How To Support a Family When Their Baby Dies

Following on from last week’s post ‘Thomas’s Story’ I was emailed by a couple who wanted to share how they were supported when they lost their baby in 2012. They experienced the unthinkable when just only one hour after their son was born, he tragically died. They have written this post as a guide to help and support friends and family in these circumstances.

holding hands

“Not all pregnancies have a happy ending.  I’m sure most people know this, we certainly did.  But it´s one thing knowing something in principle and something else entirely to live through it.  We read the leaflets and had the hypothetical conversations that I’m sure lots of couples have when they approach the end of a pregnancy: “what will we do if…?”.  But nothing could have prepared us for the death of our first son, an hour after his birth at 41 weeks.  No warning, very little explanation and absolutely nothing we could do about it other than start the long and painful process of grieving for our beautiful, perfect boy.

But, unlikely as it may seem, we look back on that time with gut-wrenching sadness, but also a lot of joy thanks to the amazing kindness of many, many people.  We now know that every single day in the UK, 17 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Most of these are completely unexpected and often go unexplained.  Sadly, with statistics like that, the chances are that most of you who read this blog will be touched by the death of a baby at some point, either directly or indirectly.  We have chosen to write about some of the ways in which people helped us in the hope that, if faced with a friend or relative who has lost a baby, others may be able to offer help and solace during what may be that person’s darkest days.
Be there. These are likely to be the worst times your loved ones will ever go through so the most important thing is to be there, in whatever way you can.  Visit, call, send a message, whatever you can manage and whatever you feel is appropriate.  Nothing is worse than saying nothing, ignoring what´s happened and waiting until ‘things get better’. Don´t be afraid to cry, it’s a sign that it has affected you too and that what’s happened has sent ripples far beyond the immediate family. One of the most horrendous feelings is the sense that whilst their world has completely collapsed, the rest of the world has carried on as normal.  People get married, have children, go to work, get on the bus, take holidays. All of this ´normality´ is really hard to watch and even harder to be a part of.  Anything you can do to reach out a hand of support could help.
Listen.  Nothing makes sense to parents who have lost a baby and every minute of every day seems like an eternity as they cycle through the feelings of anger, confusion, denial, depression, total isolation, questioning…  Everyone worries about not knowing what to say or, worse, saying the wrong thing.  The truth is, there’s no right thing to say.  The best thing to do is listen.  People want to tell their stories and bereaved parents often want to talk about their baby.  It helps to make it real and tangible: that baby is a person, he or she had a life – however short – and talking about what happened can help enormously. Having said that, everyone is different and it’s important to be sensitive and try to respond to the signals coming your way.  If they don’t want to talk, don´t force it, though don’t read this as a sign that they may never want to talk about it.  One day they may talk non-stop, the next they may not want it mentioned at all.  Grief is not neat, linear or organised, you just have to do your best in the circumstances and try to read the situation on a minute-to-minute basis.  And whatever you do, avoid cliches like “time is a healer”, “it was meant to be” – these are most definitely not helpful.  The death of anyone shouldn’t be bundled up into glib soundbites, least of all a baby.  Yes, time passes and over time the rawness eases, but in the early days the depth and darkness of the hole parents find themselves in is absolute.  And in no world is it ´meant to be´ that a baby dies unexpectedly.
Bring food. Don’t stay too long. Just like any new parents (and yes, your loved ones are parents, even if their baby is not with them), the day-to-day responsibilities of life can become impossible to keep up with.  Buttering a piece of toast can seem like an insurmountable challenge, never mind cooking a meal.  If you can bring food, it will be so welcome but don’t expect to be invited in.  Your friends will be grateful but, when grief takes over, there’s little room for pleasantries or thank yous.  Those will come later.  If you are invited in, don’t stay too long.  Again, try to read the situation and remember that it’s about THEM, not about YOU.
Be proactive.  The utter shock of losing a child is all-consuming and can leave parents with little or no motivation.  This includes the motivation to do things they would normally enjoy and, more importantly, the motivation to ask for help.  Even that is too much effort. So, where possible, take the lead and take care of any practicalities you can: washing, loading/unloading the dishwasher, running errands etc.  If they have older children, perhaps offer to look after them for a few hours.  Also, taking on unwanted admin such as cancelling baby-related plans (NCT memberships, deliveries for the nursery etc.) or offering to call other people who the parents don’t have the strength to relate their story to in the immediate days and weeks.  Another brilliant thing is to offer to accompany your friends to appointments.  These can be scary and often have to take place in the very hospital where their baby died.  A friendly face can really help.  Again, offer but don’t expect a yes.  It’s a question of offering helpful options rather than imposing yourself on the situation.
Inform yourself. There are charitable and professional organisations that support parents who have lost a baby. SANDS offers emotional support to bereaved parents but also has information for family and friends that can help to explain how the parents may be feeling.  The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.  Cruse Bliss and Winston´s Wish also offer support and information.
Go the distance. Grief doesn’t go away, it doesn’t even get much easier.  Bereaved parents will forever remember the child(ren) they’ve lost and that space can never be filled. Every birthday, anniversary, Christmas, Mothers’/Fathers’ Day will bring back very painful feelings.  During the early weeks and months the support pours in, but as time goes on, that wave of support recedes and the parents are left feeling as if they´re alone in a world that now feels very alien, needing to ´move on and get back to normal´.  This can be the hardest time for parents and for friends too.  Again, no-one wants to say the wrong thing and avoid upsetting the parents all over again.  In reality, nothing is more upsetting than the feeling that people have forgotten.  Do your best, in a sensitive way, to show your friends that you haven’t forgotten their baby and he/she will always have a place in your lives.  Tread carefully because everyone will have their own way of dealing with their feelings but you could think about acknowledging anniversaries, raising money for a relevant cause, or simply continuing to talk/ask about the baby if it feels appropriate.
We miss our son every single day.  We should have a noisy, boisterous toddler tearing around our house, instead we have the photos we proudly display on our mantlepiece, the stretch marks I have on my tummy, the tile with his tiny footprints imprinted on it, the little hat he wore during his very short life, and of course the heaviness that we carry with us every day.  But he is also with us in the box brimming with cards and messages that we received following his death, he is in the new friendships we’ve forged with people who truly went above and beyond in their support for us and mainly in the firmly held belief we now have that, although there are inexplicably awful things that happen in the world, there’s a tremendous amount of goodness too and we’re so proud that our precious boy has given us that gift.”

