Being the co-worker of someone whose baby has died can be challenging. Because working relationships are often both close (because you work together every day) and yet also distant (because you may have a purely professional relationship) you may be worried about a colleague who is returning to work having suffered the loss of their child, and feel unsure about what to say or do. It is normal to feel like this.
LOLA provides guidance, below, on what your colleague may have experienced and how they are likely to be feeling, to give you some insight. It also offers some advice on things you can do that are likely to be helpful and supportive for your colleague, and things it might be helpful to avoid, too.
What your colleague has experienced
The death of a baby is devastating and whatever the circumstances leading to a baby’s death, parents will be suffering enormous grief. Following the death of their baby, mothers will have gone through labour and delivery of their baby, parents will have to leave the hospital without their child, often have to arrange a post mortem, may have visited their dead baby at the hospital morgue and planned and attended a funeral for their child. All of these things are unimaginably painful. The parents of a baby who has died will be feeling shocked, overwhelmed with grief, vulnerable and isolated.
How your colleague is likely to feel
Sometime after experiencing all of this, most parents will have to face returning to work. For most people, this will be terrifying, although for others, returning to a ‘normal’ routine will bring some comfort. A range of factors can influence how your colleague will deal with their grief on returning to work: everyone will react and deal with their loss differently. Some people may like to discuss their experience, others may not. Things like a person’s culture or gender may influence their wish to be open about their grief. The timing of their return to work may also play some part. And whatever the distance between the death of their baby and their return to work, the grief a bereaved parents is experiencing is also not likely to be linear; it will ebb and flow, probably for a long time, and it may be particularly hard for bereaved parents at special times such as anniversaries relating to their baby, and during future pregnancies, which can be very stressful. Whatever your colleague is experiencing, simply recognising it and acknowledging their situation is likely to be welcome.
Things that may be Helpful
The death of a baby is a major bereavement. Although you may hope your colleague is able to move forward after the loss of their child, it is important for you to remember that they are likely to be very sad for a long time, even if they appear to be functioning normally.
It can be helpful for work colleagues to send a note saying how sorry you are, or flowers or even attend a funeral, if is not held privately. If you are prompted to do something more in support of your colleague, arranging a collection or raising funds in memory of your colleague’s baby can also be helpful.
When your colleague returns to work, you may worry about saying the wrong thing, but a simple acknowledgment of your colleague’s loss can help them to feel supported, and less isolated, when they return to work. Things like ‘I am sorry about your loss’ or ‘I am so sorry about your baby’ are simple phrases which can show valuable support.
You can also look at babylosscomfort.com for guidance and may find their webpage 'What do I say?' along with this resource on the Sands website useful to help find the right words, when someone has lost a baby.
Things that may be Unhelpful
Even though you may feel some discomfort, try not to avoid your colleague when they return to work; it’s likely just to make them feel much worse. When you speak to your colleague, it is helpful to avoid saying anything which might indicate the loss of their baby can be replaced by having another child, or that the loss was ‘meant to be’, and this includes children who have died because of a severe illness. Any indication that their baby’s death is ‘for the best’, or that the parents will ‘get over’ their loss, even in time, perhaps because they already have children, or they are young enough to have more in the future, will be really unhelpful, and will risk causing deep offence.
Guidance for Employers
Employers and managers may be particularly anxious about the return of an employee following the death of their baby. Guidance to help you to support a bereaved employee, and positively manage their return to work, including understanding their entitlements and benefits after the death of their baby, is available here.