How to Support Grieving Parents

By Kiley Krekorian Hanish, OTD, OTR/L

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Perinatal loss is an unexpected, traumatic, and life-changing event. It includes miscarriage, termination due to medical reason, stillbirth, and infant death. One in four mothers report experiencing perinatal loss, however the number may be as high as 50%. Annually, approximately 24,000 babies will be stillborn (>20 weeks gestation), and an additional 23,000 infants will die within the first 28 days of life.

Perinatal loss can cause severe distress presenting as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobia, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideations. Bereaved mothers have four times greater odds of depressive symptomatology and seven times increased odds of post-traumatic stress disorder than non-bereaved mothers. The existence of mental health problems is also an added risk factor for developing mental health complications and poor fetal outcomes during a subsequent pregnancy, and can negatively affect the attachment to this child.

The death of a baby is unlike any other. We are often at a loss for words or actions and believe that it's better to not say anything in the case we may upset someone. In many cases this is true, however, silence seems to have the opposite effect, isolating the parents even more in their grief. Below are some suggestions that will help guide you in supporting your loved one, family member, or friend who has endured the death of their baby. 

Do not offer clichés, such as “Everything happens for a reason,” “Time heals all wounds,” “God has a plan,” or “You are young, you can have more children.” Although these phrases are most likely coming from a loving place, they will deeply wound a grieving parent. Instead, try “I am so sorry,” “I am at a loss for words,” or “I don't know what to say right now.”

Do not judge or offer advice. If you have not suffered the death of a baby, then you do not have the experience to understand what the parent is going through. Even if you have been in a similar situation, we all react differently. What may have been helpful for you won’t necessarily be to someone else.

It is also important to remember not to compare losses. There is no hierarchy of loss. This means that there is no hierarchy that places certain losses above others, meaning that they were harder and more horrible and gives you permission to grieve more. Other types of losses are placed lower on the hierarchy, denying people the right to grieve for their loss. This hierarchy simply does not exist. It is important to give people the permission to grieve however they need to, without judgment or shame.

Instead try…

  • I am so sorry
  • I am at a loss for words
  • I don't know what to say right now
  • I love you
  • There is a connection between you as a mother and your baby that you carried that can never be broken and you will love him/her forever

Ways you can help…

  • Arrange for meal delivery, meal gift cards, or grocery gift cards (2-4 weeks after the baby's death is helpful)
  • Refer to them as parents - as they are, even if they do not have a living child - and acknowledge them on Mother's and Father's Days
  • Make sure to remember, ask about, and care for the father, as he is also grieving
  • Ask about the name of the baby
  • Ask how the baby died
  • Ask to see a photograph of the baby or to describe how the baby looked
  • Tell them their baby is beautiful
  • Ask them to tell you about their baby
  • Be present, listen, and sit with them
  • Ask what would feel healing or helpful
  • If they have living children, offer to take the children for outings and let the parents have time to grieve alone or together

Birthdays, anniversaries (death, due date, etc.) and holidays are especially difficult. Let the parents know that you are thinking of them and their baby on these special days by practicing thoughtfulness (i.e., card, flowers, small gift, cake, balloons, candle). Be open and accepting of however they choose to celebrate these holidays.

The grieving process is never over and parents are always grateful for your thoughtfulness.

 

Learn more about the author, Kiley Hanish, here.