4 thoughts on “How To Support a Family When Their Baby Dies

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Very helpful and very true. We also very much appreciate the cards and messages we receive from a select group of people on days that are extra hard for us. The rest of the world has moved on.

    My main advice would be to not ignore it. So many people around us felt uncomfortable so they just didn’t say anything. To have our pain and our enormous loss denied was the most painful response. Remember that YOU don’t bring out the sadness by asking the parents how they are. The sadness is already there and you only offer to share it with them.

    And be a little persistent. If your first phone call or text message isn’t answered, this might just be because it came at a bad time. Don’t expect the grieving family to call you back, but take it upon yourself to try again.

    As for something else not to say (in case the baby died before it was born): ‘oh well, at least it’s easier this way than when you lose a real baby’.

    Remember that you can’t take away the pain. But you can definitely make a difference!

  2. Remember The Lullaby Trust. The leading charity for Sudden Infant Death. They are there for all relatives when a healthy baby dies suddenly and unexpectedly. There are still 5 deaths each week in the UK from SIDs.

    Free bereavement line.0808 802 6868. Weekdays 10.00 AM -5.00 PM.
    Weekends and public holidays. 6.00 PM -10.00PM. Answered by a bereaved parent whose baby has died from SIDs.

  3. A great list. I think “go the distance” is particularly important.

    I lost my second son to stillbirth in 2010 and almost 4 years on despite being blessed with another baby now a healthy toddler I still miss my son. And for me this is something that I find people who have not lost a baby forget. They assume I am back to who I was before my loss. In fact they have assumed that for a very long time. And yes things are much better now and I am happy most of the time but I still remember my son and I get sad now and then because he is not here.

    As you mention anniversaries are particularly hard but also milestones – he would be starting school in September and that is a little sad. We always remember him on his birthday but I have found just me and my partner and our children remember him. Nobody else mentions him (apart from friends I have met since losing him who have also lost babies). I am fine with this as I know my friends and family aren’t purposefully being hurtful but it would be lovely for them to remember him and just mention him to us. So I hope that people who know somebody who have lost a baby read your post and remember to go the distance.

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