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Should Parents and Families of Stillborn Babies be Encouraged to See, Hold, and Have Funerals?

Updated: Feb 17

This article was originally posted on

MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing

May/June 2014, Volume :39 Number 3 , page 146 - 147 [Free]


The stillbirth of babies has been found to cause profound and lifelong grief among parents. In the past, medical professionals commonly removed the stillborn baby very quickly after birth, attempting to "protect" the parents from experiencing grief and bonding with the deceased babies. Stillbirth and miscarriages often were "invisible to society" (Capitulo, 2005, p. 2).

Since the 1960s, the grief of pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and perinatal death has been studied. Parents who were not allowed to see and hold their deceased baby expressed lifelong emotional distress. Denying families the opportunity to see and have funerals for their stillborn and deceased infants causes the bereaved to be at increased risk for disenfranchised grief. This complicated grief can be manifested in mental health disorders, feelings of anger and perpetual sadness, and dreams that their babies looked like monsters.

Parents and Families
Parents and Families

It has been reported that the mothers who had contact with their stillborn babies had better long-term psychological outcomes compared with those who did not. People who have experienced the death of a family member, usually make meaning of their losses by expressing grief through mourning ceremonies and rituals. For families who have experienced stillbirth or neonatal death, the funeral process includes saying good-bye and presenting the deceased body for parents' viewing. These rituals have a healing effect on the grief (Wijngaards-de Meij et al., 2008). Making memories validates the identity of the deceased baby and recognizes the "living" relationship the parents still have with their child. Rituals such as blessings, baptisms, and funerals have been found to be comforting, supportive, and psychotherapeutic for individuals who experience a baby's death.

Social support during a major life event, such as a perinatal death, is a key factor in the prevention of psychological disorders and promotion of healthy readjustment. Many bereaved mothers have voiced the lack of support given to them during their grieving process. This lack of social support and lack of validation of the ongoing bond one has with a deceased child can lengthen and intensify the grieving process. Without this support, bereaved parents can feel alone, isolated, and misunderstood, which can contribute to the development of complicated grief (Shear, 2012).

Healthcare professionals and hospital staff have a great influence on parents' decisions during acute grief. Most of the mothers who did not see and hold their stillborn babies regretted their decision (Cacciatore, Radestad, & Frederick Froen, 2008). Thus, it is the duty of hospital professionals to encourage the parents to see and hold their stillborn babies and to facilitate and advocate for ceremonies, such as funerals and rituals congruent with the family's culture and spiritual views. Healthcare professionals should help bereaved parents make meaning of their losses, create positive and loving memories of their deceased babies, and support them through their individual journeys of grief. Healthy mourning includes validating the reality of the death and value of the baby as a human being. Healthcare professionals provide a calm, supportive environment in which parents can say their final good-byes, enable parents to spend as much time as they want with their deceased child, and provide ongoing support to promote healing grief and decrease the potential for future stress disorders and psychic trauma. Although grief is universal, each family is entitled to appropriate healing interventions, including seeing their baby and holding rituals of remembrance.


Cacciatore J., Radestad I., Frederick Froen J. (2008). Effects of contact with stillborn babies on maternal anxiety and depression. Birth, 35(4), 313-320. doi:10.1111/j.1523-536X.2008.00258.x [Context Link]

Capitulo K. L. (2005). Evidence for healing interventions with perinatal bereavement. MCN, the American Journal of Maternal-Child Nursing, 30(6), 389-396. [Context Link]

Shear M. K. (2012). Grief and mourning gone awry: Pathway and course of complicated grief. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14(2), 119-128. Retrieved from[Context Link]

Wijngaards-de Meij L., Stroebe M., Stroebe W., Schut H., Van den Bout J., Van Der Heijden P. G..,, Dijkstra I. (2008). The impact of circumstances surrounding the death of a child on parent's grief. Death Studies, 32(3), 237-252. doi:10.1080/07481180701881263 [Context Link]


Giving birth to a stillborn child is a major life event and can lead to psychological trauma. Publications of researchers, nurses, social workers, and bereavement counselors have encouraged healthcare professionals who care for parents of stillborn babies to view and hold the deceased body, and even have funerals in the hospital. These interventions are aimed at helping the parents cope with the painful loss of their child and prevent them from developing severe distress. However, these practices have been called into question in recent years.

Actually, depression and anxiety after child loss continue for years, even after subsequently giving birth to a healthy infant. Cacciatore and her colleagues' study showed that grieving mothers who have seen or held their deceased babies tend to have higher anxiety in a subsequent pregnancy. The positive effect of holding babies may be just temporary and reversed after a following pregnancy. In this study, participants who were pregnant had more symptoms of anxiety if they had seen and held their baby, indicating seeing and holding the baby may be associated initially with fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms than not doing so, but the beneficial effect is temporarily reversed during a subsequent pregnancy (Cacciatore, Radestad, & Frederick Froen, 2008).

Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have also been found more prevalent in the pregnancy that follows loss. Holding a stillborn baby after birth causes an increase in symptoms of PTSD and marriage breakdown in the pregnancy following loss, with symptoms of PTSD continuing 7 years after the loss (Turton, Evans, & Hughes, 2009). Women who did not see or hold their child had significantly lower depression scores in the subsequent pregnancy, and had less symptoms of anxiety and PTSD (Hughes, Turton, Hopper, & Evans, 2002).