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RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 16-Oct-18 22:46:59

Karen Burgess, CEO of Petals talks about supporting bereaved parents in their grief

It’s difficult to know what to say to bereaved parents. How can we offer anything that doesn’t sound trite compared to their anguish? But silence is the worst option, says Karen Burgess, CEO of Petals, as she offers suggestions for supporting people in their grief.

Karen Burgess

Petals Charity

Posted on: Tue 16-Oct-18 22:46:59


Lead photo

“Walk towards the grief, not away from it.”

Since 2009, I’ve worked as a counsellor, supporting parents who have experienced traumatic pregnancies and births. I have listened to bereaved parents talk about their anguish and shame, as they describe the chaos, paralysis and isolation that can come with losing a child.

Even for experienced professionals, it can be difficult to know what to say to bereaved parents. How do we support people who are feeling extreme emotions? Here are a few pointers:

* Ask the baby’s name and use it when talking about him/her. Make a note of the name and remember to use it in the future. 

* Refer to the couple as parents. They may have experienced the birth of their baby and they have probably held them.

* Think of the things you might ask a couple following the birth of a living child and then adapt this to respect the loss of the baby. If you show you’re interested, the parents may want to tell you about their baby.

* Show you are interested in how they are feeling but don’t try to fix or rationalise what’s happened. 

* Avoid making comments that try to be optimistic. “You can try again” and “At least you know you can carry a pregnancy” are no-nos at this point.

* Some couples appreciate offers of practical help. However, don’t be offended if they don’t want to see anyone or speak to anyone or find social situations difficult. 

* It’s usually difficult for bereaved parents to be around pregnant women or other people’s babies. Respect this, be sensitive and avoid putting them in situations that may be upsetting.

Avoid making comments that try to be optimistic. ‘You can try again' and ‘At least you know you can carry a pregnancy' are no-nos at this point.

* Don’t forget dads. Often the attention is all on the mums, but dads are grieving too, often in a different way that can be hard to pick up on. 

* Ask if there is a charity they’d like you to donate to in their baby’s memory. 

* Try to remember significant dates, e.g. the date the baby was due if the baby was miscarried or premature, or the anniversary of the baby’s birth. These days will be painful reminders for bereaved parents for many years to come.

These are all simple things that can make a big difference to someone whose life has been shattered by the loss of a baby.

Helping a bereaved couple reconnect with their lives and their relationships is an essential step towards recovery. Here are three key messages that may guide you:

Empathy not sympathy. Sympathy can feel patronising. As one bereaved mum said to me: “I dread the ‘poor you’ look as I walk in the room.” Genuine empathy can feel painful for us, as it forces us to connect with our own fears about loss and imagine how we might feel if we too suffered in this way. Try saying: “I am trying to imagine how you must be feeling and it feels really tough, really painful. I‘m so sorry you have to go through this.” This is an empathetic response, and shows you care and are interested in how they feel.

Understanding without fixing. When we hear someone we care about struggling with their emotions, it’s natural to want to make them feel better. But we cannot fix grief. Grief is a state of loss and all we can do is bear it, learn how best to cope with it and find our own way through it. A bereaved parent needs understanding, and we can do that by saying: “I wish I could make this better for you, but I can’t. What I can do is listen so if you want to talk to me about how you are feeling, I will be there for you.” Remember, listening without judging is a valuable gift for a bereaved parent.

Engagement not avoidance. As a society, we are afraid of grief. We struggle to talk about death and we are often uncomfortable around the bereaved. One of the most common themes of my work with bereaved parents is isolation, the feeling that they have lost their ability to connect with the people around them. It is so important to reach out to a friend who is feeling this way. Walk towards the grief, not away from it. Say something really simple like: “I am here for you if you need me – I will help in anyway I can.” This shows support, but doesn’t intrude.

Karen Burgess appears in a new documentary Child of Mine which will be aired on Channel 4 on 18 October at 10pm

By Karen Burgess

Twitter: @Petalscharity

Smallhorse Wed 17-Oct-18 16:25:57

What a thoughtful post. Thank you

OrchidD Wed 17-Oct-18 17:11:58

Thank you for posting this. So many people need educating on this, it’s not their fault as it’s hardly on the national curriculum, but any increase in awareness is valuable and I hope this post reaches a lot of people.

