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Grief after a stillbirth or death of a newborn baby

The birth of a baby is expected to be a joyful event, not a sad one. No-one expects a baby to die and so the death of a baby brings many intense feelings.

The grief of the parents may be overwhelming.

Factors Affecting How People Grieve

  • there are many different reasons for stillbirth or the death of a newborn infant. If this has happened previously, if there are unexpected congenital abnormalities or if a stillbirth was caused by a traumatic event, feelings of grief may be intensified
  • in cases where the coroner is involved and an autopsy is required, this trauma may add to the grief process
  • parents often blame themselves and may feel guilty and so believe they contributed to the death in some way
  • children will also grieve for their baby sister or brother. Children who loved their brother or sister may also have been jealous of the new baby and sometimes take on a burden of guilt by inventing ways of how they caused the death

Grieving

Where possible, time spent with the baby immediately after death may be very helpful for parents. In most settings, this is now recognised and supported and can allow time to create memories such as taking a lock of hair, a photograph or a handprint.

Other things that have been found helpful include:

  • writing down memories of your child as a permanent record
  • creating a box of mementos, helping siblings to create their own if they wish, so they can remember the baby in their own way
  • creating a ritual for special occasions for example, lighting a candle on birthdays and anniversaries

Parents often feel a strong desire to talk about their baby. Support by other family and friends will be important. Many want to be with others who have suffered and survived a similar loss and may seek help from a support group after their baby’s death.

Mothers may be the focus of concern after the death of a baby, but it is important to remember that fathers grieve too, but the way they act and feel is not usually the same. Many bereaved parents say their relationship changes after their baby dies. Parents may experience difficulty in resuming a normal sexual relationship after the death of a child. Some find their relationship strengthens as a result of the tragedy, but others drift apart. Couples who say their relationship strengthened are usually couples who freely talk to each other about how they are feeling.

Some parents may find comfort in their religion.

For siblings, it is important to speak with each child and allow them to work through their grief and memories in their own way and time. It is helpful to remember that young children and adolescents may also respond and react to loss and grief differently.

It is helpful to include the baby’s brother or sister when visiting the baby in hospital and going to the funeral. Children usually like to talk about their baby. It is often helpful to encourage children to discuss their baby’s loss both at home and at school.

The baby’s grandparents will also grieve for their grandchild. They often suffer because their child is suffering and grieve because their grandchild is dead. Sometimes relationships in a family become strained after a baby has died. It is helpful to talk through issues before they become problems.

Remembering The Baby

In the months and years after a baby is stillborn the parents may still note when their baby may have been walking or should have been going to school. Religious feasts and family birthdays or other anniversaries may also be painful reminders of what should have been and parents may feel particularly sad during these times. Family and friends can be strong supporters to the parents at these times. It is common for bereaved parents to remember and think about their dead baby for the rest of their lives.

Having Another Baby

Many bereaved parents will go on to have another baby. Most will endure an anxious pregnancy as the parents worry that the subsequent baby will die too, either during pregnancy or infancy. The length of time between the death of their baby and the next pregnancy does not appear to affect the level of anxiety felt during the pregnancy. However, if another pregnancy occurs within twelve months, then parents may have to cope with an active grieving phase as well as anxiety caused by the next pregnancy. It is very common for family and friends of the bereaved to believe that all is well once a new baby is born, but the bereaved parents will still grieve for the baby who died.

With time, some bereaved parents may find they understand more about themselves and what they really value. Some find new friendships and understanding amongst other bereaved parents. Many no longer take what they have for granted and are more sensitive to their family and friends when they in turn grieve. Bereaved parents who are further down the track can often look back and say “I survived when I never thought I would.”

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