For work colleagues and managers – how to give support after a stillbirth

How to support parents at work whose baby was stillborn

It is very shocking finding out the devastating news that a colleague or employee, who you may have just waved off happily into parenthood, has suffered a stillbirth. Knowing how to talk to them and what to say or not to say is difficult.

This advice is informed by parents who have been in this situation.

Understanding what your employee or colleague is going through

Unless you have suffered the loss of a close family member you will not know what the mum or dad is going through. Reading through these pages here should give you an idea of what may be happening (emotionally, physically and practically) to the mum and dad.

Being aware of what they may be feeling may be help you to handle the situation with understanding and empathy.

Making contact

You may not find out about the stillbirth from your colleague or employee, and you may wonder whether you should make contact or not. This depends on your relationship with the parent. If you had a close relationship the advice in this section about how friends and family can support parents after a stillbirth here might be helpful.

If your relationship was more professional in nature you may wonder whether it is appropriate to send flowers or a card and you may be getting questions from colleagues about whether they should send cards or flowers.

There is no right or wrong thing to do. A card with ‘We are so sorry’ or ‘We are thinking of you’ is unlikely to offend or cause upset, and could be treasured in future as a tangible item that marks the birth of their child.

If you know the name of their baby, use it in the card. This will acknowledge the baby’s existence, something that parents have told us is important to them.

Making contact for purely work reasons should be kept to the minimum. A parent who has suffered a stillbirth is entitled to the same amount of leave as if they had given birth to a live baby; this is up to a year for mothers and up to two weeks for fathers.

If there is flexibility in allowing extra time off for dads, this should be offered.

Going back to work

Going back to work can be a welcome return to routine for some parents, and a terrifying prospect for others.

Allow the parent to make the decision when they are ready - within the limits of statutory and company policy.

"At first being back was scary as I had been in my house and mostly in my room for two and a half months...I didn’t have to look presentable or worry that my eyes were swollen from crying all day long. But now I was back at work and had to keep it weeks went by it got better and I got more comfortable with what happened without breaking down." 
Sarah, who lost her daughter Alexa (taken with permission from the book,
‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith)

As some mums might welcome the return to a routine before the end of their allocated leave it might be helpful to let them know your process for cut their leave short.

If you are contacting them to do this, take care to do it in a way that makes it clear there is no pressure for them return.

For some it will be dictated by practicalities or financial pressures. It will be up to them whether they choose to take all the leave, or just some of it.

Phased return

For many mothers, it can be helpful to have a gradual return to work, starting with shorter days or weeks. This allows them to see what they can handle emotionally. Some days working from home could help too, if that’s possible.

As the employer, you are legally required to consider requests for part-time, although you aren’t obliged to agree.

"I would advise colleagues and supervisors/managers to be patient, sympathetic, understanding and have an open door. I had days in the first few weeks that I was back that I simply could not get through the entire day. There needs to be a great deal of flexibility to work through this adjustment. I went home at lunch time every day the first week I was back. Sometimes I would just leave an hour early. Other times I would leave after being there for 45 minutes. I was appointed one contact in HR to liaise with and check in with daily, and this was a huge help. She was supportive, kind, understanding and reassuring." 
Diane, who lost her daughter Chloe at 40 weeks (Read Diane's story here)

Talking about the stillbirth and baby

Before the parent returns, they may contact you to tell you whether they’re comfortable or not with talking about their baby. If they do get in touch, share what they have told you with all your work colleagues (not just your own team). Even though they will spend most of their time with your team, be aware that they will talk to the wider organisation too.

If they don’t do tell you in advance how they would prefer to communicate their loss, be led by them when they come in. No matter what happens, do tell everyone in the organisation what has happened to avoid people congratulating them on the birth of their child.

