Unexpected loss and grief is part of the childbearing year. If you do this job long enough, it will be a path you walk with a client. And when that day comes, here are some tips for how you can help:
Use the baby’s name – One of the cruelest parts of grief is the way everyone stops talking about the person who died. They *think* they are doing a kindness and not reminding the family of what they’ve lost. The truth is, you won’t be reminding them of anything that they are not already well aware of. Hearing their baby’s name and knowing that others remember their existence is instead comforting.
Connect them with resources – Be aware of local resources for those experiencing loss, and refer as needed. Depending on where you live, there may be an organization that has peer to peer support groups, groups that provide photography for infant loss, and perhaps a perinatal hospice program for families who know their baby won’t survive past birth. Know when your client needs more than you can provide, and point them in the right direction.
Listen – let them talk, cry, rage, tell and retell their story as many times as needed. Don’t try to make them feel better or resolve their grief. Simply listen. Ask follow up questions, but don’t press for details they don’t share. If you were there for the birth, or supported them postpartum, you may already know their story. They may still need to tell it many times to process it.
Cry with them – Don’t feel like you need to the the strong one and not cry. Sharing tears can be a very helpful connection. Just make sure you don’t totally fall apart to the point where the parents feel like they have to comfort you.
Look for support elsewhere – Remember the saying “comfort in, dump out” – this is the core concept behind the ring theory. If you need to talk about and process what happened, or if it has triggered a past trauma you need to talk through, do that with fellow doulas, a good friend or family member, or a professional. Do not expect that the grieving family should help you.
Offer practical support, but keep boundaries – They may need help with the basics: someone to walk the dog, cook meals, drive the older children to preschool etc. But don’t let your empathy let you get sucked into doing these chores long term. You can focus on helping them rally the troops so that their community of family and friends can help. Encourage them to designate a family member or friend to coordinate, and share resources like MealTrain with that person.
Be cautious about gifts – Some parents like having a momento to hold onto in the absence of their baby, others find it annoying that people think they need an object in order to remember their baby. Some parents get flooded with small things that don’t resonate with them for a variety of reasons. Know what your local hospital and other organizations provide and don’t reinvent the wheel. Flowers or plants are a common thing to send, but they tend to also die, which can be painful. Make sure any food you send is freezable (in case they are overwhelmed with food) and in a container they don’t need to worry about returning.
Tread very lightly when it comes to religion – I would not “go there” unless you are darn sure they share your beliefs *and* welcome religious discussion. Absolutely avoid saying things like “It was all God’s plan”, “Your baby is in a better place” or “It was meant to be, all for the best.”
Remember milestones – The first year, with all it’s milestones, can be really hard, as can every birthday, due date, or anniversary of their passing. If you’re inclined, reach out on some of those anniversaries. It can be a card in the mail, a text or email, or a phone call. Sometimes the family will respond, sometimes they won’t be up for it. Still worth doing.
If you’re interested in specializing in helping families during this time, consider training with an organization like StillBirthday or Share Parents so you can be even more prepared.