Bereavement care after stillbirth and infant death

Margaret Pritchard-Houston, Children’s Mission Enabler and former Children & Families Worker, Diocese of St Albans

Stillbirth and infant death can still stop even the toughest of us in our tracks. The death of a baby is an awful event, and we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing and making it worse. This time of lockdown and collective anxiety/trauma can make it more challenging, both emotionally and practically, to respond.

I had a stillbirth at 27 weeks and a late miscarriage at 18 weeks. I’m also a Diocesan Officer and former Children and Families Worker. Here are some suggestions, from me and other bereaved parents, to help you navigate this challenging pastoral situation. Some of these are general tips that apply at all times, some more specific to this situation.

Do:

  • Use the child’s name, if they were given one. Refer to them as “your son” or “your daughter” or “your baby brother/sister.” Acknowledge that, to the family, they are a full person, and a full member of the family.
  • Ask, “would you like to tell me about your baby?”
  • If a “proper funeral” can’t be held, due to isolation and closure of churches, remind families that a memorial service can be held at any time, even months after a death.
  • Allow space for grief and lamentation before trying to provide comfort or reassurance.
  • If the parishioner is a grandparent, remember they’re coping with two things – the loss of their grandchild, and also the pain of watching their child go through something terrible (and, at this time, being unable to be with their child in person). They may be concerned with being a good parent to their child, and neglect their own grief. Give them a chance to focus on themselves – you can be a safe place they take their grief to.
  • Encourage the family to make memories and honour their baby – the book “Empty Cradle, Broken Heart” is a helpful guide. But remember everyone has their own timeline – some will want to look at photos immediately, some not for months, if ever, for example.
  • Think of what forms of virtual support can be offered. Food and flower deliveries are still being offered in most places, using safe social distancing, and can remind a family they’re cared for.
  • Refer onwards – Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity – has online resources, including a forum and a helpline. The Miscarriage Association also has online and phone support. Even online support can help families feel less alone.

Don’t:

  • Judge any decisions the family had to make. Some parents may have had to end a wanted pregnancy, or turn off a life support machine, and could be feeling guilt or shame. Assure them that God knows they made the most loving decisions they could, in horrific circumstances.
  • Try to find any “at least …” silver linings. The family can take the lead on “at least he didn’t suffer …” and things like that, but it’s more difficult when people not directly affected say those things.
  • Over-extend yourself and burn out. You’re probably dealing with more bereavements than usual, and ministry has changed unrecognisably for now. Be serious and intentional about caring for yourself – whether that’s a phone call to a friend, or your one walk a day, or closing the door on your family for an hour of silence, or whatever you need. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

I have put together a Pinterest board of resources for church leaders, including children’s books for siblings, some readings and liturgies for funerals, and organisations to refer onward to. You can find it all by following this link.