for families & friends of bereaved parents
Supporting a family member or friend who has experienced the loss of a baby
When your loved one has experienced pregnancy or infant loss, it can be challenging to know how to support them. It can be hard to know what to say or do.
Being there, both practically and emotionally is important. Many bereaved parents tell us that the best support they received was from family and friends who listened to them without judgement or without attempts at trying to make them feel better.
Understanding from the bereaved parents’ perspective
When a baby dies, bereaved parents can experience a wide range of emotions. Know that there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to grieve. Bereaved parents often have to find their own ways to grieve and may experience many different emotions in a short space of time. Some of these expressions of grief can be confronting for you and you may question whether this is normal. There is no right or wrong way to grieve in the early stages of grief after a loss.
It is normal for each bereaved parent to grieve differently, so what one person in the relationship expresses and needs, might be different to what the other needs. You may notice differences however this is quite common and it is not always reflective of how that person is actually feeling/experiencing their grief.
The range of emotions bereaved parents might feel can be frightening for them. Letting them know that you are there for them, no matter how they feel, is vital. If you don’t know what to say, ask them what they need from you to support them in their grief. For example “I’m here for you if you want to talk about it”, or “If you don't feel like talking then we can go for a walk, have a coffee, sit in the park, go to a movie ...”.
If there are other children, offer to look after them to give the couple time and space if that is what they want. Some couples prefer to be with their other children. Never assume. Check in. Keep checking in.
When will they feel normal again?
Bereaved parents do not ‘get over’ their baby’s death. They carry this story of their babies’ lives, throughout their own. They often think about their baby at milestone times (e.g. the birth date, the date of their death, “he/she would be starting prep this year”)
The grief journey can be long, with ups and downs, and twists and turns. Over time the bereaved parent will come to terms with the death of their baby, often finding that they discover a new normal in their life, one that integrates the story of their baby who died.
Practical Considerations for family and friends
What to do
Be available to listen without judgement and without trying to fix the situation. Give them permission to grieve. Bereaved parents, are still parents. Although their baby died, they still had a baby. They are still parents to that baby.
Bereaved parents may wish to share the story of their birth, features of the baby such as colour of their hair. Ask the parents if they chose a name for their baby. Use the baby’s name. You are honouring the baby’s memory when you use the baby’s name when talking to the parents and most bereaved parents appreciate other people referring to their baby. If you feel comfortable, ask questions about their baby. The baby’s death does not need to be the only thing that is discussed. Be genuinely curious about their baby and the hopes and dreams they had for their baby.
Be specific about ‘help’ you can offer. Saying well intended phrases such as “just tell me if you need me” or “let me know if you need anything”, will often not incite action from the bereaved parents, as even at the best of times, it is difficult to ask for help. Instead you could say “I would like to cook some meals for you and put them in the freezer, so they are available when you may need”. Or, “I would like to help, by offering my time babysitting your other children. Is there a day that you may need an extra set of hands”? Bereaved parents may not take up your first offer of help. Keep offering, in a respectful manner.
Check in with the partner. Partner’s grief may often be missed, because often the partner returns to work. Give the partner permission to grieve by showing that you are there to listen.
Acknowledge or check in at as they approach difficult times (eg. baby’s due date, baby’s anniversary, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, when someone close becomes pregnant or has a baby).
What not to do
With the death of a baby, if it often more important to know what not to do, as some of these actions (although well intended) can be painful for bereaved parents:
Nothing. Do not try to avoid the bereaved parent because you don’t know what to say, or to ‘give them space’. If you don’t know what to say, communicate this. Being there if often more important than having the right words.
Avoid statements such as:
“I know how you feel”. Unless you have been through the death of a child or baby.
“It’s for the best”
“You can have another baby”
“Everything happens for a reason”
“At least you have other children”
“At least you hadn’t yet bonded with your baby”
Don’t diminish bereaved parents’ grief by writing it off as “too early in a pregnancy to really be grieving”. Parents can form bonds with their baby very early in pregnancy, and their path to falling pregnant may have been a long and painful one.
Don’t be judgemental. There will be times when a bereaved parents’ emotions will be ‘all over the place’. Let them know that you are there, no matter how they are feeling. Don’t make a bereaved parent feel as though they need to justify their feelings.
Don’t offer to pack away their babies’ items. There is no rush to do this, and many parents take comfort in having the baby’s things or room set up for many months & sometimes for years after the loss. Bereaved parents will want to do this when they are ready and although it might feel ‘too long’ and you may be concerned by the length of time, bereaved parents often intuitively know when it is the right time to pack their baby’s things away.
A subsequent pregnancy or child does not replace the child that died. It is important for family and friends to know that subsequent pregnancies often bring up feelings about the previous pregnancy loss or the baby who died. It is normal for bereaved parents to have a range of emotions from joy and relief about this subsequent pregnancy, through to fear and reluctance to share news of the pregnancy. The subsequent pregnancy after a loss, can be fraught with fear and anxiety and some parents need extra support.
The most important thing for friends and family to know, is that they can effectively support bereaved parents.
It is an incredibly sad and heartbreaking time for everyone, but family and friends can be the greatest support when they are present, respectful and willing to be alongside the bereaved parent amongst all these emotions.
Remember, there is no ‘normal’ way to grieve and the mother and her partner can grieve differently.
There is no timeline for grief.
If you are concerned about bereaved parents’ mental or physical state, help them to seek the assistance of health professionals.