Support a Loved One
Advice for family, friends and colleagues who need help in understanding how they can support their loved ones after a loss.
The death of a baby is one of the most devastating experiences for someone to go through. It can often be difficult to know how to support loved ones who have experienced a stillbirth, especially when you are grieving your own loss of that baby as your niece, nephew, grandchild, or a friend or colleagues baby.
While it may be terrifying to imagine saying or doing the wrong thing, it is actually easier than you think to support your loved one during this time.
Arming yourself with information about stillbirth, and what your loved one has had to experience during this tragic time, is a great place to start. Remember you are not trying to ‘fix’ a problem, but by making the effort to understand their journey you may feel more comfortable in knowing what to say or ask.
Everybody experiences grief differently, what is right for one person may not be right for another. Avoid making assumptions, and simply ask ‘how can I help?’.
The support that family and friends give to parents following the loss of their baby, can make a huge difference in their grief journey.
The following information is direct from a fellow awareness and prevention organisation, Tommy’s UK, who we believe have provided the very best in advice on supporting a loved one following a stillbirth (thank you Tommy's for all that you do in raising awareness and providing support!).
Don’t avoid them - be there for them
The nature of grief - and how individual it is - particularly when it’s a baby that’s died can make people feel very uncomfortable. You might feel completely unsure as to how the parents want you to behave.
Also their grief might bring cause uncomfortable memories of your own losses to resurface, if you have experience of baby loss or other bereavements in your past.
In most instances, parents will want you to be there for them. They’ll want you to surround them with love and care. If you don’t know what to say, ‘I’m sorry’, or even explaining that ‘You can’t find the words’ is so much better than avoidance.
Parents who have had a stillbirth often say the best support was someone who was just there for them and listened. Someone who cared and asked questions about how they could help, rather than acting as though they knew best how to deal with the situation.
Your gut instinct may be to give the parents space and privacy until they are ready to talk, but if everyone does that they may feel they have too much space and no-one to talk to.
Support the family
Don’t assume the parents are dealing with their grief together as a couple. One may want to talk and the other might not be able to yet, so they may need support in different ways.
Try not to forget the dad. They may seem to be quietly getting on with things and may even have returned to work, but it is important they have someone to support them too.
If there are other children don’t assume the parents would like them kept away, or don’t want to see them upset. It is important that children know it is ok to feel sad about what has happened.
Meeting the baby
If you are family, or a very close friend, in the very early hours and days after the stillbirth the parents may want you to come and meet the baby. This may be the first time you have seen a baby that has died, and this may be quite a shocking or distressing thing for you.
Remember that the parents only have the baby for a short, precious amount of time.
If this is something that you are really worried about, talk separately to the midwife caring for them who may be able to offer you reassurance. You might be able to see a photo first. Ask the midwife what to expect, and how to hold the baby if you are not sure.
Acknowledge the baby
Most parents want people to acknowledge their baby’s existence and the fact that they had a baby. If you feel it’s appropriate, ask questions about the baby. Ask why they chose the names they did, what did the baby weigh, what colour was her hair? Did she look like mum or dad?
Don’t ignore what has happened, talk about the baby as a person, using her name. You might even feel it’s ok to ask to see a photo if any were taken.
Follow their lead
There will be some parents who don’t name their child, or who don't want to share their baby’s name with work colleagues, or anyone other than very close family.
If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask them what they are comfortable with. Be sensitive to their reac-tions.
It is fine to acknowledge their loss and then move on to talk about other things, if you sense this is what they’d prefer.
Choose your words carefully
Many parents find certain sentiments unhelpful. Responses such as, ‘You’ll have another baby’ can undermine their grief and belittle their sadness. They might not be ready, now or ever, for what may seem like encouraging, positive comments about their future. Another baby will never be seen as a replacement for their dead child.
Offer practical help
Remember that the mum will have given birth. Ask her how it was, and remember that she will be recovering physically from the birth, as well as emotionally. She may not be able to lift heavy things, she may have stitches or be sore.
Ask what practical support the parents need. Ask whether they would like you to stay, and if you do, keep checking that you are not over-staying. Be prepared to change plans quickly and leave if they need time alone together.
Rather than ask, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help?’ Make concrete suggestions: Would they like some meals for the freezer? Do other children need support or taking to school?
Grief is tiring and overwhelming, sometimes it’s difficult to know what help to ask for. Or, if you think it’s appropriate, go ahead and cook some meals and then offer them.
Don't throw things away
Don't make assumptions about what should be kept or cleared away at home. For example, don’t clear away baby equipment, clothes or toys. This may be something that the parents want to do at a later point, and having the things around may actually be a comfort and reminder of the baby. Don’t assume they would want to forget it all. Gift tags, baby name bands and dried flowers may be kept to create memory boxes.
Pregnancy and babies
Parents who have lost a baby can find it difficult to be around expectant mums or babies. Like everything, this is individual so don’t assume how to respond. Be thoughtful and respectful.
If you have had a baby and are struggling to adapt to life as a mum, understand that they might resent your feelings. They might think you’re ungrateful for complaining about things you’re finding difficult, such as lack of sleep. You might need to find support from someone else at this time. On the other hand, they might find comfort in sharing your parenting ups and downs.
You might wonder whether they are going to try for another baby. This is a very delicate subject. They may feel very anxious about this. They might want to keep this very private. But also, don’t assume that if they are pregnant with another baby, their grief has healed. It’s likely that it will be harder than ever for them
Remember the baby
As time goes by, some parents feel they’re expected to ‘move on’ and stop mourning their baby. Many parents don’t feel this is possible and their grief stays with them every day, regardless of whether they go on to have healthy children. Grief is something you live with. It can come in waves and hit you at any time, sometimes unexpectedly. So don’t be surprised if years go by and they still need your support and care, especially around difficult anniversaries or significant milestones. Parents may not recover, or forget, and there may come a time when they might remember their baby with joy, as well as tears, and want you to share this.