Experiencing the loss of a stillborn child is a profound and heart-wrenching ordeal. It’s a journey through grief that can leave you feeling utterly adrift, making even the simplest acts of daily life seem insurmountable. One of the most challenging transitions for me was returning to work after this shattering loss.
Upon my return to the office, I felt like a stranger in my own skin. I was a mother now, but there was no living baby to hold, to proudly show to my colleagues. Most of my time was spent trying to hold back tears, and I grappled with a profound sense of imposter syndrome. Did my coworkers even know about my loss? I had been 23 weeks into my pregnancy when it happened, a life-changing event that was now tucked away in my past. But how could they possibly comprehend the depth of my grief? Instead of returning from the eagerly anticipated maternity leave, I was navigating the realm of bereavement leave.
Regrettably, pregnancy loss is all too common, and the grieving process often extends beyond the confines of one’s home. Every employer should be equipped with the knowledge and empathy to support a colleague who has experienced such a loss. Here are seven ways that would have made a world of difference for me during that challenging period:
- Acknowledge the Person’s Loss: The simplest yet most powerful gesture is to offer a heartfelt acknowledgment of the person’s loss. A sincere “I’m sorry” spoken in person can provide tremendous solace. It’s a common misconception that one should say nothing at all, perhaps because pregnancy and baby loss still carry a veil of taboo in our culture. Fortunately, the tide is changing, as more people share their experiences. Many grieving parents long for conversations about their loss, as research indicates that social support is instrumental in helping individuals cope with grief.
- It’s Okay to Ask Questions: Bereaved parents often yearn for the opportunity to share their experience, including the name they had chosen for their baby. Ask if they want to talk about their loss, and if they’re willing, engage in a conversation. Many of the same questions you would ask a colleague who returned after the birth of a living baby apply to bereaved parents. Don’t shy away from asking about the baby’s name, any special mementos from the hospital, or their birth date. Remember, a stillbirth is still a birth.
- Refrain From Making ‘At Least’ Statements: Certain statements, often beginning with “at least,” should be avoided. Such phrases redirect the conversation away from the person’s pain and trauma, implying they should focus on the positive. Instead, acknowledge the difficulty and pain of the situation and express your sympathy.
- Know the Type of Loss: Understanding the specific type of loss a person has experienced is important. For instance, a miscarriage is defined as pregnancy loss before the 20th week, while stillbirth occurs at or after 20 weeks. Familiarize yourself with these distinctions.
- Remove the Employee From Parenting-related Email Lists: Be mindful of including bereaved parents in email lists related to parenting or children, as these can be deeply triggering.
- Be Understanding: Recognize that the loss of a child also signifies the loss of an entire future filled with cherished family moments, from first days of school to graduation ceremonies. What a bereaved parent needs most is time, space, love, and support.
- Be Sensitive: A newly bereaved parent may find it challenging to focus on work and may struggle to handle a full workload. Be understanding and considerate of their emotional state, and be prepared to offer support and flexibility.
In the realm of pregnancy and baby loss, newly bereaved parents are in a state of survival. The grief is overwhelming and can affect the nervous system profoundly. However, social support can be an anchor in these turbulent waters. Expressions of concern, care, inclusion, and checking in can provide immeasurable comfort during this dark journey. Be kind, be gentle, and remember that a baby who has passed, even before birth, remains forever in the hearts of their parents and will never be forgotten.