Recognizing the Unique Grief of Bereaved Parents

Honoring Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

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October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, which brings attention to the fact that tens of thousands of families across the country suffer the loss of their baby each year. It also brings awareness to the fact that the grief of these families isn’t widely acknowledged.

Validating and supporting parents’ emotional distress when facing the loss of their infant is part of the role of the Pediatric Palliative Care program at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. Michelle Brown, PhD, a psychologist in the program, works with many parents anticipating the possible loss of their child, either during a pregnancy or after their baby is born.

A unique loss

Dr. Brown says that it’s very common for parents in these circumstances to experience feelings of anxiety and depression as part of their grief. Their distress may be amplified by emotions that aren’t as typical with other types of loss, such as a sense of failure, shame, and self-blame. Many parents experiencing their infant’s death during pregnancy also lack rituals or ceremonies to mark that loss, and these parents may feel like they don’t have the right to mourn. All of these can contribute to a sense of isolation. Finally, parents who lose an infant before or after delivery mourn the loss of a life that had only just begun – a loss of the future, and of unmet hopes and dreams. 

Supporting these parents is also a focus of the Family Guidance and Bereavement Program at Stanford Children’s, which can offer families additional resources and some relief through this difficult time. “People go through what’s hard to argue is the most devastating experience—the loss of a child, whether the child is 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 years, or 20 years old,” says Scott Skiles, a social worker in the program. “And while it defies articulation, there’s a felt need to speak of the loss at the same time. There’s the need to be with people who understand and who have an informed, compassionate presence.”

Support for the extended family

Members of the Stanford Children’s Family Guidance and Bereavement Program, which includes social workers who exclusively work in the program, reach out to all Stanford Medicine Children’s Health families who have experienced the loss of a child. Most patient families are referred through the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services or Genetics Services at Stanford Children’s. The social workers offer free grief counseling to parents, grandparents, and siblings of the child who has died. They also connect families with community support, resources, education, and follow-up outreach.

“Families could be in despair or be in numbness, and we reassure them that it’s normal to feel what they feel,” says Ana Stafford, manager of the program. “It’s different for everyone; we tailor our support to what a family needs.” That could be individual counseling, talking through what grief is and how it presents differently for different people. Or it could be giving suggestions to parents on how to talk to their other children about their sibling’s death, helping parents adjust to going back to work, or helping siblings readjust to school.

Once families are connected to the Family Guidance and Bereavement Program, they’re encouraged to reach out and engage the team at any point. They’ve found that some parents, for example, need to have a few conversations, and some need a number of months to talk through the loss. Sometimes, parents reconnect one year later or on the anniversary of their baby’s birthday or death date.

Advice for grieving families and their friends

Dr. Brown and the Family Guidance and Bereavement Program team share insightful advice for parents dealing with the loss of their infant and for people looking for ways to support bereaved families.

It’s normal to want to talk about your baby. Parents need a lot of reassurance that no, they’re not going crazy to want to talk about the hopes and dreams they had for their baby and to say their baby’s name aloud. It’s pretty common for parents to want to talk about their child.

Grieving makes sense. It’s so important for people to know that grieving the loss of an infant makes sense. They may be made to feel crazy because they miss a 2 -week-old baby. They need to know that it’s OK to take as long as they need to feel the grief. Most people get the message that they should move on way too early.

There’s no wrong way to grieve. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to coping. Some people benefit from mourning the loss of their child. There’s the idea that just because they didn’t have years or a lifetime with their child, somehow their pain should be less. We need to give parents permission to grieve and use the rituals appropriate to them.

Hold space. Well-meaning friends or family members might intend to provide encouragement with statements that actually can be quite hurtful. Parents have gone through a profound loss, and typical societal responses can minimize their grief. Avoid “at least” statements like “At least you have another child.” Instead, acknowledge parents’ distress by saying something simple, such as, “I am so sorry for your loss” or “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.”

Get support. Share your experience with people who understand. Join a support group, attend a bereavement event, or seek out counseling. 

Infant-loss mental health resources available to all parents who have lost their baby

HAND of the Bay Area—The national organization offers virtual grief support groups and one-on-one peer support for parents grieving the loss of a baby before, during, or after birth.

Nurturing Mamas Network—A national organization that provides services for enhancing the lives of women. It includes counseling infant loss.

Perhaps we can include something along these lines:

Reach out to our Palliative Care and Family Guidance and Bereavement Program if you are a Stanford Children’s patient family and would like to learn more.


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