It is very shocking to find out the devastating news that a colleague or employee, who you may have just waved off happily into parenthood, has had a stillborn baby. 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.
Trying to understand what your employee or colleague is going through
It’s not possible to know what a parent who has lost their baby is going through, unless you have suffered a similar loss. And even then, it’s important to know that people respond to grief in different ways. Try reading our information about coping with grief after losing a baby to get an idea of what may be happening (emotionally, physically and practically) to the parents. Being aware of what they might be feeling could help you manage the situation with more understanding and empathy.
You may not find out about the baby’s death directly from your colleague or employee, and you may wonder whether you should make contact with the parent or not. This depends on your relationship with them. If you had a close relationship, we have information about how friends and family can support parents after a stillbirth which might be helpful for you.
If your relationship was more professional, you may wonder whether it is appropriate to send flowers or a card. You may also be getting questions from colleagues about whether they should get in touch or send something.
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. It could also be treasured in the future as a tangible item that marks the birth of their child.
You may want to send a message starting with ‘there’s no need to reply to this’ so they understand there is no expectation from you to hear back from them. This can let them know you’re thinking of them.
“Knowing what to say is hard, but not saying anything is worse. There is no silver bullet, we are all different. We feel in different ways, we grieve in different ways. Keep what you say short and simple: “I am sorry for your loss” and then be there for your colleague, to listen. They need to feel heard, for their loss and pain to be acknowledged.”
Saffron, HR Director
If you know the name of their baby, write it in the card. This will acknowledge the baby’s existence, which is something that parents have told us is important to them.
Making contact for purely work reasons should be kept to the minimum (unless the parent has requested more contact). Try to remember that parents who have had a stillbirth (or a neonatal death) are entitled to full parental rights and benefits. We have more information about parent’s rights and benefits after a stillbirth.
If there is any flexibility in allowing extra time off for partners, this should be offered. Your HR department will be able to help you with any specific questions.
Helping them decide about going back to work
Going back to work can be a welcome return to routine for some parents. But for others it can be terrifying. Where possible, let the parent make the decision when they are ready.
"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 together...as 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.
Some parents 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 cutting their leave short, if appropriate. If you are contacting them about this, take care to do it in a way that makes it clear there is no pressure for them to return.
Practicalities or financial pressures may influence some parent’s choices. It will be up to them whether they choose to take all the leave, or just some of it.
Offering a phased return
For many parents, a gradual return to work, starting with shorter days or weeks, could give them a chance to see what they can handle emotionally. Being flexible about working from home could be helpful 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
Making a plan for their return to work
Try to plan ahead for their return to work and think about how you will welcome your colleague back at team meetings or over emails. Try not to be tempted to add a positive spin on this such as ‘we’re really excited to have you back’.
Many people have told us that the worst thing was being asked ‘how was maternity leave?’ so try to think about how you can inform colleagues.
“The role that the workplace plays in this process can be crucial. Providing an environment that is supportive, understanding and empathetic for a colleague that has suffered recent loss is an imperative, but it can be a sensitive road to navigate.”
Saffron, HR Director
Speak to your HR department about ways you make sure your employee feels supported and comfortable during their return.
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 if they spend most of their time with their team, be aware that they will talk to the wider organisation too. Letting everyone know may help avoid upsetting situations in the future.
"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."
If they don’t tell you in advance how they would prefer to communicate about their loss, be led by them when they return to work. No matter what happens, tell everyone in the organisation what has happened to avoid people congratulating them on the birth of their child. Make sure to do this sensitively and appropriately.
“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.”
Things to avoid doing or 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….".
“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
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 even disturbing. It may be helpful to warn colleagues about this in advance 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
You and your colleagues may want to collect donations in the name of their baby. This can be a thoughtful gesture instead of baby gifts. They may know which charity they would like to support if there is one that is specific to their situation.
Thinking about the type of work they do
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 be upsetting.
Some bereaved parents don’t find it very upsetting, but others do. The best way to find out is to ask what may upset them. If there is a way to avoid the situation, try to organise this this.
Managing grief triggers
There are likely to be triggers for grief. For example, a colleague might visit during their maternity leave, or there may be pregnancy announcements. You can’t prevent these but being aware and sensitive to it will help your employee or team member.
“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 the team 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
You could, for example, warn them that there is going to be a pregnancy announcement or another parent is bringing in their baby for a visit, so they can emotionally prepare themselves or make arrangements to be away from the situation.
“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
Continuing to be kind
Your colleague or employee has been through a lot, 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’s possible, let them know that it is okay 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
It’s important to recognise that there is no end point to grief and you may need to continue to be thoughtful for five, ten, twenty years.
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. 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 six 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 provides support after losing a multiple birth baby.