DarwinLoves Wed 17-Oct-18 17:13:54

Thanks for posting, I'm a bereaved parent and a befriender for a bereavement charity. I wholeheartedly agree with your points. thanks

Endofthelinefinally Wed 17-Oct-18 17:52:04

I lost my grown up son.
I have made friends with other parents in the same situation.
I would like to add the suggestion that siblings need recognition and support too.
I have also lost a sibling at a young age. It was a long time ago and there was so support. Zero. It has affected me my whole life. It is so important to talk about these things.

GoulashSoup Wed 17-Oct-18 18:59:26

Thank you for this. It is so hard to know the right thing to do or say.

Thank you also for everything you and Petals do both in supporting parents but also in your work improving awareness.

cookiemonster66 Thu 18-Oct-18 00:23:05

I lost my grown up daughter 5 yrs ago now, what shocked me most was how people behaved towards me afterwards, so many people avoided me! When I confronted them they said they did not know what to say to me, and I replied 'well that is what you should have said then!' People say 'I don't know how you go on after losing a child', I reply - we don't have a choice. It does not get any easier, but we just get better at hiding our grief as it makes people feel uncomfortable.

Sunisshining3228 Thu 18-Oct-18 08:06:13

Thank you
I experienced people just changing the subject if I had to disclose our baby passed away and it was by far the most hurtful thing. Realised that I have done this too, it’s like an instinctive avoidance of saying the wrong thing or reacting to the bad news.
I really appreciate just an acknowledgment of what happened ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ then moving on to another topic if I didn’t want to go into talking about it at that time.
Also really valued people remembering our baby’s birthday and sending a card or a text. These are always big times of year for us and it’s really nice to know we are not alone in this.

BipBippadotta Thu 18-Oct-18 09:14:39

Thank you. One of the most hurtful things people did after my daughter was stillborn was to ask repeated, intrusive questions about why she died. We didn't find out the likely cause of death until I finally got hold of my maternity notes months later - and most people whose babies die in pregnancy or during labour will never have an answer. But I was asked, did I eat unpasteurised cheese? Was it because of my cats? Did I think it was stress that caused it? Was it because I gained so much weight in the last trimester? I think people are trying to defend themselves against the idea that this could happen to anyone - if they can find a reason for it then the world might not be a place where tragedy can strike out of nowhere. But it was so tremendously hurtful to me when I was so traumatised and vulnerable.

There is no right thing to say - but what struck me with the messages I received from people who loved me was that everyone found something to say, however simple, that so perfectly reflected who they were and what I loved about them, and that was beautiful.

Also, it is never too late to reach out to someone. I had a card nearly a year after my daughter's death from a friend who said he hadn't known what to say, and had been thinking of me all this time. It meant so much to me. Everyone who got in touch and offered comfort was giving me reasons to keep living. Even (and sometimes especially!) if they were not close friends of mine - neighbours I only waved to in passing, my hairdresser, my postman - people who could look me in the eye and say they were so sorry for my loss made me feel I was still connected to the world of the living.

It would have been my daughter's fourth birthday today. I am sending love to everyone who has lost a child, and everyone who supports bereaved parents. 

ThomasRichard Thu 18-Oct-18 17:25:32

@BipBippadotta thankyou for posting on your DD’s birthday. That’s very brave of you.

SleightOfMind Thu 18-Oct-18 18:33:33

About 15 years ago some good friends of ours lost their eldest child in an unimaginably difficult way.
They had not long moved to another country so DH and I went and spent a long weekend with them. Our DS was the same age as their younger son.
Looking at your advice above, we actually did this (we didn’t know what else to do).
Although we’ve tried to stay in regular contact, our friends feel awkward with us.
I think we remind them of the extreme rawness of early grief.
I think of them all the time and this thread has moved me to make a bigger effort to reconnect.

flowers for everyone who is living with such a cruel loss.

Sunisshining3228 Thu 18-Oct-18 19:38:49

@Bipbippadotta I have some understanding of just how horrible it must have been to have those questions asked of you about your daughters death. My son was stillborn too. I still carry a big (mainly irrational) sense of responsibility about it although the overall conclusion was there was no clinical cause. To have those questions asked of me would have really hurt.
Thinking of you around this fourth anniversary of your beautiful girl. flowers

Lavenderdays Sun 21-Oct-18 18:26:21

Thinking of you Bip. I remember reading your posts after my little boy died at 20 weeks gestation and thinking how amazingly supportive you had been to others even though you were dealing with your own loss. x

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