The birth of a baby is usually a joyful time, so the news that your friend, colleague or family member lost their baby won’t be what any of you planned for or expected.
It might be hard to know how to react to the news, or what to do or say. You will be juggling your own feelings about the loss of your loved one’s baby alongside trying to support them.
The advice below is based on what other women told us helped them after their baby died, and what they found difficult. However, everyone grieves differently, so what might be right for these mums might not be right for your friend or loved one.
Be guided by the mum or dad about what they feel comfortable with and let them know if you’re unsure what to say or what they need from you.
When to talk and when to listen
Parents whose baby died 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.” Aliyah, Aamiyah’s mum
Many friends and family members just assume that the parents need space and that they will reach out when they’re ready. But if everyone keeps their distance the mum and dad may feel like they are alone and have no-one to talk to.
They may want to be alone for the first few days or weeks, but make sure you let them know you’re there and that you’re happy to talk about what happened and listen to how they’re feeling.
Support the whole family
Everyone is different; one parent might want to talk but the other might not be ready yet. 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.
Talk about the baby
The majority of parents will be happy for you to acknowledge their baby. If you think it’s appropriate, ask questions about the baby. You might want to ask:
- 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.
It’s OK to use the baby’s name and speak about them. You might like to ask if you can see any photos they took.
Go at their pace
If in doubt, ask.
Don’t be afraid to see what the parents are comfortable with and be sensitive to their reactions. If you think they aren’t ready to talk, or they’ve told you they don’t want to, it’s fine to acknowledge their loss and then move onto other things.
What not to say when a baby dies
Some comments can be unhelpful, in particular saying things like, ‘You’ll have another baby’. Although this may seem encouraging and hopeful, it can come across as insensitive or uncaring. It’s possible they won’t want to try again and even if they were to, another baby cannot replace the child they lost.
Most people will have experienced the death of a loved one and the grief that comes with it, but the loss of a child is unique. It’s hard to imagine how this feels for parents going through it, and it can be isolating when people tell them how they should be feeling or what they should be doing, for example asking them if they’ll go back to work right away.
It’s OK to say that you can’t imagine how it feels but that you’re happy to listen.
Practical things you can do
When a baby dies neonatally it can overshadow that fact that the mum is recovering from pregnancy and birth alongside her grief. Ask her how she is feeling physically, as well as emotionally. Support her in the same way you would any new mum, for example helping her to lift heavy items.
There are other practical things you can do, so ask what help the parents need. They might like you to stay over, but be prepared to change plans quickly and check every once in a while 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 any other children they may have.
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. They might want to do at a later point though because having them around may be a comforting reminder of the baby. Keep things that might hold sentimental value later or could be used to create a memory box.
Just be there
It won’t always be the way, but 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, 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. Keep asking how they’re feeling and 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.
“I don’t think I was angry at anyone specifically for having healthy children there. But I was angry at the universe for taking mine away from me.” Elle, Teddy’s mum
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 your friend/family member 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 might find comfort in your parenting ups and downs – you know them best.
It’s normal to wonder whether they might try for another baby, but it’s a very tricky 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. 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 have since grown 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 they died and holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day.
If you can make a note of important dates that might affect them, you can give them lots of extra care and support. Remembering those dates will mean a lot and make a huge difference.
If you’re someone who prefers to do rather than say, you might like to undertake a fundraising challenge in memory of the baby who died to show the parents your support.
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.
Mum to Melody, born too soon. Blogger at Melody and Me and premature birth group support leader. This is Julz.
Founder of 'Feathering the Empty Nest', blogger and author of 'Say His Name'. This is Elle.
After losing one of her twin daughters shortly after birth, Millie Smith decided to launch a scheme that uses stickers in neonatal wards to identify babies who have lost their siblings.
ℹLast reviewed on October 4th, 2018. Next review date October 4th, 2021.