How to support family or friends after a stillbirth
This animation is part of the Baby Loss Series. It includes ideas from parents about how to support someone who has experienced a stillbirth.
Losing a baby is one of the most devastating experiences someone can go through. This tragedy is even more distressing because it comes at a time when people are looking forward to a new life.
It may be hard to know what to do or say, especially when you are dealing with your own feelings about the loss. But most parents say that having friends and family acknowledge their loss and trying to be kind will always be better than not saying anything at all.
The suggestions on this page are based on what people who have experienced a stillbirth have told us they found helpful and what they found difficult. But try to remember that we are all individuals and what is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another. Everyone’s experience of grief after a baby dies is different.
The best thing you can do is avoid making assumptions and ask how you can help. We hope you find some of the advice useful.
Unless you have been through a similar experience, it can be hard to understand what the parents are going through. You may find it helpful to read more information about what happens when a baby dies. For example, the different options parents have to spend time with their baby, creating memories, coping with grief, arranging a funeral and deciding whether to have a post-mortem. Those pages are aimed at parents, but it may help you understand what may be happening.
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 instinct may be to give the parents space and privacy until they are ready to talk, but if everyone does that then they may feel they have too much space and no-one to talk to.
"Stillbirth is a very lonely place where you are sometimes expected to grieve in silence for fear of making others uncomfortable."
Shelley, who lost her son Joseph. Read Shelley's story.
Bear in mind that they will have probably been through a traumatic experience and may not feel ready or able to talk about their experience. Be prepared remind them that you’re there to listen more than once.
Being there for them
The nature of grief – and how individual it is – particularly when a baby has died can make people feel very uncomfortable. You might feel completely unsure as to how the parents want you to behave.
Their grief might also bring cause uncomfortable memories of your own losses to resurface, if you have experience of baby loss or other bereavements in your past.
"People react in different ways. Some people give you a wide birth. On one occasion we went for a walk and we saw friends turn around in their car. Acknowledge it. Be there if required. It’s not great if people don’t say anything at all."
Keith, who lost his son Owen. Read Keith’s story.
In most instances, parents will want you to be there for them. They will 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 much better than avoiding it.
"My friends come round to see me every month that she would have been a month older."
Chloe, who lost her daughter Sadie. Taken with permission from the book, ‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith.
Some people will put on a brave face, even in these tragic circumstances, as a coping mechanism. They might look well and seem like they’re coping but this doesn’t mean they are. Ask them – and make sure you have the time to hear their response.
"The dynamics of the people in my life changed dramatically. My oldest friend was amazing. Even though we were a two-hour journey apart, she was there for me every step of the way. A simple text or call every single day for six months made such a difference as it’s such a lonely place. Some people struggle with your grief and find it easier to disappear, others surprise you." Shelley, who lost her son Joseph. Read Shelley's story.
Supporting the family
Try not to assume that the parents are dealing with their grief together as a couple (if they are in a relationship). It is very common for parents to have different feelings at different times, one may want to talk and the other might not be able to yet, so they may need support in different ways. Sometimes 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, try not to assume the parents would like them kept away or don’t want to see the parents upset. It is important that children know it is ok to feel sad about what has happened.
“The best advice I can give to those looking to support a loved one through baby loss is to be there for them. Say you are sorry. Mirror their language and emotion. If they mention their baby’s name, ask if you can use their name too. Acknowledge their grief – there is no right or wrong way for them to feel and grief happens at the pace of the griever.
In practical terms, send a card, leave a meal on the doorstep, be clear with offers of help so a person can accept or decline. Sometimes it might be that a couple need time alone but still offer an invitation, acknowledging their loss so they don’t feel even more isolated or excluded.
Remember their loss, they may appreciate that you make an effort on anniversaries as you would a living child. Many parents want the chance to talk about their baby.”
Anna, bereavement specialist midwife. Read Anna’s full blog.
Offering 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.
You could ask what practical support the parents need. Maybe 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.
Grief is tiring and overwhelming. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to know what help to ask for.
Rather than saying, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help?’, try making concrete suggestions such as: ‘Would you like some meals for the freezer?’, ‘What can I get from the shops for you?’ or ‘Can I take your other children to school?’.
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 later, 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 are just some of the things that may want to keep to create a memory box.
Meeting the baby
If you are family, or a very close friend, the parents may want you to come and meet the baby in the hours or days after the stillbirth. This may be the first time you have seen a baby that has died, which may be quite shocking or distressing 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.
"We wanted our immediate family and close friends to meet Myla, something I am so glad we did as it feels so much easier to talk to the people that met her and they are able to join in when we laugh about the size of her feet and the little dimple on her chin just like her daddy."
Sarah, who lost her daughter Myla. Taken with permission from the book, ‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith.
Acknowledging the baby
Most parents want people to acknowledge their baby’s existence and the fact that they had a baby – try not to ignore what has happened.
"All I really wanted was a congratulations card, I had still become a mother after all, but that achievement understandably fell by the wayside."
Nicola, who lost her son Winter. Read Nicola's blog here.
If you feel it’s appropriate, you could ask questions about the baby. Maybe ask why they chose the names they did, what did the baby weigh, what colour was their hair? Did they look like the parents?
Try to talk about the baby as a person, using their name if the parents gave them one. You might even feel it’s ok to ask to see a photo if any were taken.
"Two of our close friends had moved to Dubai. They had their own memorial for Owen out there. They filmed it and sent it to us. We were so touched."
Keith, who lost his son Owen. Read Keith’s story.
