How to talk to parents who have lost a child

Sadly many people avoid talking to bereaved parents, afraid they might say the wrong thing

When birth and death collide, families and friends of bereaved parents often don’t know what to say or do, particularly if there’s no public funeral. Sadly, avoidance is all too often one way out of the dilemma.

“Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge,” is the advice of Mairie Cregan, one of a group of bereaved parents who launched the support group Feilecáin in 2010. Among its many services, the charity provides memory boxes for maternity hospitals to give to bereaved parents.

She describes the launch of the “HSE National Standards for Bereavement Care following Pregnancy Loss and Perinatal Death” as a “point of departure – we still have a lot to do”.

Take Feilecáin’s memory box, it is “only as good as the midwife or social worker who gives it”, she says. If it’s just left on the bed, all you see is a very pretty box and “unless you know how to use it properly, that is what it remains”.

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It’s such a traumatic time, as she knows from the death of her daughter Liliane the day before she was due in 2006. “You have the shortest time to make the most memories” – these are tangible memories, as opposed to “anniversaries of the heart” when that child should have celebrated birthdays, started primary school, secondary school, and so on.

Personally, she found the day Liliane should have been making her First Communion with her peers at school in Skibbereen, Co Cork as "hugely traumatic and I am not that bit religious".

It’s milestones like these that family and friends should be mindful of, even after many years. Other advice includes:

Do bring the baby up in conversation.

Do use the baby’s name.

Do offer practical support such as meals in those first weeks of shock.

Don’t cross the road to avoid parents.

Don’t think that after the first year they should be over it.

Don’t presume that another pregnancy makes everything okay.

Other organisations that support parents who experience perinatal loss include A Little Lifetime Foundation (formerly ISANDS) and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a not-for-profit organisation that offers the services of professional photographers to come to the hospital or the home to create lasting images of babies at no cost.

For more information, see feileacain.ie or tel 085 249 6464; alittlelifetime.ie or tel 01 882 9030; NILMDTS Ireland has a Facebook page or tel 083 3774777.