrance.

Do You Need Help Too?

If you are very close to the parents, don’t forget that you too may be grieving. Your contact with them should help you to come to terms with your loss, but be careful not to allow your pain to become their burden too. Talk to other friends and family about your feelings and don’t be afraid to seek professional support if that’s what you need. Your health care provider can tell you where to find one-on-one and even family counseling to help you through this difficult time.

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