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Supporting parents affected by stillbirth or neonatal loss

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Losing a baby is often called an ‘unthinkable’ tragedy. As a society, we find the loss of a baby too shocking to think or talk about, but for some parents, the ‘unthinkable’ becomes a reality.

We tend to think about old age when we talk about death, so stillbirth and neonatal loss can be hard to imagine. But it is essential that we do think about it so that we can offer real, compassionate support to those parents coping with the loss of a baby.

According to statistics from SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society), around 5,700 babies pass away just before or after birth each year. That’s no small number. So how can we make sure that grieving parents are not overlooked?

If you’re supporting a friend or family member who has lost a child, here are a few key things to remember:

Their grief is always valid

In some cases, parents who have experienced stillbirth or neonatal death can hear insensitive comments from those around them, such as:

  • “You can have more children”
  • “At least they weren’t older – it would have been harder if they were older”
  • “It’s nature’s way”

Comments like this, although almost always intended to console them, will make the parents feel as if their grief doesn’t matter. Or worse still, that it is wrong for them to grieve. Always respect the parents’ right to grieve and do not attempt to ‘minimise’ their sorrow.

You should always bear in mind that parents who have lost a baby are not only grieving for the child they loved, but everything in that child’s future. This is why seeing older babies and children may be very painful for them, as they imagine how their baby would grow and who they would have become.

The cause may be unknown

The causes of stillbirth and neonatal loss are varied, from problems with the placenta or genetic abnormalities, to infection and trauma during birth. Often, however, the exact causes remain unknown. This can be extremely difficult for the parents, who may never get answers to their many questions.

The parents may tell you about the medical details in their own time. Otherwise, unless you are very close to them, it is probably best to avoid questioning them. Letting them know that you are there to talk if needed is enough – and if they do open up to you, remember to just listen without judging them or attempting to ‘fix’ the problem.

Similarly, it can be hurtful if you attempt to suggest reasons why the loss might have occurred. Although intended to provide possible answers to the parents, speculations about causes are best left to medical professionals. Inaccurate information can cause deep worry and upset to the parents, especially if the suggestion is that they could have prevented the loss in some way.

Stillbirth is just as traumatic as losing a newborn baby

As a society, we are sadly lacking in our understanding of stillbirth grief. The parents will likely grieve as intensely as if the baby had been born before passing away.

Be careful to not let your own personal views about when life begins affect how you talk to the bereaved parents. Remember that the parents will have already been thinking about names, buying baby clothes, decorating the baby’s room, and dreaming of their potential future. These cherished plans and preparations will now be lost, and they will be grieving for the child they never got to hold.

Add to this the fact that stillbirth is a traumatic event in itself. Sometimes the mother has to undergo labour in the knowledge that the baby will not be alive. The emotional and physical impact of this difficult process should not be underestimated.

Support both parents

Remember that it is not just the woman carrying the baby who will be grieving. The father will also be bereaved – or there may be partners in same sex couples who are equally involved in and bereaved by the loss.

In an effort to support the mother following a stillbirth or neonatal death, many people unwittingly ignore the needs of the partner. This can add to feelings of isolation and prevent them from seeking the support they need. Take the time to let them know they can talk to you if they need to. Acknowledging that their grief matters may be enough to help.

Let yourself grieve

If a close friend or family member has lost their baby around the time of birth, there is a chance that you too may be bereaved. You may be grieving for the loss of a niece, nephew, cousin, grandchild, or simply a friend’s child who you know would have been a part of your life.

The loss of a young baby is always hard to come to terms with and may make you feel unsure of the world around you. Feelings of confusion, despair and sadness are common, as well as anger at the injustice of it all.

Of course, you will be aware that your feelings of grief are probably incomparable to those of the bereaved parents, but this does not mean that you do not have a right to feel them. Try to find someone – not the parents – to talk to about the loss. This will help you stay supportive for the parents while dealing with your own grief in a healthy way.

If you want to find out more about the issues surrounding stillbirth and neonatal loss, visit the SANDS website. SANDS is a charity that strives to prevent deaths and provide anyone affected by stillbirth or neonatal death with the support they need.

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