For family and friends – how to give support after a stillbirth

How to support parents who have suffered a stillbirth, advice for family, friends and colleagues

Losing a baby 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 may be hard to know what to do or say, especially when you are dealing with your own feelings about the loss.

The advice on this page is based on what other women who have suffered stillbirths have told us - what they found helpful and what they found difficult. But remember that we are individuals and what is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another.

The best you can do is avoid making assumptions, and to ask how you can help. We hope you find some of the advice useful.

Find advice here for parents coping with grief after a stillbirth.

Listen

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 gut instinct may be to give the parents space and privacy until they are ready to talk, but if everyone does that 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 at 37 weeks (Read Shelley's story here)

Support the family

Don’t assume the parents are dealing with their grief together as a couple. 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 dad. 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.

Meeting the baby

If you are family, or a very close friend, 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.

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 at 40 weeks (taken with permission from the book, ‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith)

Acknowledge the baby

Most parents want people to acknowledge their baby’s existence and the fact that they had a baby. If you feel it’s appropriate, ask questions about the baby. 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. 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 at 38 weeks (Read Keith’s story here)

'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 at one-day old (Read Nicola's blog here)

Follow their lead

There will be some parents who don’t name their child, or who don't want to share their baby’s name with work colleagues, or anyone other than very close family.

If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask them what they are comfortable with. Be sensitive to their reac-tions.

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 at 29 weeks (Read Rachel’s story here)

Choose your words carefully

Many parents find certain sentiments 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 their dead child.

‘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 at 38 weeks (Read Sarah’s story here)

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.

'Don’t assume that you know how we feel, because you probably don’t. Don’t say “I totally understand” if you have never been through this you really do not understand. We both hope that you never ever will.' Kerry, who lost her baby Rhianna Lily at 23 weeks (Read Kerry’s story here)

Read one mum's advice on what to say and not to say to mums who have suffered a stillbirth.

Offer 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.

Ask what practical support the parents 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 if they need time alone together.

Rather than ask, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help?’ Make concrete suggestions: Would they like some meals for the freezer? Do other children need support or taking to school?

Grief is tiring and overwhelming, sometimes it’s difficult to know what help to ask for. 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 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 avoid them - be there for them

The nature of grief - and how individual it is - particularly when it’s a baby that’s died can make people feel very uncomfortable. You might feel completely unsure as to how the parents want you to behave.

Also their grief might bring cause uncomfortable memories of your own losses to resurface, if you have experience of baby loss or other bereavements in your past.

In most instances, parents will want you to be there for them. They’ll 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 so much better than avoidance.

'My friends come round to see me every month that she would have been a month older' Chloe, who lost her daughter Sadie at 39 weeks (taken with permission from the book, ‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith)

'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 at 38 weeks (Read Keith’s story here)

‘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 at 37 weeks (Read Shelley's story here)

Some people will put on a brave face. They might look welI 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.

Pregnancy and babies

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 mum’s (now mummy’s) 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 at 24 weeks (Read Hannah's story here)

If you have had a baby and are struggling to adapt to life as a mum, 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 at 24 weeks (Read Kerry’s story here)

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. They might want to keep this very private. But also, don’t assume that if they are pregnant with another baby, their grief has healed. It’s likely that it will be harder than ever for them.

Remember the baby

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 healthy children. Grief is something you live with. It can come in waves and hit you at any time, sometimes unexpectedly. So don’t be surprised if years go by and they still need your support and care, especially around difficult anniversaries or significant milestones. Parents may not recover, or forget, and there may come a time when they might remember their baby with joy, as well as tears, and want you to share this.

‘I am over six years in to my journey and I still think about Joseph every day.’ Shelley, who lost her son Joseph at 37 weeks (Read Shelley's story here)

They may want to keep talking about their baby and make them part of their family. There might be certain anniversaries that they want to celebrate in memory of their baby, or which perhaps trigger difficult emotions. They might need extra love and support at these times. It is very thoughtful to be mindful of these dates.

‘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 at 41 weeks. (Read Lucy’s story here)

'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, its hard to realise you do remember you just haven’t said it. Say it, shout it with us and remind us you remember her.' Kerry, who lost her baby Rhianna Lily at 24 weeks (Read Kerry's story here)

What to say and not to say

Read one mum's advice here on what to say and what not to say to someone who has lost a baby.

Read more about stillbirth

Last reviewed on September 1st, 2017. Next review date September 1st, 2020.

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