Coping with Grief After Stillbirth

Help and support for parents who are grieving the loss of a baby who was stillborn

Last updated: 5 October 2017

The loss of a baby is one of the most difficult experiences for anyone to endure. We’re sorry if you are reading this because you, or someone close to you has lost their baby.

After the 24th week of a pregnancy, when a baby dies before they are born, this is known as a stillbirth. When a baby is stillborn, every parent should be able to be able to hold their baby, take photos, a lock of hair, or any other kind of keepsake for remembrance.

Through the fundraising efforts of other parents who have lost a child, many hospitals now have Cuddlecots available. These special cribs help keep the baby’s body cool and enable people who have lost a child through late miscarriage and stillbirth, to spend precious time together with their infant.

Thinking about a funeral

Babies who are stillborn are given a burial or a cremation. When a baby is stillborn in a hospital, the hospital can arrange the funeral in its own facilities or designated cemetery, usually at no cost. Sometimes these are shared funeral services, led by the hospital chaplain. Many parents decide to make their own arrangements through a funeral director in order to remember their child in a place and way that they wish.

Stillbirths must be recorded at a Registry Office, before a funeral can take place and the baby’s burial or cremation is is held. To do this, the hospital or a doctor will issue parents with a medical certificate confirming the death.

Planning a funeral

Although you do not have to have a full funeral service for your baby, many parents choose to hold one, to express their love and say goodbye. A funeral can sometimes be a catalyst for people to begin to process a deeply profound loss.

You may wish to plan the service yourself with the help of a funeral director. Many funeral directors are trained or experienced in meeting the needs of parents bereaved by stillbirth. You will be able to discuss all the arrangements with them. If you decide to make your own funeral arrangements for you baby, let the hospital staff know.

You can plan for your baby’s funeral to be as exactly as you wish, whether you’d prefer a quiet and private service, a woodland burial, or a traditional funeral with music and readings or a ceremony according to your faith.

Sands the stillbirth and neonatal death charity which supports parents after baby-loss, says that when a baby dies, some people can feel uncertain whether or not they should attend the funeral. This could be because they don’t want to intrude, or unsure how to react to the news that your baby died. So you may wish to let people know if you’d welcome their support at your baby’s funeral and tell them if there are special colours they like to wear, or donations instead of flowers to a charity.

Grief after stillbirth

Every parent mourning their stillborn baby needs as much emotional support, compassion and understanding as possible.

If you are recovering after a stillbirth, it can be difficult to talk about your emotions. For many people, death is difficult to talk about and the loss of babies who die before they are born is a subject that’s rarely discussed in everyday life. The result is that those around you may be unsure how to best support and care for you.

Parents who lose a child through stillbirth are entitled to their statutory maternity pay and parental leave from work. If you feel pressurised by others to return to work, remember that your grief is real and necessary, as you mourn the loss of your baby. It will take time and people should respect that.

Grief is unique for each person and can involve a mixture of different intense emotions. There is no ‘normal’ way to feel when a baby is stillborn, although some of the following reactions are reported by many bereaved parents:

  • Longing for your child. You may miss your baby and all the wonderful things you had planned for them.

  • Jealousy of other families. You may find it difficult to be around friends or family members with children, especially those with young babies.

  • Guilt or shame. Even if your doctor has reassured you that the stillbirth was not your fault, you may feel guilty and ashamed that you couldn’t prevent it.

  • Anger at the world, God, doctors or your partner. Anger is a common emotion when grieving, as you try to understand who or what is responsible for the loss of your baby.

  • Overwhelming sadness or despair. You may struggle to see how you can carry on. If you are thinking about taking your own life, seek help immediately by contacting your GP or calling Samaritans on 116 123 for free, confidential support.

The physical effects of grief after a stillbirth

All types of grief can have a physical impact on the bereaved, with symptoms including exhaustion, sleeplessness or loss of appetite. Stillbirth can have a particularly significant impact on a mother who has gone through the physical trauma of giving birth.

As with any kind of birth, the woman’s hormone levels will be rapidly changing as her body adjusts from being pregnant to not being pregnant. This can lead to mood swings, making grieving particularly painful.

One of the other side effects is that the mother may start producing milk, which can be physically uncomfortable and emotionally distressing. Doctors may be able to prescribe medication to stop the milk from being produced.

It’s important for women recovering from stillbirth to look after themselves physically. Extra practical support such as cooking and doing household chores can be invaluable from friends and family, so that the parents can take care of themselves.

Pregnancy after stillbirth

After a stillbirth, you might decide to try for another pregnancy. Some couples find that they are eager to become pregnant again, while others are more hesitant. Some may decide to not try again at all.

It is important to discuss your feelings as a couple, and bear in mind that your partner may feel differently from you. You may also find that your feelings about trying for another baby change over time.

Sometimes parents are told that they are unlikely to become pregnant again. For people who have planned and longed for a family, this can lead to increased feelings of grief.

Moving towards healing

When a baby is stillborn, you may feel as though you will never be okay again and that a part of you will always be grieving. As you grieve, you will find new ways to get through each day and as you heal around your loss, may discover things that bring you some happiness.

  • Find a way to express your emotions. It is vital that you recognise what you are feeling and find a way to express it. You may not feel ready to confront your feelings for a while, but eventually you might try writing a diary, talking to a friend or your partner, or joining a support group.

  • Find a keepsake for your child. It may be helpful to find ways of remembering your child in your daily life and honouring the love you feel for them. Don’t feel pressured to throw out all their toys and possessions. You may want to keep a blanket or cuddly toy as a way of acknowledging their importance to you.

  • Communicate with your partner. Losing a child does not mean your relationship is over. Though the grief may make things difficult, your bond may actually strengthen as you learn to support and comfort one another. Consider couple’s therapy if you are struggling to understand each other’s needs.

  • Look after your health. Stillbirth can have significant physical effects and grief can also affect your health. You may experience a loss of appetite or sleeplessness, but try to eat well and regularly, and see a doctor if these symptoms continue.

Baby-loss support charities Sandsand Tommy’s both have helpful resources and support networks for bereaved parents grieving the loss of their baby and considering the future.