Ask A Doula: Helping with a loss

I’m sobbing. My client just texted me that she went to a prenatal and there was no heartbeat. They’re going home for the night and will be induced in the morning. They asked me if I still wanted to be there for them and I said of course I would be there for them. But I don’t even know what to do to support them. How can I best help them? I am afraid I will lose it myself!

This is so hard. One of the hardest things a doula will ever have to support a client through. I hope you have a doula colleague you can talk and process with in confidence. That helps tremendously.

Much of the labor support work will be the same. Be aware that there is a much higher chance of mental blocks affecting labor progress and that pushing in particular may be more difficult as the baby won’t be able to be an active participant. But there are a few things to keep in mind:

Use the baby’s name as you usually would. Don’t be afraid to say it. Don’t be afraid to talk about the baby as “your son” or “your daughter” either.

Take notes of the birth and write a bare bones timeline of the experience. This birth story is not one for your thoughts and impressions, let them have their memories take center stage. If you need to, write another for your own processing, and don’t share that one with the parents.

Don’t try to ease the parents’ pain. You can’t. Instead be willing to sit with them through their pain.

Don’t be afraid to be lighthearted and smile – Take your cues from the parents. If they’re smiling and finding joy in the process, follow that lead.

Avoid becoming overwhelmed with grief. If it happens, take a moment and step out to have a good cry before you return. You don’t want the parents to feel like they need to console you.

Don’t speculate about the cause Usually there’s no way to know while the parents are laboring and birthing, and parents don’t need to worry that you’re trying to make sense of it by figuring out what they did wrong.

Be aware of local resources for pregnancy and newborn loss Most hospitals are aware and will bring in services such as SHARE Parents and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, but not all of them do. These organizations provide photography, hand molds, clothing and other keepsakes to make remembering the baby a little easier.

Avoid platitudes and religious talk – Things like “she’s in a better place” or “God knows what he’s doing” are rarely helpful. Instead you can listen or keep a supportive silence.

Admire the baby. Notice things like cute little toes, long eyelashes, tiny fingernails. Sometimes babies that have passed before birth have bruising, peeling skin, etc that makes parents worry that people won’t see the beauty in their much loved child. Look for it, find it and speak it!

Follow up Call, text or email periodically and see how the parents are doing. Be aware of resources in case they need a referral. If the baby came too soon, follow up on the baby’s due date. They may or may not be up to responding to those, so don’t be offended if they don’t reply.

And finally, allow yourself to grieve privately and don’t forget to process the experience for yourself. I have attended dozens of losses in the course of my volunteer work with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and every single time I finish working with a family, I go out to my car and have a long sobbing cry before I can drive home. I manage to keep my emotions mostly in check while I am there with the family, but once I reach the privacy of my car, I need to let it loose. Later I also do some writing in a journal and some more crying as I edit the photos I took. Occasionally I talk with another NILMDTS photographer as well. It’s important for me to work through the experience emotionally. This should not be done with the parents, they have their own mental and emotional work to do. But you can journal privately, talk in confidence with a doula friend or mentor, or seek some professional guidance.

I am so sorry that you and your client are experiencing this. It’s a devastating loss, but the care from a doula can be really important during this time.

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