Grief and Feeling of Loss After a Stillbirth or Neonatal Death
Our culture, beliefs and upbringing all influence the way we will express our grief. Families and individuals with a particular culture often have a wide range of attitudes or reactions. All individuals will have different needs, expectations and ways of experiencing and expressing their grief.
After your baby dies, many parents experience a range of responses including disbelief, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, guilt, despair and overwhelming confusion. Life may suddenly seem to be “out of control”. Physical reactions such as changes in appetite, sleeping difficulties, a general feeling of being unwell, fatigue and difficulty in concentrating may also be experienced. These are all part of grief and bereavement and are common responses to loss.
You and your partner
As individuals, you may find that your thoughts and reactions during bereavement are often different from those of your partner. It can be difficult for you to maintain effective communication in your relationship while you are experiencing feelings of grief and sadness. This is particularly so when one of you seems to be “getting on with life” and the other is continuing to express sadness. It can seem that one has forgotten and doesn’t care about the loss, or that the other is “not coping”.
Your partner’s needs may be different to yours. Talking openly and honestly about your own feelings with your partner and listening to each other’s needs and expectations can be helpful. Just as sadness does not mean you are “not coping”, “getting on with life” does not mean that a person doesn’t care. You may just be experiencing grief differently. Often, your partner cannot be expected to meet all of your needs and it may be helpful to have others to talk to.
Often, couples who have experienced the death of their baby feel isolated and lonely. Telling others of your baby’s death can be extremely difficult, and may cause much distress. After you return home, it can be hard to meet people who may be expecting good news about the birth of your baby. Going shopping, meeting neighbours in the street and taking other children to school can all seem overwhelming
There may be times when you withdraw into yourself and lose interest in everything around you. It may take weeks or even months before you feel able to return to daily activities. It can also be painful for parents to discover that others around them are expecting babies. It can be difficult to see pregnant women at work or at the shopping centre, and you may find you avoid holding other people’s babies for some time.
“I was inwardly screaming about how incredibly unfair life can be.”
When you are single
If you don’t have a partner, you may experience difficulties in having your emotional and physical needs met. It is important to have someone with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings at this time. Reaching out to family members or just taking the time to see friends can often be surprisingly helpful.
Future events such as your expected date of delivery, the anniversary of your baby’s birth and death, another pregnancy and significant family occasions may be difficult for you. Planning for these occasions ahead of time, and accepting that they may be hard, can help.
If you have other children their reactions to the loss of your baby will be individual and will be influenced by age, personality and the parental, cultural and religious influences present in their upbringing.
You may have concerns about your other children having contact with their baby brother or sister who is dying or has died. You may also worry about the effect on your other children both immediately and in later years.
Sometimes it can be difficult for you to involve your other children, particularly when the baby has been transferred to another hospital. Perhaps the mother’s medical condition may prevent your whole family spending time together. You may choose not to involve your other children because you feel that this would not be appropriate. Whatever you choose, it is important for the family to do whatever they feel comfortable with.
Even if they didn’t fully understand that you were pregnant, young children may become unusually clingy, easily upset and distressed. Older children may be aggressive, disruptive or unusually quiet. These are common grief reactions in children.
Involving your other children gives them the opportunity to know that the baby was real. Meeting their brother or sister can also demonstrate to your children that the baby is part of their family. A photo of your child or children with their baby brother or sister may become a treasured family memento.
Your own feelings of grief, sadness, hurt and confusion may make it difficult for you to provide the comfort and explanations that your children may need. Talking to your children openly about your baby and about how you feel may be helpful. Providing explanations suitable to their age, ability to understand and your family beliefs can also help. It is better to give simple, short, accurate explanations frequently rather than lengthy talks. Their questions will help you to understand their specific concerns. Be open to their questions, even if your answer is “I don’t know”.
“I wanted to protect my daughter and so did not let her meet her baby brother. Now, I wish we had done it differently.”
This article was prepared using extracts from Stillbirth and Neonatal death1. The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
Last reviewed: 11/6/23
1. Ford, D., Richardson, R., Robertson, S-E., Stammers, R., Oxlade, E., Carter, J. & SIDS and Kids. (2016). Stillbirth and Neonatal death: A Booklet By and for Parents whose Baby is Stillborn or Dies soon after Birth. Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids. (Original work published 2004 entitled Treasured Babies).