Supporting someone after the death of a baby
The death of a baby is a devastating experience and has a wide-reaching effect not only on the parents, but also on wider family and friends, amongst others.
It can be very difficult to know what to say or do when someone you know has been affected by such a tragedy. Many people, even the closest family members, may struggle for the right words or feel worried they may do or say the wrong thing. They may also be trying to cope with their own grief.
The charity Sands have a range of information and advice for anyone in this situation, which we've summarised below.
General tips for showing your support after the death of a baby
- Everyone grieves in different ways, and while nothing you can say will make the situation better, just being there when needed can be a great comfort.
- Feel free to say that you don't have the words to express what's happening, or how you feel, but remind them you're there if they want to talk.
- A brief but personal message in a card can show they're in your thoughts.
- Avoiding the person or refusing to discuss the situation suggests you don't care about what they're going through, and will only make it more difficult to speak to them further down the line.
- Try not to intrude, they will need their own private time to process the loss.
- Follow their lead. If they open up the conversation then go with it, but don't force questions or probe for further details if they don't appear willing to share.
And things to avoid saying...
However well meant, anything that is intended to reassure bereaved parents is likely to be unhelpful.
- Avoid saying anything that implies that a baby is replaceable. For example, "You are young, you can always have another baby," or "At least one of the twins survived". Each baby is an individual, and having another now or in the future cannot possibly compensate for the baby who died.
- Unless you too have had a baby who died around the time of birth, avoid saying, "I know how you feel."
- Avoid saying anything religious, such as "The baby is with God now," unless you are absolutely certain that the parents share your beliefs. Even if they do, remember that their faith may have been shaken by their baby's death and comments such as these may add to their pain and distress.
- Any sentence that begins with "At least..." is likely to be unhelpful; for example, "At least you already have a child."
- Other statements that are intended to be comforting such as, "You will get over it soon", or, "It was probably for the best" are also likely to be unhelpful and distressing, even if the outlook for the baby would have been poor if he or she had survived.
How different people are affected, and ways you can help to support them
Bereaved parents need to know that you care about them and that you are there if they need you. What you say and do can make a big difference, even if this is not obvious to you at the time.
Ask about specific things you can do to help - offer to cook meals or get shopping, things they may not have the time or energy to do.
If you're far away, and cannot offer practical help, a phone call or message will let them know you're thinking of them.
There is a tendency for everyone to focus on the grieving mother and to forget that the father is grieving as well. The dad will often focus on caring for the mother at this time and may set aside their own grief to try to stay strong for her. However, it's important to remember that, whether or not they show their feelings or talk about their grief, fathers are profoundly affected by the death of their baby and need support in their own right. Ask how they are doing and if there is any way you could help.
Children can be deeply affected when a baby dies, but their understanding and reaction is likely to vary. It can be difficult to explain the situation and deal with their response. Even though they may not understand what has happened, they will sense changes in those around them and know that people are upset which could lead to their own anxiety.
If you are a relative or friend, offering to help look after children can be extremely useful. It gives the parents some time alone as well as offering the child some attention and care at this difficult time.
Be patient with them, talk and try to answer their questions as openly as possible. Encourage them to express their feelings.
- See Sands' information on supporting children when a baby has died
- More advice on talking to your child about death
A grandparent will grieve not only for the baby who has died, their grandchild, but also for their own child - the parent who is experiencing this terrible loss. It is extremely upsetting to have to watch the distress of your own child, however old they are, and to be unable to protect them or take their pain away.
The grandparents will do their best to offer support to the parents after the death, but they also need support from those around them and should not ignore their own feelings and grief. Both parties should respect the other's needs as much as possible.
For some grandparents, the death of a grandchild may also bring back painful memories of their own childbearing losses, and these emotions should also be addressed.
Family and friends
If you have a relative or friend whose baby has died you will be concerned with how to support the parents and the rest of the family, but you're likely to also have your own grief and it can take time to accept the shock of hearing this news.
If you are pregnant yourself, this may surface anxieties or even feelings of guilt. The parents may find it difficult to discuss the situation with you and you should try to respect their need to process their loss. Also take the time to understand your own reaction and, if possible, discuss those feelings with someone else close to you.
If you have children of your own, particularly if you've had a baby fairly recently, this may also make the situation a bit trickier. You should still let the parents know that you're thinking of them – avoiding it will only be worse – but follow their lead on whether they want to be around babies or children at this time.
If you're looking for more information or advice on dealing with a death yourself, or supporting someone else going through this, take a look at the support packs on the Sands website.
Sands is the stillbirth and neonatal death charity operating throughout the UK, supporting anyone affected by the death of a baby and promoting research to reduce the loss of babies' lives.
Last updated: 11 months ago