Nothing prepares parents for the death of their baby or the intensity and duration of the grief that follows.
Most parent’s initial response to the death of their baby is one of shock, disbelief and great distress, and they often describe feeling like they are caught in a nightmare from which they cannot wake. It may be difficult for them to comprehend what has happened and impossible to believe that their baby could pass away.
Deb de Wilde is a social worker at Sydney’s Mater Hospital who has an expertise and long experience in caring for families at the time of a baby’s death. She has been looking after bereaved parents for more than 35 years and facilitates a series of unique and ongoing support groups for bereaved parents at Mater Hospital.
In Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, Deb has shared her thoughts for those who find themselves needing to support a bereaved friend or family member during this extremely difficult time.
Many families will initially feel an intense need for privacy as they experience the rawness of their grief. Mothers and fathers may need time to recover from the physical demands of labour and their baby’s birth. While in hospital, they may concentrate their thoughts and feelings on spending precious time with their baby whilst trying to make sense of their baby’s death.
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What you can do
• 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 Sometimes responses often reinforce outdated and unhelpful societal norms and expectations that place a mother’s grief above that of a father’s. Both need to feel that they can feel and express their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.
• Gently ask parents about their baby. Many parents appreciate an opportunity to talk about their baby, and to express their love, pride and yearning for him or her. Let them know that you are ready to listen and be with them when they feel the time is right.
Parents may like to share photographs of their baby with you. They may need to talk about the events around the death and birth of their baby on many occasions. This retelling is important to people and helps them absorb the enormity of their baby’s death.
• 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. Mindfully try to be kind to other people. Know that days such as the baby’s due date,
parent’s birthdays, Mothers or Father’s Day, and holidays may be especially painful.
Remember the baby’s birthday. 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.
The Mater Hospital’s Bereavement Support Groups
Deborah de Wilde and Belinda Power, obstetric social workers at Sydney’s Mater Hospital, offer several support groups for parents who have experienced the death of their baby.
The Bereavement Support Group
The Bereavement Support Group offers support for families who have lost a baby as a result of stillbirth or
death in the newborn period. The mourning that follows the death of a baby is not about forgetting or
‘moving on’ but the difficult process of working through the feelings which accompany the death of the
baby: anxiety, yearning, self-blame, loneliness, anger and resentment, envy and sadness The group offers
a place where parents can feel safe, supported and able to find their unique path through their grief.
Pregnancy After Loss Group
The Pregnancy After Loss (PAL) Group is a unique antenatal support and education group for parents who have previously experienced the death of a baby. The group provides parents an opportunity to meet with others who have also experienced the death of a baby and now face the joy, uncertainty and anxiety of another pregnancy.
Parenting After Loss Group
Following the birth of the babies, the PAL group continues as a parent and baby group, a place for parents to reflect upon their journey to parenthood and to discuss the experience of getting to know and love their ‘new’ baby, while holding close their loving bond with their baby who has died.
The Service of Remembrance, Consolation and Hope
The Service of Remembrance, Consolation and Hope is held on the first Friday in December at St Mary’s Catholic Church, North Sydney. This non-religious service recognises that the approach of the festive season with its emphasis on the family, is a particularly painful and poignant time for those who are living with loss and grief.
All are welcome.
For more information, contact The Mater Hospital maternity unit on (02) 9900 7690 or visit matermaternity.com.au