In Western cultures, people didn't discuss childbirth until about 30 years ago. Even today, people can be hesitant to talk about it. What's more taboo is talking about the death of a child, which remains a difficult subject.
When a child dies, or is born sleeping, it goes against the perceived natural order of things. This creates an unsaid air of failure. People often say that children shouldn’t die. This can be difficult for parents who have lost a child to hear. These words prompt feelings of guilt for parents: Why did this happen to me? Did I do something wrong? It’s my fault? Of course, these are normal feelings to have in this profoundly sad and difficult time.
Sadly, children have been dying as long as humans have existed on this earth. It is often referred to as the worst experience a parent can endure. The grief is often overwhelming and shocking, throwing a family into crisis. Grieving people often feel unable to speak with others about their loss. Without that dialogue, there's no ability to ask for help. The incoming support and compassion is limited, which only intensifies the grief.
When a baby is stillborn or a child dies, people don't know how to react. They are uncomfortable and can say shocking things like "at least you have your other child", or "at least you can have another baby, you should move on now". They can be judgemental, lacking in compassion or abandon the bereaved parent completely. This leads to isolation and feelings of depression that can result in complicated grief.
How can I show compassion after stillbirth or death of a child?
A stillbirth is defined as the death of a baby from 20 weeks gestation, or over 400 grams in body weight (when gestation is unknown). In Australia, there are six stillbirths a day. For many reasons, 20% of families never know why their babies die.
When someone experiences a stillbirth or the loss of an infant, being present and listening without judgement is a good place to start. If someone has the courage to open up about their loss, you can support them by asking about the baby. For example, you could say: "I'm so sorry. Tell me about her/him."Or invite them to open up by saying: “It’s so clear how much you love your baby. You can come to me for support any time”. Or “I’m right here with you, is there anything I can do to help?”
Cherishing a baby's short life can help families to heal
For so many bereaved families, finding meaningful ways to cherish the short life of their baby is significant to healthy healing. We now recognise the importance of memories in grieving and there are many things families can do to foster healthy healing when a baby dies.
Some practical ideas can include taking hand and foot moulds or prints. Families can even cut a lock of the baby's hair, or keep a special blanket or toy. Writing letters to your baby can also help with healing after a stillbirth or infant loss.
Photos can provide restoration after a death
Research shows that photographs make a difference allowing families to create a narrative to share with others, particularly siblings who may not have been present. They provide the opportunity to tell a story in a short moment of time. The beauty of their child, their little hands and feet, their little nose and delicate eyelashes. The raw emotions of family and mostly to capture the love and beauty that is present.
Photos allow a gentle way for parents to introduce the subject of their dead child to others. Many parents comment these are the most precious things they have and that they have been invaluable along their grief path.
I have been part of Heartfelt for 12 years. It is a volunteer organisation of professional photographers dedicated to providing photographic memories to families who have experienced stillbirth, or who have children with serious or life-threatening illness. Heartfelt provides this gift free of charge, in a caring and compassionate manner.
We have more than 360 photographers, plus a handful of skilled photo editors. In 2019, we photographed 1600 families across Australia and New Zealand. These memories make a difference to families in their grief, by helping them bond and grieve more completely. The photos affirm their child's life and validate the feelings they have for them. There may have been be many years of hopes and dreams for this child’s existence, so having this tangible memory can ease the grief in times to come.
Capturing love and beauty after a child's death
Working with Heartfelt is an emotional, but always a humbling, experience. It can be sad, but sometimes there is laughter. As a photographer and the state coordinator of the South Australian branch, I’ve met parents at the most devastating time in their lives. This service is a privilege and an honour I hold dear.
Before entering the room, I ground myself and breathe deeply. I enter this space with an open heart and mind. I remind myself this is their grief, not mine. Sometimes the room is bustling with many family members presenting both joy and sadness. But other times there is only a deep sadness and distress.
I talk to the baby using their name, asking permission and explaining what I am doing as go. Parents can be apprehensive about touching or holding their child. But when they see me talking and holding their baby's hands or feet they gain confidence. It is heart-warming to see them open up and hold their child. Others have an amazing confidence. My favourite times are when I can encourage reluctant siblings to touch or hold their brother or sister.
Session times can vary. Sometimes parents only want a few photos, or photos of their baby only. But sometimes the sessions can be to 4-5 hours long, depending on the circumstance.
Photos can tell a story that words cannot
Photographs provide a vehicle to have difficult conversations with others about loss. Parents can share these photographs with family and friends, to tell a story that is often lost with words or even tears.
When people ask me what I do, I always mention my involvement with Heartfelt. It is an opportunity to begin a conversation about infant loss. People can be curious or unsettled by the thought of photographing children who have died or are very sick, but talking about it helps to break the taboo.
All information provided is general in nature. For support for miscarriage and pregnancy loss, stillbirth and infant death, call SANDS on 1300 072 637. If you are seeking grief support, speak to your health professional or reach out to the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement on 1800 642 066. A list of useful bereavement, grief counselling and other support services across Australia is available here.
ABOUT HELEN ROBERTS
Helen Roberts has worked as a paediatric intensive care nurse and educator at Adelaide's Women’s and Children’s Hospital for almost 30 years. She has learnt about the amazing strength of the human body and spirit in times of severe illness, trauma and death. Since retiring about eight years ago, Helen has become a professional photographer. She continues her care for grieving families as South Australian coordinator for Heartfelt, a voluntary national organisation providing photographic memories for families that have experienced stillbirths, premature births, or have children with serious and terminal illnesses.
Helen also volunteers as a home visitor for patients receiving palliative care. She has also provided community engagement for Palliative Care South Australia with The Dying to Talk Rural Tour and Advance Care Directive training in aged care facilities. Helen is also an end-of-life doula, providing non-medical support and service to dying people and their families.
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