Helping parents who have lost a baby
Trigger warning: This article contains information relating to pregnancy and infant loss and may trigger traumatic memories for some people. If you are experiencing emotional difficulties relating to pregnancy or infant loss you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support (SANDS) Australia on 1300 072 637.
October 15 is International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Although parents who have lost a baby through miscarriage, still birth or newborn death think about their baby often, having an official day allows for a public acknowledgment of their loss and the opportunity to raise awareness of the devastating impact of pregnancy and infant loss.
An estimated one in four pregnancies (103,000) end in miscarriage in Australia each year, while approximately 3,000 babies are either stillborn or die in the first 28 days after birth (SANDS, 2015).
It is hard to know what to say or do to support a friend or family member who has experienced the loss of a precious baby. I have compiled some suggestions, which have come predominantly from mothers who have been through this experience themselves, and also some from my own experience as a midwife working with families who have lost a baby.
Keep your response simple and validate feelings.
We may feel that we have to ‘fix’ the situation or the person’s pain and this can lead to unhelpful (and even hurtful) comments such as ‘you can always have another,’ ‘it wasn’t meant to be,’ ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘he/she is in a better place.’ No one can ever replace that child and these statements are dismissive of the appropriate grieving process that a parent (or family) is experiencing. Ignoring the situation and not acknowledging their loss can be equally hurtful.
If you’re not sure what to say, a hug or simple ‘thinking of you’ is enough, and practical help, such as dropping off a cooked meal or offering to care for other children, can speak louder than words.
Help to create a lasting tribute to the child.
In the initial overwhelming stage of grief, parents may not think about creating memories and mementos that will be treasured in the future. Depending on your relationship with the family, you may like to gently suggest or even offer to organise/pay for some of the following:
Photos: Heartfelt is a volunteer organisation of professional photographers in Australia and New Zealand who gift photographic memories to families experiencing stillbirth (after 22 weeks) or critically premature birth. Photos of baby being cuddled, bathed, dressed, or nappy changed, can become mementos of cherished memories. Perth photographer Carly Marie captures beach sunsets with a name written in the sand. These beautiful mementos can be ordered here.
Moulds: There are several companies who create 3D hand and feet mouldings or take wax moulds of fingerprints to turn into jewellery. Some companies in WA include Impressionable Kids, Twinkle Toes and Keepsake Jewellery but a google search will help you find one in your area.
Other tributes/gifts: If you feel that the suggestions above are not appropriate, gifts such as a large teddy, a significant plant/tree, named star, plaque at a local park etc will also serve as a lasting tribute.
Sometimes the initial support parents receive is amazing but it drops off as the months pass. Make time to check in over the following months and give space for feelings to be shared, acknowledge anniversaries and talk about the baby (say his/her name), as many parents fear that their child will be forgotten.
Be mindful and respectful of cultural and individual practices and preferences.
While the previous two suggestions have come from mothers who have lived through pregnancy and/or infant loss, it is important to be mindful that this may not be appropriate for all cultures and people, and asking first is a good idea. In some cultures it is inappropriate to say the name of the deceased or share photos, and some families simply prefer not to openly discuss their loss. Approaching them with gentle love and respect is always the best policy.