This article first appeared in the magazine OHBaby, Spring 2014 edition, Issue 27, pp40-41
Being pregnant means all sorts of new things; physical changes, language, new websites to browse, noticing pregnant women everywhere, planning and preparing for this precious new life, and often a new set of friends - the antenatal group. While these groups provide a forum to discuss many aspects of bringing a new baby into the world, they also provide the foundation for enduring friendships due to the focus of coming together –beautiful babies.
For just over five families in every thousand in New Zealand, their baby will be stillborn. Stillbirth/stillborn refers to those babies who die in utero before their birth and also includes babies who died intrapartum, or during delivery. The latest figures tell us that 320 babies were stillborn in 2012. Many of these families will have become a part of an antenatal group, enjoying regular evenings filled with information, laughter and the anticipation of a new addition to their family. So what should the other members of the group do and say following the death of one of their group’s precious babies? Should you send a gift? Should you do anything at all?
The answers apply not only to an antenatal group but to anyone whose sister, friend, neighbour, cousin or acquaintance has experienced the loss of a baby or babies. The answers also apply to any kind of baby loss; miscarriage, stillbirth, the very hard decision to induce a pregnancy due to a lethal or unexpected diagnosis, the death of a baby at birth or soon after.
There is no checklist you can download and tick off when it comes to baby loss, but there are some pretty basic things that will make an incredible difference to a bereaved family if you are aware of them – ‘gifts’ you can give.
The first gift is simple; don’t make assumptions and judgements about the parents whose baby has died. There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve, our grief reflects who we are as people. Just as we are all very different, so too is the way we mourn the loss of a loved one. Some of us will want to talk about it, some of us won’t. Some of us will throw ourselves back into our jobs; some of us won’t be able to bear going back to a place that reminds us of what was meant to be. For those who decide it’s just too hard to see what they’ve lost, it’s important that the antenatal group (or friend, cousin, neighbour) doesn’t take it as a personal affront. The grieving parents need to do what feels right for them and the most precious gift you can give them is compassion.
Another gift that bereaved parents often mention is the person who speaks their baby’s name and talks about them. This beautiful baby is very much a part of their lives; just not physically present, so recognising and acknowledging them is very special. If the baby were alive, we wouldn’t hesitate to talk about them, but because death is a topic we whisper about and tiptoe around, we talk about anything and everything else. It really is okay to mention the baby that died. If you’re not sure, ask. You can say ‘Is it okay to talk about Charlie?’
Remember too that the bereaved mum has just given birth to a baby. Her baby died but she still has a birth story to share. Her story may be accompanied by tears, but there’s another gift - sharing tears with a friend. It can be so hard to have no one who wants to talk about this precious baby you are mourning, and equally hard that no one asks about or seems interested in the incredible feat called birth that you have just experienced. There is no surer way for someone to feel worthless and unloved, than not being listened to or heard. Give the gift of a cuppa and a loving ear.
Some antenatal groups struggle with whether to include the bereaved parents in the ongoing celebrations as their babies grow. Again, grief is different for everyone and some parents will want to see the other babies growing and developing. Others will find it too hard. The best thing you can do is let them decide. I know of many a parent who has attended a collective birthday celebration for the antenatal group babies and ended up crying in the corner or outside on the steps. That’s okay, it’s nobody’s fault and there’s no one to blame. Sadness is the companion of joy and we cannot know one without the other. The bereaved parent will decide whether to stay, and whether they’ll go to the next get together. The most supportive thing you can do as part of the antenatal group is keep the door open and let them know you care.
Another gift you can give is having no expectations of them getting better or getting over it. There are no time frames for our grief. We think it’s linear and will slowly diminish over time but the reality is very different. An antenatal group continually reflects what we are missing – our baby should be here, sitting up, walking around holding onto furniture, getting his first tooth. With that in mind, you can understand why some parents withdraw from the group. Despite the members of the antenatal group being supportive, caring and understanding, bereaved parents sometimes have to protect their hearts and remove themselves from the catch-ups. Again, this is not personal and has nothing to do with individual members of the group.
