She thought she did everything right. She followed the doctor’s advice, ate healthily, turned up for every prenatal appointment and even ploughed through countless birth and parenting resources.
Still, she lost her baby, who was stillborn.
Year after year, many expecting couples go through the devastating experience of losing a baby to stillbirth.
However, more often than not, medical experts are unable to pinpoint the cause which adds on to the confusion parents face as they struggle to deal with their own feelings about the loss.
Furthermore, despite the frequency of its occurrence, stillbirth remains a topic that is shunned — sometimes even among the support system of these grieving individuals.
We spoke to a mental health professional to better understand how to provide couples who experience stillbirth the right environment and support system to help them break the silence.
“There must be a cause”
In an interview with theAsianparent, counsellor and psychotherapist Silvia Wetherell highlighted how women tend to engage in self-blame following a stillbirth.
“The self-blame can turn into shame. And whenever there is shame, there is silence.”
The maternal mental health professional explains how the blame can be irrational. The mind does this in an attempt to feel in control — even if it leads to horrible feelings like shame and blame.
“There must be a cause,” is how grieving parents would rationalise over the loss of their baby. “And so if the doctor’s not telling me what happened, they’re just saying these things just happen, we don’t know.”
Giving women options
According to Silvia, women who experience stillbirth go through a normal kind of delivery that can be very painful because it is induced — and it is an experience they are not prepared for.
“So not only are they grieving, they know they’re going to deliver a dead baby. They’re in a lot of pain. They don’t get the same level of support as if they are delivering a live baby.”
She shared that some of her clients who had babies saw that they were flopped onto a surgical tray and “disposed of like rubbish”.
“That doesn’t need to happen. There’s a conversation, there’s a plan around it,” Silvia says.
“The nurse could carry the baby as a live baby in the blanket until she can then put the baby in a trolly, in a tray, and do what she needs to do.
It is giving women options that’s really important, the flexibility.”
Importance of a better support system in breaking the silence
While cultural and societal attitudes to having conversations about stillbirth vary across the globe with some cultures more open to discussions than others, Silvia states that “it’s still very much of a taboo” in Southeast Asia.
“There’s this perception that talking about stillbirth will cause more distress to the mother, to the parents, or that it will bring bad luck to the family,” she says.
Silvia explains that for parents to speak up about childbirth, there needs to be a supportive environment and that the need starts with medical professionals and the family.
“The way in which the doctor is able to engage in this, support the women and make them feel understood and be okay to actually answer questions throughout the process, and even afterwards if there’s anything that needs to be clarified, is really important (sic),” says Silvia.
She, however, notes that there are instances whereby well-meaning attempts to soothe and comfort grieving parents can bring about an “opposite effect”.
She says that what these parents derive from statements like “you have to be strong, you have to be okay” is that it is not okay for them to feel the way they are feeling.
“We have to give them the space to grieve and we have to normalise this process — whether it’s health professionals, family members or friends,” Silvia emphasised.
“Crying is a very important part of grief”
Experiencing the loss of a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, says Silvia. “It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to grieve and you take as long as you need.”
The mental health professional highlights that while “crying is a very important part of grief”, parents who do not cry at all do not necessarily mean they have gotten over their grief.
In dealing with the grief, Silvia says that there has to be “at least one person in this world [the grieving parent] can turn to and be open with”.
While ideally, it would be a partner, she states that it can also be a very close friend or perhaps their mother.
For those who lack such a support system, Silvia recommends considering other options such as talking to a mental health professional such as a counsellor or psychologist—someone who is experienced in working with stillbirth and pregnancy loss.
Fathers grieve too.
While fathers don’t get to bond and connect with the baby during pregnancy in the same way a woman does, according to Silvia, they too experience grief and a sense of helplessness.
“When this loss happens there are two things that happen for the father,” says Silvia. “They feel this loss for their baby, but then they are watching their partner, their wife going through so much grief and pain and the man feels so helpless.”
As such, in men thinking they have to be stronger for their wives, Silvia says she often sees them dismissing any feelings of grief and sadness.
“And that’s not necessarily the most helpful because they’re both grieving,” in consideration that the stigma for men in sharing their experiences runs deeper as compared to women.
Sometimes, you don’t need big words of comfort for loss of child, but rather talking about it in a sensitive way which grieving parents will appreciate.
Words of comfort for loss of child – Don’t be afraid to mention about baby
Everyone is unique and that goes for the way parents grieve over the loss of their baby.
In terms of how friends and family can provide support, Silvia says: “Don’t be afraid to mention baby, don’t be afraid to mention what happened. Women are often grateful when people bring it up in a sensitive way.”
Instead of saying “Oh I thought you were over this, I thought you were okay already,” say: “How have you been, how much are you thinking about what happened?”
Silvia also urges those who are looking to better support grieving parents to give them a phone call and not just connecting through text messages:
“Don’t be afraid to do that because they get a million messages but then nobody really calls them and has a conversation.”
While this presents an opportunity for parents to talk about the baby and what they have gone through, Silvia highlights that “talking about it is an invitation”, and should not be something forced upon them.
Do not go into complete avoidance
In her experience of working with grieving parents, Silvia shared that parents who do not want to talk about the baby still recognise it internally.
While there is a need to be “very respectful of every individual’s way of dealing with this”, Silvia advises individuals to not go into complete avoidance.
She encourages couples to take a walk together in the evening, or in nature where there is no rush and things are quiet.
Whether or not parents choose to talk about it, Silvia says it at least creates the opportunity for that space.
Taking a slow walk in nature with a loved one can be as meaningful as speaking words of comfort for loss of a child.
“Or sometimes having a meal, somewhere that’s not too busy or hectic,” when it comes to tackling such conversations with friends.
According to Silvia, a group of three (grieving woman and two friends) would be ideal as “there isn’t too much pressure for her to talk”. She also cautioned against speaking about the baby under time pressure.
On how the two friends can broach the conversation on baby, Silvia suggests saying: “Look, why don’t we go for a little walk? Let’s just sit in the park for a bit.
You don’t need to talk about it if you don’t want to, but we’d love to hear if you want to share. We’ll find out more about your baby.”
Ultimately, Silvia reminds that grieving is part of the process and that one should at least be kind to themselves as they go through it.
“I wish there was in some ways, but there is no shortcut,” she said.
This article was first published in theAsianparent.