What do you say when your colleague’s baby dies?

Written by Belinda Norman, Mater Mothers’ Hospitals Perinatal Loss Coordinator

The loss of a baby can be one of the most devastating experiences for a family. The ripple effects are enormous. Statistics show that approximately six babies a day in Australia are stillborn, so chances are you could be sitting next to, walking past or sharing an office with someone who has been affected by the loss of a baby. This experience does not discriminate and the overwhelming feelings of sadness and grief are universal.

So how does this grief affect the worker? As mentioned in my previous blog, grief can cause significant physical symptoms to manifest in a person, for example:

  • Sleep disturbances;
  • aches and pain;
  • heart palpitations;
  • and loss of appetite are just some of these symptoms that can occur.

Grief can also affect someone’s behaviour. They may:

  • become angry quickly;
  • seem preoccupied;
  • be restless;
  • or make mistakes easily.

The challenging issue for workers and colleagues is that each day will be different. The bereaved parent may one day function extremely well, but be withdrawn and irritable the next. Try to be understanding, and allow them the space to do what they can. Placing unrealistic expectations on them will only intensify the grief, causing them to feel isolated and consequently cause a delay in them moving through this grieving period.

Allowing the grieving person to have a reduced workload or different duties for a period of time can be very beneficial. Often the parent is keen to get back to work to feel useful again, but is limited to what they can manage emotionally and physically.

What is the most helpful way to support a bereaving colleague?

  • No matter how uncomfortable it may make you feel to approach the person, do it!
  • Acknowledge the loss and allow space for the person to talk about their baby (if they want to). There is nothing more devastating as a bereaved parent to have people ignore you or pretend as though everything is back to normal. It isn’t, and it never will be the same.
  • Allowing a bereaved parent to mention their child’s name or to talk about their experience is incredibly healing for them, and it helps them feel supported and cared for.
  • Ask the person what you can do to help them–do they need a meal, a fun night out to distract them or simply understanding that they may be teary and emotional and not as productive as they once were, prior to the loss.
  • Be guided by the bereaved person–some people want hugs and affection and to talk all day about their baby, others are more private and want to be left alone–look for their cues and respect their response.
  • If you know the baby’s name, then use it. This also makes the person feel as though their baby mattered and he/she was a special person.
  • Whatever you do however, acknowledge the loss by saying something like “I’m really sorry to hear about the loss of your baby, if there’s anything I can do to help you please let me know” or “I heard your baby died and I just want to say how sad I am for you, and when you’re ready I’d love to hear about him/her some time”.

Things will improve for your co-worker and their capacity to concentrate and socialise will increase. Encouraging them to get some professional grief and loss counselling is also beneficial and at times giving them a wide berth and being patient with them will be most helpful. If in doubt, just ask!

Return to Bereavement Services Page

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