The final gift - being aware that a subsequent baby following loss, often called a rainbow baby, does not mean everything will be okay. A subsequent pregnancy is excruciatingly scary and the arrival of the baby can be heart wrenching as it’s a beautiful precious little reminder of our baby who was lost.
There’s also the chance that the parents won’t go on to have other babies and their deceased babies remain their only children. Moving from a world of baby-focused everything; websites, shops, conversations, toys, equipment, clothing, to being a couple or parent without their children physically present is an incredibly hard and misunderstood experience. Just like all bereaved parents, the bereaved parent with no baby physically in their lives appreciates being recognised as their baby’s mother or father for they too have a story to tell of their baby’s brief physical existence and their ongoing love for them.
Baby loss is an experience that is under acknowledged and under supported. We worry about the right words to say to friends and family members going though one of the saddest experiences of their lives, but first and foremost we need to reach out and offer the priceless gift of compassion. This really is the best gift you can give and one that will be appreciated long after the flowers have faded and the cards are put away.
For further information, see:
Sands New Zealand www.sands.org.nz
Wheturangitia: Return to the stars https://wheturangitia.services.govt.nz/wheturangitia.services.govt.nz/
Some helpful articles & sites:
‘How to Help a Grieving Friend: 11 Things to Do When You're Not Sure What to Do’ by Megan Devine, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-devine/death-and-dying_b_4329830.html
‘Society’s Reaction When a Baby Dies’ by Loni H.E. Still Standing e-magazine. http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/04/societys-reaction-baby-dies/
Becoming by Dr Joanne Cacciatore founder of the MISS Foundation, USA http://drjoanne.blogspot.co.nz/
Remembering For Good” Wholehearted Living After Loss by Cath Duncan, South Africa, http://www.rememberingforgood.com/
Perinatal & Maternal Mortality Review Committee (PMMRC), Health Quality & Safety Commission, http://www.hqsc.govt.nz/our-programmes/mrc/pmmrc/
Theories of grief have changed over the last 20 to 30 years. Traditionally we saw grief as pathological, like an illness that needed to be treated. This is also where we got the idea that grief was a ‘fixed term’ episode, something that we would experience, medicate or treat, and then return to our normal selves. Hence the sayings in our language around grief like ‘closure’, ‘moving on’ and ‘getting over it’.
Contemporary theories see grief as more of part of our human condition. One approach is that of ‘continuing bonds’. Just because someone we love has died, does not mean that our relationship with them is over. These different approaches to grief move away from a universal experience of grief, and expectations that we will all do the same thing, remember in the same way and ‘achieve closure’. Grief is considered an individual expression of sadness and love. And something that stays with us – in varying degrees and intensity.
Many of us still consider grief in a traditional way, whilst others consider it as an individual expression of love – and therein lies many problems we have with misunderstanding and hurt. Often we look to our families for support and empathy, but if we’ve only experienced grief in a certain (traditional) way and see it pathologically, then we’ll struggle to support our loved one who seems to be approaching it ‘weirdly’ and just won’t move on.
Within this traditional approach to grief is also the concept that baby loss is a ‘lesser’ experience. Because a baby may not have lived outside the womb, or may have lived for a short time, there is sometimes an assumption that a brief life will equate to lesser grief. Our brains are wired to compare and categorise, so we also tend to place different losses on gradients and see some as ‘worse’ than others.
Again, this approach can lead to misunderstanding and hurt. A baby certainly may have had a brief life, in utero or not, but this does not equate with how a family feels when that baby dies. Not at all. A baby represents hope, wonder, a future, dreams and intentions. We not only mourn the little life that has died but also everything that we associated with that little person. They are a much loved member of a family - a daughter, son, brother, sister, grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, and friend. And we had great plans for them.
Of course we mourn their brief existence and we mourn the life we planned for them and how our life was going to be with them in it. (And we know that as soon as a pregnancy is confirmed, we see not only the nine months ahead but many years ahead as well). We also love this little person dearly.
And we grieve for them because we love them.
© Vicki Culling Associates 2013