'Am I saying the right thing?': Here's how you can support a loved one who has lost their baby

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"Friends and family members sometimes assume that if parents keep talking about their baby who has passed, they're not going to move on. But that's not the case."
"Friends and family members sometimes assume that if parents keep talking about their baby who has passed, they're not going to move on. But that's not the case."

Whether it's an early miscarriage or a late-term loss, it's hard enough navigating an unexpected trauma without having to field unwanted (albeit well-meaning) comments, messages and well wishes from friends and family who otherwise have no idea how to support those in grief.

While some parents might draw strength from messages about divine intervention or quotes about a woman's resilience, spiritual bypassing and toxic positivity can often be unhelpful when a couple is raw with grief. This is according to Pretoria-based birth and bereavement doula Samala Kriedemann.

"When it's an early loss, a couple will often hear that 'at least' they could fall pregnant and would be able to try again. Others might tell parents to focus on (and be grateful for) the children they do have. Or they reiterate that the baby 'got her wings early' and that 'she is in a better place now' – all of which are not helpful to a grieving mother and father," says Kriedemann.

She explains that these types of comments invalidate the pain of the grieving person, often causing them to keep quiet and grieve silently or not process their grief at all.

"Friends and family members sometimes assume that if parents keep talking about their baby who has passed, they're not going to move on. But that's not the case. Just like when we lose anyone else, we need to be able to have that time to grieve, mourn and speak openly about the person we have lost."

Kriedemann adds that if parents aren't offered a safe space to speak about their loss, they'll internalise their grief, which can be very damaging.

"Parents navigating child loss are sitting with the reality that the little person they were looking forward to, the person they had made space for, the person they had hopes and dreams for, is now gone. You cannot replace that little person, even if you have another baby afterwards… It will never replace the child they lost."

So how can friends and family best offer useful support during trying times?

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Acknowledge the baby

Supportive family members may try to overcompensate when all parents really need is for their loss to be acknowledged. 

A quiet presence and a simple ‘I am so sorry for the loss of your son/daughter’ might be the only affirmation that a grieving parent needs. And, when in doubt, ask what they want in the moment.

Kriedemann adds that, if the baby who has passed had a name, use his/her name when talking with the parents.

"Saying the name out loud means that you are acknowledging their baby as a person. You're giving parents the right to feel the way that they do, which is often all they need."

She says that supporters do not need to have all the answers, or feel that they need to guide and lead those who are mourning. 

"You just need to offer a safe space for parents to express whatever they need to."

Sharing an unimaginable trauma 

Each year in October, international news and social media are flooded with heartbreaking first-hand accounts of miscarriages, late-term infant losses and stillbirths.

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month offers mothers an opportunity to remember the infants they lost in utero. It gives fathers a platform to relay the helplessness they felt as their wives birthed a baby who was no more. It brings families together who share an unimaginable trauma.

"In creating awareness around child loss, mothers and fathers also take note of how many other families have gone through the same (or a similar) experience," says Kriedemann, who hosts a Walk of Remembrance each year.

"It's an opportunity for families who have experienced loss to honour their babies and to realise that they are not alone, that there is a community of support for them," she says.

READ | These are the leading causes of infertility in South Africa: why should this worry you?

How can a bereavement doula help?

Most women falling pregnant and giving birth in the 2020s will know what a birth doula is and what she does. But few are familiar with (or are inclined to think about) how a bereavement doula might help.

Kriedemann, who is also a qualified social worker and hypnobirthing practitioner, is trained to support families experiencing loss. 

Bereavement doulas provide the same physical support that a birth doula would, but with additional emotional support for couples who are in the midst of child loss.

Bereavement doulas can guide women undergoing a miscarriage or birthing a stillborn baby, helping them through every step of the process. Where there is prior knowledge that the baby will not make it, a bereavement doula will meet with a couple beforehand and can guide them through a birth plan.

"Bereavement doulas come alongside the grieving couple to guide them through all the decisions that they never imagined they would have to face. We give them the opportunity to meet and say goodbye to their baby in a way that they need," says Kriedemann.

Some of the decisions that these parents would have to make include:

  • Whether they want to see their baby after he or she is born
  • Whether they want to hold her
  • Whether they would like photographs taken
  • Whether they want to observe any religious ceremonies 

Depending on the gestation of the baby, couples also need to consider if they want a funeral home to fetch their baby and whether they want a cremation or a burial.

"When you are already in trauma and shock, it's very overwhelming to have to make these types of decisions alone. So we help parents in the decision-making process to ensure that they do what is right for their family when saying goodbye to the baby," says Kriedemann.

She adds that meeting your baby – even under tragic circumstances – can still offer memorable and beautiful moments amidst the sadness. 

"Our job as bereavement doulas is really to try and minimise any regret and trauma as much as we possibly can."

Kriedemann believes that having these kinds of opportunities helps with the healing process. As soon as the knowledge of a baby’s passing sets in, so does the grief, which is when parents need all the help they can get.

Kriedemann is founder of Mama Nurture, which offers grieving parents support from bereavement facilitators across South Africa. Mama Nurture also works alongside other counselling organisations in an effort to get support to anyone who needs it.

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