How to support family, friends and colleagues after their baby dies
The birth of a baby is usually a happy time, so the news that your friend, colleague or family member’s baby has died will be a terrible shock.
It is hard to know how to react to the news, or what to do or say. You will be dealing with your own feelings about the loss, alongside trying to support them.
The suggestions below are based on what parents told us helped them after their baby died, and what they found difficult. Everyone grieves differently, so what might be right for these parents might not be right for your friend or loved one.
Be guided by what the parents tell you they feel comfortable with. Let them know if you’re unsure what to say or do. You could try asking them what helps and what doesn't.
Reading about grief after neonatal loss might help you understand what the parents may be going through and feeling.
When to talk and when to listen
Grief can feel isolating and lonely. Parents often say the biggest help was someone just being there for them. Someone who cares and asks questions about the birth, the baby and what they need.
“I think people are afraid to approach the situation when in reality you don’t need anyone to say anything, you just need someone to listen and be there.”
You may assume the parents need space and will reach out when they’re ready. But, if everyone keeps their distance, the parents may feel alone and have no-one to talk to. Sending a regular message by text or in a card to say that you are thinking of them can bring comfort to parents without putting them under any pressure to respond.
They may want space for the first few days or weeks. Let them know that you’re there, ready to talk about what happened and listen to how they’re feeling, when they are ready.
Support the whole family
Everyone is different. One parent might want to talk but the other might not be ready yet, or ever want to. Try to support each parent at a time and in a way that works for them, rather than seeing them as a unit.
This also applies to any siblings that may need support from you.
Go at their pace
If in doubt, ask the parents if they want to talk and be sensitive to their reactions. If you know that they are not ready, acknowledge their loss and then move onto other things.
It may be appropriate to say that you are ready for when and if they want to talk about it.
Talk about the baby
Many parents will be happy for you to acknowledge their baby. Give them an opportunity to tell you if this is what they want. You could ask “do you want to talk about your baby?” If they do, you could ask them questions that you’d ask any parent, such as:
- what name they chose and why
- what the baby weighed
- if they had any hair and what colour it was
- if they had any of their parent's features.
You might like to ask if they have photos they’d like to share, if it feels appropriate.
What not to say when a baby dies
Some comments can be unhelpful. For example, saying things like, ‘you’ll have another baby’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’ may be well meaning, but can come across as insensitive. Children are not replaceable and there is no reason why any parent should experience the loss of a child.
Most people understand grief and have lost people close to them. But the loss of a child is unique. It’s hard to imagine how this feels if you haven’t been through it. It’s OK to say that you don’t understand what someone is going through, but that you are there for them if they need you.
Try not to ask too many questions about what they are going to do or make assumptions about what they should do. For example, don’t ask them about if they are going to try again or if they will go back to work. It’s very likely that they are not ready to think about making any major life decisions yet.
If you have lost a child too, it may help both of you to share your story. Only do this if you are comfortable and when the time is right for both of you.
Practical things you can do
When a baby dies after birth it can overshadow a person’s recovery from pregnancy and birth. Ask them how they feel physically, as well as emotionally. Support them in the same way you would any new parent, for example helping them to lift heavy items or offering to take her to any follow-up appointments.
There are other practical things you can do, so it may help to ask what help the parents need. They might like you to stay over, but be prepared to change plans quickly if they’ve changed their mind and need to be alone.
Make suggestions about what you could do and see what they respond to. For example, you could offer to make meals for the freezer or look after other children they may have. Again, it may be helpful to do this in a text or card so that they have time to think about what would help rather than feeling put on the spot.
“Be specific. Sometimes telling rather than asking is better - even answering questions like can I make you some food can be really hard.”
Keep hold of memories and mementos
Don't assume what the parents want to keep or not. For example, ask if they want any baby equipment put away before they come home. Some parents may find it a comforting reminder of their baby. Things that might hold sentimental value could be used to create a memory box if they choose.
In most cases, parents will be grateful to know that you’re there for them. Surround them with love and care and if you don’t know what to say, a simple ‘I’m sorry’ is better than silence.
Just because someone seems like they’re coping, it doesn’t mean they are. Lots of people put on a brave face because they don’t want to upset others or they feel like they should be moving on.
It’s always important to give people the space they need. But try to find the balance between doing this and finding the time to ask how they’re feeling. Make sure you are prepared for the response, because it is unlikely to be a straight forward ‘OK’.
Other people’s pregnancies and children
After the loss of their baby, parents can find it difficult to be around pregnant women, babies or children. This isn’t the case for everyone, but jealousy and sadness are very common emotions for grieving parents to feel, especially in response to other peoples’ pregnancy and birth announcements.
If you have a baby of your own and are struggling with all the normal things a new mum goes through, like endless feeding or sleepless nights, understand that they might find it difficult to sympathise. It might be best to turn to others for support at this time. Again, this isn’t the case for everyone and your loved one or colleague might find comfort in your parenting ups and downs. This may depend on the kind of relationship you have.
It’s natural to wonder if they might try for another baby, but this can be a very sensitive subject. Let them bring it up if they want to.
They are likely to need lots of extra support in future pregnancies, which often bring lots of anxiety and very mixed emotions that may be hard to navigate. Being pregnant again doesn’t mean they’re not still grieving for the baby they lost. If anything, it might be harder than ever.
Remembering their baby in future
Parents are often expected to ‘move on’ but most say their grief stays with them every day, whether they go on to grow their family or not. Grieving for a child changes over time, but it is something the parents learn to live with.
Grief can come and go, and often strikes at unexpected times. You shouldn’t be surprised if they still need your support years after their baby died, especially in the run up to anniversaries or milestones, like their baby’s birthday, the day their baby died and holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day.
You might want to make a note of important dates so you can give them lots of extra care and support. Remembering those dates could mean a lot and make a huge difference. Again this is dependent on the person and how they grieve.
Some people want to try and do something in dedication to their friend, family member or colleague and to the baby they lost.
Raising money in memory of a baby can help fund research into the causes of baby loss and help save other families from the same devastating experience.
You may want to ask the parents if this is something they’d be happy for you to do before you start.
More support and information
- Child Bereavement UK provides specialised support, information and training for everyone affected when a baby or child dies, or when a child is bereaved. It also runs an online forum for bereaved parents.
- The Compassionate Friends is run by and for all bereaved parents.
- Cruse Bereavement Care provides support, information, advice, education and training to help anyone who's been bereaved to understand their grief and cope with their loss.
- The Lullaby Trust provides specialist support for anyone after the sudden death of an infant.
- Petals provides specialist counselling after baby loss.
- Sands is run by and for parents whose baby has died, either at birth or shortly afterwards.
- Winston’s Wish supports children and families after a parent, brother or sister has died.