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, friends and even a family’s community.
It can be very difficult to know what to say or do when someone you know has been affected by such a tragedy. Whether a parent has lost a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or something else, it's possible that even their closest family members will struggle for the right words or feel worried they will do or say the wrong thing. They might also be trying to cope with their own grief.
The charity Sands has a range of information and advice for anyone in this situation, which we've drawn on to provide the information below.
How can I support someone after the death of a baby?
Be there. Everyone grieves in different ways, and while nothing you can say will make the situation better, just being there for the grieving family – both physically and figuratively – can be a great comfort. Losing a baby is an extremely lonely experience and the presence of friends and family will help the parents feel less isolated.
If you can’t see them in person, or they aren't up to visitors, then call or send messages regularly. They will find it helpful to know that people are thinking of them.
Don’t underestimate their grief. The baby might have lived only a short life but a powerful attachment will still have been formed – especially with the mother, having carried the baby for nine months, and the father, but also for other members of the family.
Hug them. Physical comfort can be a great help to grieving parents and that includes dads as well as mums.
Say how you feel. If you just don't have the words to address what's happening, or describe how you feel, simply be honest and say so. At the same time, remind the parents that you're there to listen if they want to talk.
Send a card. Texts and messages via social media are all very well (particularly as time goes on and you want to remind someone you're still there for them) but a brief and personal message in a card is still the best way to show someone that they're in your thoughts.
Don’t avoid them. Avoiding a grieving person or refusing to discuss the situation may make them feel as though you don't care about what they're going through. It will only make it more difficult for you to speak to them further down the line, too. If you’re worried about saying ‘the wrong thing’, remember a simple ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ is always welcome and far better than saying nothing.Two of my closest friends lost their beautiful little boy two years ago. I can't even imagine their grief. Time was the healer but they also found the support from Sands was amazing.
Use the baby’s name when you talk about them. Use the baby’s name when talking about him or her. It shows that you appreciate that their baby was and will remain a loved and important part of their family. Bereaved parents often feel as though their baby isn’t recognised, which makes the bereavement feel even worse.
Don’t bottle up your emotions. If you need to cry then do. It’s a genuine response and shows that you care and miss their baby alongside them.
Help in specific ways. Avoid saying: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Instead, offer something concrete, such as to look after other children (if they have them) for a few hours or offer to do their shopping – anything practical rather than vague that doesn’t put the onus on them to think of something you can do. People can be reluctant to ask for help even when they’re really suffering or just don’t know what to ask for, so make it easy for them to accept help.
Don’t take offence if they reject your offers of help. If somebody is grieving then their behaviour could be unpredictable and there will be days when they can’t face seeing people. So if they turn down your invitations and dismiss your suggestions, bear with them and keep letting them know that you’re there for them. Your support is important whether they show it or not.
Remember significant dates. As the weeks, months and even years go by, the parents' grief will change but it will never go away entirely. If possible, let them know that you’re thinking about them on birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and any other significant dates.
Try not to intrude. Grieving parents will also need their own private time to process the loss, so give them their space at the same time as letting them know you’re there whenever they need you. That might sound like contradictory advice but it’s about striking the right balance between support and interference.
Follow their lead. If the parents 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. It’s important to let them know that you are there to support them, whether they want to talk about their child and what happened or not.
What to avoid saying
However well meant, anything that is intended to reassure bereaved parents is likely to be unhelpful. Here are a few things to avoid.
Never imply 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 compensate for the baby who died.
Don’t pretend you know what they’re going through. Unless you too have had a baby who died around the time of birth, avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” You don’t.
Leave religion out of it. Regardless of your own beliefs, avoid saying anything like, “The baby is with God now,” unless you’re absolutely certain that the parents share your beliefs. Even then 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.
At least… Any sentence that begins, “At least…” is likely to be unhelpful; for example, “At least you already have a child.” This will be no comfort at all and is likely to upset the grieving parent.
Avoid platitudes. 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 could cause distress. This is true 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
Family members are affected by the death of a baby in different ways. Here are some of the key things to consider when offering comfort.
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.
We’ve touched on this already but just to recap: ask about specific things you can do to help – offer to look after their other children, drive them to school, 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.
FathersI lost a baby at 23 weeks and it meant a lot when people acknowledged it as I know it's hard to do. Often they just said 'I don't know what to say but I'm sorry,' and that was fine. What was disappointing was the other people who couldn't look me in the eye or just carried on as normal without a single mention.
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.
Some fathers might not have the same level of support from friends that women receive. They might be used to relying on their partner for emotional support. With the mother grieving, the father might feel he has nobody to turn to. So ask how he is doing and if there is any way you can help.
Children can be deeply affected when a baby dies, but their understanding and reaction is likely to vary. 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.
A child will probably ask: “Where has the baby gone?” Or: “When is the baby coming back?” These questions are best answered in a straight and simple manner – that the baby has sadly died and won’t be coming back. It’s also important if you are talking to the siblings of a baby who has died, to respect the parents’ wishes in terms of what their other children are told.
The death of a baby will inevitably have an impact on the lives of children within the bereaved family but it’s best for everyone if their routines can be maintained as much as possible. The children will benefit from sticking to their usual getting-up times, mealtimes and bedtimes. Their parents will need help with this so, if you are in a position to lend support, do so.
Children struggle to come to terms with the permanence of death – as do we all, arguably – and might ask the same questions about the baby over and over again. Be patient and answer in a calm and consistent way. It's common for children to feel jealous of a new baby that takes up their parents' attention. One knock on effect of this can be that, if the baby dies, the child feels guilty and worries that the death was their fault. Make clear that nobody is responsible for the baby's death.
Children can find it helpful to draw a picture, or make a gift of some kind, as a way of saying goodbye to the baby. Or it might help for them to be involved in creating a small memorial, such as planting a remembrance tree, as long as the parents like the idea.
A grandparent will grieve not only for their grandchild but also for their own child, 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.
Grandparents will usually do their best to offer support to the parents after the death, but they also need to receive support from those around them and should not be left to grieve alone. If you know the grandparents, try to make time to support and help them, too.
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. There’s also the possibility that the grandparent, like the parent, feels guilty, especially if the death of the baby was connected to a hereditary condition. Obviously, they have nothing to feel guilty about so reassure them of that if it comes up.
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 bring to the 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 who is going through this, take a look at the support packs on the Sands website. Sands is a stillbirth and neonatal death charity, supporting anyone affected by the death of a baby and promoting research to reduce the loss of babies' lives.