Grieving for your baby after a stillbirth
After the death of your baby, it's natural to feel a whole range of emotions, including struggle with grief, anxiety, shock and numbness. In this video, parents explore how to understand and come to terms with how you feel.
We are so sorry for your loss and are sad to know you are having to use this information. We know that the intense grief after losing a baby can cause overwhelming, possibly frightening, emotional and physical reactions. Knowing more about how others experienced the grieving process may help you understand your own feelings.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone is different and grieves differently. What might be right for another person or family, may not be right for you.
Some people describe grief as something that their lives grow around. It is something they carry with them and it changes over time, but it doesn’t go away and becomes part of them. It can be helpful to think about this if you feel you are being rushed to feel better, or not being given the time and space you need to grieve. It is also normal to swing between feelings of despair to more hopeful feelings, day to day, week to week – grief is unpredictable.
"I was supposed to be a mother, what was I now? I’d already made plans for Christmases and birthdays. I’d imagined three little boys excitedly opening presents. I didn’t know who I was or who I was supposed to be. Pregnancy was focused on the outcome of being a mother. I had to create a new life and I no longer knew what I liked, wanted or needed."
The information on this page is for all parents. However, for the person who carried the baby it’s important to remember that grief will also be combined with the natural mood changes caused by dropping hormone levels after having a baby. Remember to allow for this. Be kind to yourself. You have gone through a trauma and need time to heal physically and emotionally.
Guilt and anger after a stillbirth
It’s not unusual for bereaved parents to become obsessed with their own, their partner’s or their other children’s health. Your own mortality can become very prominent – if a tiny baby can die so can anyone. This reaction usually fades with time. But if it doesn’t and you are struggling to manage with anxiety, talk to your doctor or health visitor.
With time, some parents also feel guilty when they start to feel a little better, as if they’re not honouring their baby or ‘forgetting them’. Grief can be a rollercoaster of emotions and you may find yourself swinging between despair and hope. It is ok to look ahead, even quite early after your baby died, it doesn’t undermine your feelings for your baby that has died.
Many women have told us that they feel they have failed as mums. They feel responsible for what has happened because their body let them down and they didn’t give birth to a healthy baby. Although this is a very common feeling, it is very rare for something you’ve done to be related to why your baby has died.
Anger is a very natural part of grief. Many parents direct this towards the hospital, and at other times towards friends and family. For some people, it is a general anger at feeling like the situation is very unfair. You may find yourself asking ‘why me?’.
All the feelings we mention here are uncomfortable but entirely normal. However, if you start to worry about how you’re feeling, please try talking to your GP.
Many mums have told us that they felt overwhelmed by what they described as maternal instinct. You may feel frightened by the intensity of these feelings.
"I found a lot of comfort in washing and drying the clothes my son had worn when in the hospital – I understood later that this was an expression of my maternal instinct in wanting to care for him in any way I still could."
Some mums describe wanting to dig up their baby’s body from the grave to cuddle them. Others talk about their arms aching to hold their baby. Any reaction you have to your loss is completely natural.
"I remember just saying over and over again "I want her back". I would have given anything to go back to the hospital and hold her again. Or to kiss her cold little cheeks. We had the clothes we had dressed her in and they still smelt of her, so we had put them into a sealed bag to keep the smell, and we would take turns in opening the bag and sniffing them before quickly sealing it up again."
Diane, who lost her baby Chloe. Read Diane's story.
You may physically feel, hear or see things you can’t explain, like your baby kick inside you or the sound of a baby crying.
Trying to cope with the everyday
The immediate moments or days after the birth are often described as a blur. It can leave you feeling in shock, numb and disconnected.
Many parents said that after losing their baby they could not think straight and felt unable to make decisions. Grief can take over your mind and sometimes affect your short-term memory. You may find it difficult to remember things that have just happened.
Some parents felt they could not leave home and dreaded having to explain to friends or colleagues where their baby was.
Many parents couldn’t face the idea of seeing other babies and felt intense jealousy towards other parents. Others decided to visit their antenatal group, which was often a distressing but positive experience.
"In the immediate aftermath of losing Chloe, the thing that helped me the most was actually to isolate myself for a week. My husband and I requested no visitors. We checked in via text with our parents to let them know we were OK, but ultimately we just cocooned ourselves together at home. We needed to sit and cry and try to absorb what had happened."
Here are some suggestions that have helped other people to cope:
- keeping a daily journal to write down your feelings
- making short, achievable to-do lists every day
- trying to get outside for some fresh air.
“There will be triggers – pregnant women, prams, newborn cries – but try to accept your feelings of jealously and sadness in these moments as normal and know that the intensity of these feelings will wane and in time change.”
In partnership with Stillbirth Stories, this animation talks about coping with grief as part of our Baby Loss Series.