"I had a new manager who I was introduced to by phone. He had been vaguely briefed on my situation and greeted me by asking me if I had enjoyed my maternity leave. My former manager had not mentioned my baby had died. It happened a few times after that - someone would ask, in the middle of the office, "Oh, you're back early. How’s your new baby?” No one had thought to share the news to prevent these situations where I had to explain my baby had died in front of everyone. Obviously, it was incredibly emotive and very difficult." 
Sarah, whose son Tristan died at 38 weeks (Read Sarah's story here)

Be aware that parents have told us they found the following 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; eg ‘You’re young, you will have another one’. They may have another pregnancy but it will not be a replacement for this stillborn child.
  • Bringing religion into it if they are not religious: ‘It is God’s will.’ He/she is with the angels’
  • Referring to other children they might have as if it eases the pain, "At least you have…."

You can circulate this web page to colleagues if you think it will help.

"I had mixed reactions from colleagues. Some hugged me, told me how sorry they were and extended the offer of help any time I needed it. Some either ignored or avoided me, or spoke to me as though nothing had happened. One colleague came up to me with a big smile and said ‘welcome back!’ as though I had been off on my holidays. ’ Heather ‘I have had a few new managers and colleagues and I find it works best to explain what happened or ask a manager to explain on my behalf so that the awful questions don't get asked, which catch me off guard." 
Sarah, who lost her son Tristan at 38 weeks  (Read Sarah's story here)

The return to work was very difficult although this was no reflection on how my colleagues dealt with it. Some just hugged me, others wanted to know what happened. This was ok as I loved talking about Joseph and it felt therapeutic.’ Shelley, who lost her son Joseph at 38 weeks

The parent may wish to have a picture of their baby on their desk. It can be very difficult for other people who have not been through a stillbirth to understand this and they may find it very sad and disturbing. It may be helpful to forewarn colleagues and explain that this photograph is very precious to the parent as a tangible reminder of their child. This approach may also help limit unhelpful gossip.

"Another thing which really helped her I think was being allowed to have a picture of her baby on her desk (although I know a lot of people were very uncomfortable with that)." 
Amy, manager to a mother of a stillborn baby

Type of work

If the day to day nature of the work brings the parent into contact with baby-related items or pregnant women (for example working in the babywear department of a shop, in a nursery or in an office where other women are pregnant), be sensitive to the fact that this may cause upset. Some women don’t find it very upsetting, but others do. The best way to find out is to ask. If there is a way to avoid the situation, offer this.

Grief triggers

There are likely to be triggers for grief. A colleague might visit during their maternity leave, or there may be pregnancy announcements. You can’t prevent these and nor should you but being aware and sensitive to it will help.

You could, for example, forewarn the parent if there is to be a pregnancy announcement or a baby visit, so they can emotionally prepare themselves.

"We were working in an open plan office, and although the whole of my team was incredibly kind and sensitive, the stillbirth just wasn’t on the radar of other teams on the floor. The most upsetting thing was the safe arrival of a bouncing baby boy in another team. When they received the news they read it out and gave a little cheer (entirely natural), and she heard. I can still remember the howl of grief that she let out." 
Amy, manager to a mother of a stillborn baby 

"The hard thing to explain to people is that you don't know what a trigger for your grief will be, until it happens. I had no idea that going for a hot chocolate on my morning break would make me break down in tears, because I used to go for that break every day when I was pregnant and so seeing the barista at the coffee shop was terrifying - how do you explain to a stranger you saw every day that you lost your baby? Yet when a colleague spoke about their one-year-old daughter, I wasn't upset at all." 
Diane, who lost her daughter Chloe at 40 weeks (Read Diane's story here)

Don’t stop being kind

They have been through so much, so don’t be surprised if they struggle to concentrate at work, and that this goes on for a while. This is normal. Take it slowly. Grief can hit you in waves. They might be fine one day, but may find the feelings of loss and sadness overwhelming another day.

If it is possible, let them know that it is OK to take some time out, maybe a walk or some time alone, in these situations.

If you can, record the baby’s birthday somewhere so you are aware of it and sensitive to it in following years.

"It was the simple things at work that helped. If I was having a bad day, my colleagues would take me somewhere quiet or offer to cover me so I could go home."
Shelley, who lost her son Joseph at 37 weeks (Read Shelley's story here)

Review dates
Last reviewed: 01 September 2017
Next review: 01 September 2020