A baby being born is associated with a wide range of emotions, traditionally most of them happy ones. Sadly though, it’s not always the case. For babies who are stillborn (which means they’ve died any time from 20 weeks into the pregnancy through to their due date), or who die within 28 days of being born (known as newborn or neonatal death), parents will be experiencing a huge range of feelings associated with significant loss.
“Absolutely any emotion is ‘normal’ at this time,” says Janelle Moran from SANDS, a volunteer-based organisation that provides miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death support.
“But initially, common feelings are shock, disbelief and even numbness. Mothers may also feel a sense of guilt, so that they question everything they did, or didn’t do, and blame themselves.”
Unfortunately it’s not always known why a baby dies within the first month of life, or what causes a stillbirth.
“When it happens, parents may also feel angry or jealous, thinking, ‘Why us and not someone else?’,” says Moran. “And those feelings can be difficult to cope with, particularly for mums who are also dealing with a massive surge in hormones.
“Allowing yourself to feel whatever emotions you experience, and as they change over time, is a really important part of the grieving process so that you can continue on.”
What to expect in hospital
While the support provided does differ between hospitals, care for parents of stillborn babies or those who die soon after birth has improved dramatically in recent times.
“Many hospitals have dedicated bereavement midwives, but at the very least, families will be connected with the hospital’s social worker or pastoral care worker,” says Moran. “Regardless, you can expect that those caring for you will take the time to support you and identify what your needs are. And know that as parents, you have time – time to make decisions and ask questions.”
You will also be given the opportunity to see and spend time with your baby. “One of the things that makes the biggest difference for bereaved parents is when they’re recognised as parents and when their baby is treated as any baby would be. This means having the chance to bath and dress the baby, to look at their features and to refer to the baby by their name – all of the things any parent of a newborn would expect.”
It’s not uncommon though to feel frightened or worried about what your baby will look like. “Some parents also wonder or worry if it’s normal that they want to see their baby. But it’s such an important thing to do. As well as helping mum and dad accept their identity as parents, it helps them accept the reality of their loss, changing their relationship with baby from one of presence to one of memory.”
If you’re unsure, you can ask your midwife to describe how your baby looks or begin by looking at their hands or feet first. And you have time to decide – and change your mind. “I’ve never spoken to a parent who has regretted seeing their baby,” says Moran. “If you decide not to, you can ask your midwife to take and hold onto some photographs for you, so you can look at them later if you decide you want to.
“It’s all about encouraging and allowing parents to make memories, which is so important because those memories will be the only thing they have.”
It’s important to seek support
You may find that friends and family struggle to know what to say or how to support you. “People are sometimes afraid they’ll say the wrong thing or something that will cause more pain, so avoid talking about it, even if a bereaved parent wants to. This can leave parents feeling socially isolated.”
This makes it vital to reach out – in your own time – to the services that are available if you need support. “In the beginning, it can seem like just another thing that’s hard to do, and some people will prefer to withdraw for a time. Grief can also be delayed, particularly for partners who get caught up in looking after mum who physically gave birth to baby.
“The thing to know is that it’s never too late to reach out for help, either as a couple or on your own. Grief is a long-lasting cycle, and no-one expects that your pain should have gone away by a certain point in time, or that it won’t resurface around significant dates or simply because you’ve had a bad day. Support is there whenever you need it.”
You can reach out to:
- SANDS, which offers peer-to-peer support services as well as online resources and information about stillbirth and neonatal death. The organisation’s parent supporters have lived experience, so are able to provide real hope, understanding and empathy. Phone support is available 24/7 on 1300 072 637, and a dedicated Men’s Support Line is also available.
- Beyond Blue has information about coping with grief and loss and access to relevant forums, online. You can also get support 24/7 by calling 1300 22 4636, or chatting online between 3pm and 12am, seven days a week.
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