Dads, partners and coping with grief
The information on this page is for both parents, but it needs to be acknowledged that dads and partners can be forgotten after a baby is stillborn. As everyone looks to the person who carried the baby, it’s easy to overlook the partner’s need for time and space to grieve too.
Try to remember that people, even different members of the family, may grieve differently. Some people find it difficult to express their emotions and their feelings can get locked up. This can be misunderstood as indifference. It's also easy to assume that 'they are okay'.
For example, many people have told us that men often take on the role of protector in the family, supporting their partner and not allowing time for their own grief. It is not unusual for men to take on the practicalities and keep themselves busy.
You will both need time and space to grieve. This may happen after the funeral if there is one, or possibly many weeks later.
“I had to go back to work straight away. It was a good distraction. I ran a lot and I kept doing that. I signed up for marathons. Running got me away for a few hours at a time and gave me a way to switch off. I wasn’t right for at least 6 months after. I was functioning but I was on autopilot. I wasn’t myself. People might not have noticed too much.”
Keith, who lost his son Owen. Read Keith’s story.
Read more about supporting each other as a couple.
Getting help from friends and family
Family and friends may want to help you and be with you. Some parents will appreciate this, others might find it exhausting. Grief can be exhausting. Try to pace yourself and remember it’s ok to say no to social events if you don’t want to go. Take things slow and be honest about how you’re feeling and what you need.
“Baby loss is still frightening for most people. Some friends and family will not know how to talk to you about the death of your baby. This can feel very isolating. Others will do their best to talk to you and be there for you and will listen to you talk even though what you have to say is so sad and traumatic. It is ok to surround yourself with those people for a while and distance yourself from others. In time you will be able to be around all sorts of people again. Your relationships will have changed and evolved but that’s ok.”
Practical help can be really helpful, especially in the early days when you’re recovering from the birth and emotionally exhausted. If you have trusted friends or family and are able to cope with having them around, these are things they can help with:
- home-cooked meals
- filing and responding to messages of condolences
- looking after other children, if you have them.
For other people, however, keeping busy can be part of the healing process.
It might help to share our page on how to give support to friends and family who want to know how they can help you.
It may be hard to know what to do or say when someone close to you has lost a baby. In this video there are some suggestions from parents who have been through it.
After the birth
Many women have told us that the emotional trauma of shock and grief are far worse than the physical effects of stillbirth, but others found that the physical issues were as difficult to cope with. Try to remember that your body is recovering after the birth, which can be very difficult to deal with.
Try to remember that your hormone levels rapidly change after the birth, and postnatal mood swings and tears are normal. These hormonal changes might make your grief even harder to cope with in the early weeks and months.
You will also have to cope with the physical effects of giving birth. You will bleed heavily for the first few days, and this will continue for a few weeks. You may have painful stitches or after-pains as the uterus contracts back to its normal size. Your breasts will produce milk and this can lead to painful engorgement. Talk to your midwife about how to manage your milk coming in as you may be able to take some medication to reduce the amount of milk.
“For me one of the most awful things was my milk coming in. I was sadly unable to take any medication to stop it, so I was told to compress my breasts with tighter tops to try and stem the supply.”
Read more about coping with the physical effects of a stillbirth.
Physical reactions to grief
You may have physical reactions to your grief. Heart palpitations, shaking, chest pains, diarrhoea, butterflies in your stomach and sickness are all common. You may be more prone to viral infections, such as colds. Or you may feel physically exhausted.
Sleep may be difficult for a while. You might have vivid dreams and nightmares. Or you may suffer from insomnia.
“I suffered from PTSD and nightmares for several months after my stillbirth. At night I would lie in bed reliving what had happened. I learnt to write my feelings down which acted as a release.”
Get in touch with your GP if you feel you need extra support with the physical effects of grieving.
It is important to try to look after yourself after the birth. You may not feel like eating or drinking but you need to try to keep physically strong to cope with the emotional trauma.
Some people have told us they found it difficult to leave the house, but if you feel able to do so, parents often report that once they went out they felt that being outdoors in the fresh air helped.
Sharing your feelings
Talking to close and trusted family members or friends about your feelings and your experience can bring comfort.
Most parents also felt that talking to other people who had experienced a stillbirth was helpful and reassured them that their feelings were normal. It can make you feel less alone.
Sands, a support charity, can put you in touch with other parents who have had stillborn babies and will be happy to listen and talk. Child Bereavement UK also have helpful resources to support parents whose babies have died.
You may find that crying and talking about your baby are good ways of releasing feelings. You may want to tell your story over and over again. This is normal and you should follow this instinctive urge to talk as it helps you come to terms with what has happened. Don’t be afraid to mention the name of your baby who has died.
