Chances are you work with someone who has experienced or will experience pregnancy or baby loss. Here's how you can be a compassionate coworker, from someone who has gone through it.
After my daughter was stillborn, I struggled to know what to say and how to act. That's because when you're in the throes of grief, the simple act of being can feel impossible. And without a doubt, one of the most difficult times following the death of my baby was going back to work.
When I returned to the office, I felt like a fraud. There I was, a new mother, but I had no living baby to show for it. I spent 95% percent of my time fighting back tears. Did my colleagues know what had happened? Sure, I was 23 weeks into my pregnancy before I suffered my loss. But how could they possibly understand? Rather than returning from my much-anticipated maternity leave, I was returning from bereavement leave instead.
Unfortunately, pregnancy loss is all too common, and grieving isn't just confined to the home. For good reason, every employer should be well-versed in how to gently welcome back a colleague after a loss. Here are seven helpful ways that would have made all the difference for me.
Acknowledge the Person's Loss
The simple act of saying "I'm sorry" in person goes a long way. But it's common for people to assume they should say nothing at all. Perhaps that's because pregnancy and baby loss is still a bit taboo in our culture. Thankfully, that seems to be changing as more and more people are opening up about their experiences. And the truth is, many grieving parents long for conversations about their loss. In fact, research shows social support helps a person cope with their grief, and avoidance can interrupt the healing process, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
Amanda Adams, a licensed clinical social worker based in South Hadley, Massachusetts, agrees it is critical to acknowledge a grieving parent's loss. "Not only does it validate them during the darkest time of their lives, it lets them know that this is someone who isn't going to shy away from talking about their child and that there's a safe space for them to keep their memory alive."
But it's important for colleagues and community to take the first step. "So often people avoid bringing up their child or grief because they don't want to 'make them sad,'" adds Adams, also a bereaved mother whose daughter was stillborn. "The reality is that they're already sad, and having no one who's willing to talk about it only adds to their sadness by making them feel isolated, as well."
It's Okay to Ask Questions
Many newly bereaved parents desperately ache for the opportunity to share their experience and, most importantly, their baby's name if they had chosen one. (Note: I am speaking from my own personal experience of stillbirth; this may not be the case for those who've suffered other types of loss.)
Ask a grieving parent if they want to speak about their loss. If they are eager to open up, think about everything you'd want to know if your colleague returned after delivering a living baby. Those are often the same details a bereaved parent yearns to discuss. For instance, "What did you name your baby? What special memory box items did you take home from the hospital? When was she born?" Remember, a stillbirth is still a birth.
Refrain From Making 'At Least' Statements
There are things to say, and then there are things not to say. "At least" statements, for instance, are certainly worth avoiding. "Any statements that begin with 'at least' are directing the conversation away from the trauma and pain that the person has experienced," explains Carol McMurrich, founder and director of Empty Arms Bereavement Support, an organization dedicated to providing services to bereaved parents who've suffered pregnancy and infant loss. "'At least' statements imply that one ought to be shifting their focus to the positive, which is virtually impossible under these circumstances. The best thing we can do is just acknowledge the pain and difficulty of the situation by saying something like, 'This is so tragic, and I am so sorry you have to experience such pain.'"
Be sure to avoid these common missteps:
Instead of saying, "At least you can get pregnant," try "I'm so sorry your baby died."
Instead of saying, "At least your baby is in heaven," try "I know you wish you had your baby here in your arms."
Instead of saying, "At least you have another child," try "No one else can or will ever replace the baby you lost."
Know the Type of Loss the Person Had
While a miscarriage is defined as pregnancy loss before the 20th week, a stillbirth results at or after 20 weeks, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And neonatal death, as defined by March of Dimes, is the death of a baby within the first 28 days of life. Do some research and know your facts. It can make a world of difference in how you approach the newly bereaved.
Remove the Employee From Parenting-related Email Lists
Shortly after my return, I received a company-wide email offering support for parents working from home during the pandemic. One glance at this seemingly harmless Zoom invite, and I was a ball of tears. A quick note to HR, though, and I was promptly removed from that list.
When someone suffers a loss, an entire future is also lost. A future full of family trips and traditions, first days of school, and graduation ceremonies. All these tender hopes and dreams have suddenly vanished. It should come as no surprise that what this person needs most is time, space, love, and support. And experts agree.
According to Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of several books, including Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby, there's a lot to pregnancy loss that most of society may not understand. "It's important to acknowledge that many people simply don't understand how profoundly parents are affected by the death of a baby. Particularly when a baby dies before birth, people commonly assume that the parents' grief will be mild or short-lived, because, after all, the parents never got to really know this child, and they can just try again for a happier outcome, right?" explains Dr. Davis. "But when parents were looking forward to adding this baby to their family, their grief is profound. And there are many layers of loss. There's a loss of innocence, a loss of control, and the feeling that they've lost a part of themselves. Not only has their child died, so have their hopes and dreams for raising this child into the future. There will be no first smiles, no first teeth, no first steps, no first day of school, no graduation, no wedding, and no branch added to the family tree."
When a newly bereaved parent returns to work, be sensitive. For instance, complaining about being up all night with your crying baby may trigger your colleague. Keep in mind, too, that a grieving parent may struggle to focus and handle a full workload. As Dr. Davis puts it, the seemingly normal act of returning to work can feel like "trying to be productive when you're in the middle of a forest fire. It can be difficult to focus or get much accomplished quickly, with quality." For that reason, be sure to delegate reasonably if needed.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to pregnancy or baby loss, keep in mind that a newly bereaved parent is undoubtedly in survival mode. After all, the tragedy is "overwhelming to a person's nervous system," says Dr. Davis. Fortunately, though, social support can help soothe an overwhelmed nervous system. For this reason, "parents can be enormously comforted by others' expressions of concern, care, inclusion, and checking in," adds Dr. Davis.
So, be kind, be gentle, and remember that a baby who died—even before birth—will forever be in the hearts of their parents, and will never be forgotten.