October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month – a month in which we recognise the grief of couples who have experienced the loss of a baby, and the ongoing support needed from a community of carers, family members and friends.
Nothing prepares parents for the death of their baby or the intensity and duration of the grief that follows. Many people often find themselves at loss for words when it comes to supporting a bereaved friend or family member during this extremely difficult time.
There are indeed things that you to do to be a source of strength and to help those close to you who are trying to make sense of their baby’s passing.
Acknowledge the birth of the baby and the significance of his or her death. Sending a card or a message offering your love and support is important. Many families keep cards they received at the time of their baby’s death with other treasured mementos such as photographs, and ink prints of their baby’s hands and feet.
Acknowledge the loss for both parents. Sometimes responses often reinforce outdated and unhelpful societal norms and expectations that place a mother’s grief above a father’s grief. Both parents need to feel that they can feel and express their emotions and be heard with acceptance, compassion and sensitivity. A simple statement expressing your shock and sorrow at hearing of the baby’s death and your willingness to listen and support when the family are ready can be of great comfort.
Parents will feel unable to ask for help at times, so consider offering specific assistance. Helping with meal preparation, household chores, care of other children, dog walking etc can take pressure off the family when their ability to manage these tasks is limited. Taking responsibility for doing a task over several weeks or longer may make an enormous difference. Coordinating the help of others is also valued. Over time, ask what is helpful and unhelpful.
Offer to visit when they are ready. If they decline, let them know you will make contact again. Offer to go out for a walk with them when they feel they are ready. Being near nature, walking or sitting near the ocean or bush can offer a sense of calm and help them reconnect with the world. Sitting with them in silence can offer them a moment of peace. Parents are often highly sensitive to sensory stimulation and maybe able to manage the company of even the most loved family member or friend for limited periods. Most find shopping centres, coffee shops, their workplace etc overwhelming.
Accept the wide range of emotions. Know that grief is messy, unpredictable, painful and exhausting. Accept where and how they are.
Listen rather than offering advice or recounting stories of another person’s experience. A physical gesture such as a hug, holding their hand or a smile may convey all that you feel but cannot adequately express. Be mindful that telling parents that they are brave or strong may not be helpful. They may feel they have no other choice but to ride the waves of grief as best they can.
Other gestures may be a comfort. Take part in fundraising for a charity of the parent’s choice or donate to a charity in the baby’s name. Plant a tree in memory of their baby and be sure to remember the baby’s birthday. Know that days such as the baby’s due date, parent’s birthdays, Mothers or Father’s Day, and holidays may be especially painful. Acknowledge that although their baby has died, he or she is unique and loved, and that his or her parents are parents either way.
Reach out to the grandparents. They will be grieving deeply too and doing all they can to support their adult children. They may feel ill equipped to do this and need love, compassion and time as well.
Be patient. Be kind. Be sensitive. Accept that sometimes what ever we say to a person who is hurting, no matter how well intentioned we are, we may not provide comfort or convey our care in the way we hoped. We cannot take other’s pain from them but can be a willing companion on the road, to walk with them through part of their grief, which in itself is a gift and an expression of great love.
About Deb De Wilde and the Mater Maternity
Deb de Wilde is a maternity social worker at The Mater Private Hospital, North Sydney. For the last 35 years she has cared for bereaved families who have experienced the death of a child. Deb and her colleague Belinda Power facilitate a series of support groups for bereaved parents at the Mater. For more information, contact the hospital’s maternity unit on (02) 9900 7690 or visit matermaternity.com.au