Other parents, however, might find it hard to express their feelings or talk about their baby.
“Sometimes you just don’t know where to start, or find it too hard or horrifically sad.”
It might be helpful to write down what happened and how you feel each day. You may want to draw or paint, write a poem, keep a diary, create a web page, set up a blog or make a scrapbook. Some parents find reading about how other parents felt is helpful, there is an archive of parent’s stories available on Stillbirth Stories. There is also an online archive of babies that have been stillborn available on the Still Born Project website.
We also have The Baby Loss Series on our website which some parents find helpful. The animations, with voices from the Stillbirth Stories audio archive of testimonies from bereaved parents, break the silence on all aspects of baby loss. Through this series, we want to raise awareness of the prevalence of baby loss, and support families affected so they feel less alone.
Getting support to help cope with the grief
A bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife may be able to help you with paperwork and funeral planning.
You might also be able to access bereavement counselling through your GP. Charities, such as Cruse Bereavement Care, can offer support such as talking to a bereavement volunteer. Or you could explore private counselling and look at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) website to find a registered therapist near you.
Counselling can give you a safe space to talk about your grief. The act of talking to someone outside your life, who has specialist training, can be such a release and help you make sense of what has happened. Sometimes people can get stuck in their grief because they don’t feel able to express it, with friends and family, or even feel it because it is so painful. Talking can really help and a therapist may also be able to help you manage intrusive thoughts or anxieties and finding coping mechanisms for dealing with life, and ways to help you grieve your baby.
There is support out there, but it will differ depending on where you live. Sometimes you need to explore all your options to find the best one for you.
Knowing the difference between postnatal depression and grief
Some parents (including dads and partners) experience symptoms of postnatal depression after a stillbirth. You might also show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after the experience you’ve been through. Talk to your GP if you are worried about your feelings and reactions.
The main symptoms of postnatal depression are very similar to the symptoms of grief, so it is not easy to tell them apart. If you have had a previous mental health issue, you are more likely to suffer from postnatal depression so please talk to someone close to you and be aware of this. Here are some symptoms to look out for:
- a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
- loss of interest in life, no longer enjoying things that used to give pleasure
- lack of energy and feeling tired all the time.
Other symptoms can include:
- disturbed sleep, such as having trouble sleeping during the night and then being sleepy during the day
- difficulties with concentration and making decisions
- low self-confidence
- poor appetite or an increase in appetite (‘comfort eating’)
- feeling very agitated or, alternatively, very apathetic (you can’t be bothered)
- feelings of guilt and self-blame
- thinking about suicide and self-harming.
If, after about 6 months, you are still struggling to cope with everyday life, consider getting some professional help, such as seeing a counsellor, which you can discuss with your GP.
Looking into the future
We're aware you might be reading this page many years after your baby died. You may not have been able to access the support or information you needed at the time, or perhaps it is only now that you are ready to. A baby dying, particularly in the womb, can create complex reactions in parents. It might be that your grief wasn’t acknowledged by other people at the time. We are well aware that, even now, infant death is a frightening and taboo subject for many people. It was even more so in the past.
We are here for you. Please call our midwives who have bereavement training and can listen, on 0800 014 7800 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm). Some people struggle with their grief decades after their baby’s death. This is known as complicated grief. Talking about it now can be a great relief and help you to heal.
We know how important it is, for many parents, to remember their baby’s special milestones and anniversaries now and far into the future. You may find our information about making memories helpful.
Getting more support
You can talk to our Tommy’s midwives for free on 0800 0147 800. We are open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Or you can email them on [email protected]. The midwives on the line have received training in bereavement care and will be able to talk to you about what you’re going through.
We also have a baby loss support group on Facebook where you can talk to other parents who have lost a baby.
Other support organisations
- Child Bereavement UK has support groups, offers counselling and lots of online resources. They can help siblings through a bereavement.
- Cruse Bereavement Care offers six sessions talking to a trained bereavement volunteer.
- Sands is a support charity for anyone who has experience the loss of a baby. They can put you in touch with other parents who have had stillborn babies and will be happy to listen and talk.
- Saying Goodbye offers support, advice and a befriending service. You can also attend Saying Goodbye ceremonies across the country.
- Twins Trust has information and support for those who have lost a multiple birth baby.
- Fatherhood Institute. (2010) Research Summary: Fathers and Postnatal depression. Available at: www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/2010/fatherhood-institute-research-summary-fathers-and-postnatal-depression (Accessed 21 January 2022)
- NHS. Postnatal depression. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-natal-depression/symptoms/ (Page last reviewed: 10 December 2018, Next review due: 10 December 2021)
- NHS. Your body after the birth. Available at: www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/labour-and-birth/after-the-birth/your-body/ (Accessed 28 January 2021)