Supporting someone after a stillbirth

The loss of a baby at any time is one of the most devastating and personally unique experiences any individual can go through.

This tragedy is particularly deeply felt because it comes at a time when new life and joy are anticipated. It never occurs to most pregnant women that their baby may die. We see our babies actively moving on a screen when we have our ultrasound scans; we feel the vigorous kicking under our ribs; we know our unborn baby can hear our voice; we know childbirth has never been safer and that very premature babies can survive because of amazing advances in medicine.

It may be hard to know what to do or say, especially when you are dealing with your own feelings about the loss. Tommy's advice is based upon what other women who have suffered stillbirths have told us helped, or wasn’t so helpful for them. But remember that we are all individuals and what is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another. The best you can do is not to make assumptions, and to ask how you can help. 

Listen

Women who have had a stillbirth often say the best support was 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 gut instinct may be telling you to give the parents space till they are ready to talk, but if everyone does that they may feel they have too much space and no one to talk to. Don’t assume the parents are dealing with their grief together. One may want to talk and the other might not be able to yet, so they may need support in different ways.

Try not to forget the partners. 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 don’t assume the parents would like them kept away, or don’t want to see them upset. It is important that children know it is ok to feel sad about what has happened.

Acknowledge the baby

In the very early hours and days after the stillbirth the parents may want you to come and meet the baby. This may be the first time you have seen a baby that has died, and this may be quite a shocking or distressing thing for you.

It may be very important to the couple that they feel they have been able to introduce their baby to their family or close friends. Try not to make excuses. Would you have dropped everything to come and see the new baby if he or she had lived? Remember that they only have the baby for a short, precious amount of time.

If this is something that you are really worried about, try to imagine how much harder it is for them to be holding the baby that they were expecting. Talk separately to the midwife caring for them first if you need to prepare yourself to see the baby. Ask them what to expect, and how to hold the baby if you are not sure, but the parents will also be able to show you this.

Whether you are able to visit or not, do ask questions about the baby and acknowledge her presence in all your lives. Ask why they chose the names they did, what did the baby weigh, what colour was her hair? Did she look like mum or dad?

Don’t ignore what has happened, talk about the baby as a person, using her name, and ask to see photos if they have them.

Offer practical help

Remember that the mother will have been through a delivery, probably a normal 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.

Ask what practical support they need. 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 them if they need time alone together.

Would they like some meals for the freezer? Does the house need cleaning? Do other children need support or taking to school?

You may find that helping with practical tasks allows you to feel useful, and distracted from your own sadness, but don’t allow yourself to spend so much time on them that you are not there for the parents when they need your emotional support. 

Don't throw things away

Don't make assumptions about what should be kept or cleared away. For example, don’t clear away baby equipment, clothes or toys. This may be something that the mother or father want to do at a later point, 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 may be kept to create memory boxes. 

Don't settle arguments now

Now is not the time to settle arguments about their pregnancy care or health or choices. Don’t be surprised though if they go through a stage of being angry and taking this out on you. They may also have happier days or moments and it is ok to enjoy these times and the closeness that you have. 

Read more about stillbirth

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