If you are ever in a position to support a friend or sister through the process of birthing and grieving a stillborn child, this is what to expect when the unexpected happens.

It was cold in the doctor’s consulting room. Carrie* was lying on her back, waiting to hear their baby’s heartbeat. But then she realised it was quiet – too quiet. Seemingly from afar, her doctor said in a soft voice, “I am so sorry Mr and Mrs Jones*, but there’s no heartbeat.”

Their precious baby girl that she has been carrying for 38 weeks was dead.

And then came the part they never foresaw – the birth where the long-awaited cry didn’t come. The baby came, but not the cry. They named her Savannah, from the song ‘Blue Savannah’ by Erasure, specifically referring to these lyrics: “My home is where the heart is. Sweet to surrender to you only; I send my love to you.”

A part of their hearts and home was buried when they laid her body to rest. And then came the emotions – part bereavement but also the postpartum flooding of hormones. And the milk filling the breasts for a baby who would never suckle.

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The emotional flood

While many people still believe there are five stages to grief, the fact is that grief is an individual process that does not fit into any formula. Dr Christina Gregory, PhD, a psychologist specialising in bereavement therapy, explains: “Grief has certain common characteristics, but no straightforward pattern or behaviour.”

Common characteristics of grief according to Dr Gregory:

  • fatigue/extreme tiredness
  • anger (often irrational)
  • uncontrollable weeping
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • changes in appetite (either loss of, or gorging) with the resultant changes in weight
  • changes in activity levels (hyperactive or underactive)
  • anxiety
  • guilt
  • fear
  • needing to be alone/ withdrawing from community
  • needing to be with people
  • needing to talk and tell your story
  • forgetfulness
  • nightmares and/or dreaming about your baby
  • a sense of loss of meaning and purpose.

“All these are natural and there is nothing ‘wrong’ with bereaved parents if they are experiencing any of these characteristics,” says Gregory. “Parents may experience all of them, or only some. They may experience them for weeks and months at a time, then never again, or they may find they experience them in a cycle – sadness, then anger, then numbness, followed by sadness again, etc.”

It is obvious that there is no right or wrong and parents should not be made to feel guilty about any of them. However, if there are prolonged incidences of the above, it is always safer to approach a health professional.

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Practical ways to assist parents who have lost a baby

Carrie says one of the hardest things to deal with is that amid a parent’s grief, there are practical considerations that need to be dealt with. “To me it was incomprehensible, but life carried on after Savannah’s death. I still had to think about shopping, cooking and general life issues.”

Bereaved parents are members of a dreadful club that nobody wants to belong to and they must deal with the emotions that it entails. Supporting them in practical ways can go a long way to help them cope.

  • Meals: Contrary to popular belief, taking meals to grieving people is not an outdated practice but a very much needed one. Be practical and make them home-cooked meals that they can freeze. Lisa*, whose son Connor was stillborn three years ago, says, “It was such a relief to know that there was something to eat on those days that I could barely make it out of bed.”
  • Administration: File and respond to messages of condolences the parents have received after they have read them. “My friend Elly* sent text messages to thank people for their support on our behalf. It really helped to know that people knew we were grateful for their support, yet I didn’t have to sit down and figure out what to say,” explains Lisa.
  • Shopping: Shopping for the family is another great way you can help. Make a list of what they need and ensure that practical things have been taken care of, like payment for the groceries.
  • Household chores: Washing dishes, doing the laundry and even gardening if they don’t have someone to do it, can take a huge burden off the bereaved parents’ shoulders. Something practical like making sure their dustbin is outside on garbage day makes a small, yet important difference.

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  • Other children: Another loss mom, Sam*, shares: “People offering to watch my kids helped a lot. I knew they were safe and I could cry without them being upset.”
  • Doctor’s visits: It is often forgotten that even though her baby was stillborn, the mother still goes through all the aftereffects of having had a baby and as such, she still needs to keep her doctor’s appointments. You can volunteer to drive her there if her partner cannot, and you can even accompany her to the appointment if she is comfortable with that.

However great their support systems are, there will come a time when parents must face life alone. Carrie explains, “Nobody can lean on other people forever. There comes a time where you must face reality, and the world, without someone there to hold your hand.”

*Names have been changed for privacy

The fact that I am a professional doula helps immensely in my career as a birth photographer. Hospitals are more open to allowing me into their wards and theatre personnel and doctors know that I am properly trained to adhere to all procedures in the theatre, which a lay photographer may not be aware of. Also, as someone who has witnessed many, many births, I know how to stay out of the medical personnel's way, without compromising on your precious photos.