Following the parent's lead
There will be some parents who don’t name their child, or who don't want to share their baby’s name with colleagues or friends. They may only want to share those details with close family.
If you are unsure what they want, don’t be afraid to ask them what they are comfortable with. Just remember to be sensitive and respectful to their reactions and decisions.
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.
"I told the story of what happened to some mums on the school run the other day and it was the first time I had said it aloud to people that didn’t know the basics of what had happened to us. I don’t think it will ever get easier to say. The story will never be an easy one to tell but what it does do is keep Heidi’s memory alive. Being part of our conversations shows she is part of our lives, part of our hearts."
Rachel, who lost her daughter Heidi. Read Rachel’s story.
Choosing your words carefully
Many parents find certain sentiments and sayings 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 the child they have lost.
"Our second and third baby are not replacements for Tristan. They have helped us as a family to heal but we are still grieving and broken, with visible cracks. Tristan would have turned four this year and the wound opens again as new things to grieve come to light."
Sarah, who lost her son Tristan. Read Sarah’s story.
Telling someone what they should be doing, or feeling, isn't usually helpful and might make them feel more alone and insecure - as if what they’re feeling isn’t normal. There is no normal when it comes to grief and no-one should be made to feel as if they aren’t managing or are failing.
Things to avoid saying
Parents have told us they found the following particularly upsetting:
- referring to the baby as ‘it’
- avoiding them or pretending it didn’t happen (unless they specifically tell you they would rather not talk about it)
- anything on the theme of implying that they can have another baby and that it will make it better – such as “You’re young, you will have another one” – try to remember that although may have another pregnancy in the future, it will not be a replacement for baby
- talking about faith and religion if they are not religious – such as “He/she is with the angels” or “It is God’s will”
- referring to other children they might have, suggesting it eases the pain – such as “At least you have….".
Read one mum's advice on what to say and not to say to mums who have experienced a stillbirth.
Being around pregnancy and babies
Try to understand that 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.
"Aside from family and friends, I also found comfort in continuing to meet the other pregnant mums (now mummies) from our mums-to-be group. I found this important to continue attending after laying Gabriella to rest as it was comforting being around my mum friends. It also helped me to feel close to Gabriella, knowing the bumps/babies would have been Gabriella’s first friends."
Hannah, who lost her daughter Gabriella. Read Hannah's story.
If you have had a baby and are struggling to adapt to life as a parent, 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.
"I still cannot walk through girl’s baby clothes aisles, I just want to curl up and cry so don’t be offended if you have a newborn girl that I may buy you a puzzle, clothes are just too hard."
Kerry, who lost her baby Rhianna Lily. Read Kerry’s story.
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 and might want to keep this private. But also, don’t assume that if they are pregnant with another baby, their grief has healed. Going through a pregnancy after loss can be very hard and parents often need additional support from families and friends at this time. It’s important to remember that another baby won’t be a replacement for their brother or sister who came before.
Remembering the baby and keeping their memory alive
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 other children.
"I am over six years in to my journey and I still think about Joseph every day."
Shelley, who lost her son Joseph. Read Shelley's story.
Grief is something you live with. It can come in waves and hit you at any time, sometimes unexpectedly. Don’t be surprised if years go by and they still need your support and care, especially around difficult anniversaries or significant milestones. Although many parents may never fully recover, there may come a time when they might remember their baby with joy, as well as tears, and want you to share this.
"Remember the date, for us it will be etched on our minds forever but a lot of people will forget in a few months time. It is a treasured friend who remembers the date of our baby."
Lucy,who lost her son Jude. Read Lucy’s story.
Dealing with grief throughout the year
They may want to keep talking about their baby and make them part of their family throughout the years to come. There might be certain dates that they want to celebrate in memory of their baby, or which perhaps trigger difficult emotions. This might include birthdays, due dates, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, anniversaries or celebrations such as Eid, Diwali or Christmas. They might need extra love and support at these times. It can help show that you’re thinking of them by reaching out to the parents on these dates.
Some people have suggested the following things that might help remember and celebrate their baby:
- taking part in random acts of kindness on behalf of their baby
- joining the #AdventToRemember in the run-up to Christmas
- Remembering Together Holiday Swaps (a non-denominational worldwide ornament gift exchange)
- offering to light a candle on their baby’s birthday.
"Don’t forget her! It seems a silly thing to say, but write her name in our cards, mention her, text us on her birthday and Christmas and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Just remember her. Let her touch your heart and let us know. It’s a selfish thing but it’s hard not to hear her name, it's hard to realise you do remember, you just haven’t said it.."
Kerry, who lost her baby Rhianna Lily. Read Kerry's story.
It can be difficult to support parents while you yourself are grieving too. It may be helpful to access stories from other friends and families who have experienced the death of a baby. Visit the Stillbirth Stories website.
Getting more support
You can talk to our Tommy’s midwives for free on 0800 0147 800. We are open 9-5, Monday to Friday. 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.
- Child Bereavement UK has support groups, offers counselling and lots of online resources.
- Cruse Bereavement Care offers 6 sessions talking to a trained bereavement volunteer.
- Sands is a charity that provides support to anyone affected by the death of a baby.
- Saying Goodbye offers support, advice and a befriending service. You can also attend Saying Goodbye ceremonies across the country.
- Twins Trust is the Twins and Multiple Births Association for support with losing a multiple birth baby.
This page is based on conversations with grandparents and parents who have experienced stillbirth. It has been reviewed and checked by expert health professionals.