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How Caregivers Can Support Bereaved Parents

The support of caregivers can assist bereaved parents in recovering from their loss. Deborah L. Davis is a developmental psychiatrist who specializes in perinatal bereavement, parent education and child development as well as the author of Empty Cradle, Broken Heart.

If you work with bereaved parents in a clinical setting, she offers these guidelines:

  • Show cultural sensitivity – Don’t assume that the parents feel or think like you. Remember that some people have a basic fear or distrust of authority figures so some parents will not automatically come to you for support. Always ask parents about their religious AND spiritual beliefs and rituals for honoring the dead. If you’re using a translator, look beyond the language barrier by paying attention to body language and using appropriate touch. Encourage the supportive presence of many family members and remember that loud displays of weeping are considered appropriate in many cultures.
  • Give clear medical information and options – Parents need straightforward information. Withholding information only builds resentment. Parents need to make their own decisions, even difficult ones. Gather information about baptism, autopsy, disposal of the body and funeral arrangements so they will have time to consider what to do.
  • Educate the parents about grief – Prepare parents for the unexpected emotions and reactions that may occur: insomnia, fatigue, despair, anger and even illusions of seeing and hearing the baby.
  • Encourage collecting memories and mementos – If the situation is applicable, encourage parents to hold their dying baby; it gives them a special opportunity to nurture and comfort their child. Equally important, after death, offer them the chance to see and hold their baby – regardless of the age or development stage. Tell parents where, how and for how long the baby’s body will be kept and who to ask if they want to see the baby again. Gently suggest that they might bathe, dress, kiss, cuddle and examine their baby’s body. Save locks of hair, footprints and handprints, records of weight and length, hospital identification bracelets and clothing that the baby wore. Offer photographs of the baby or encourage parents to take their own.
  • Make special arrangements – Offer parents the option of having a room away from the maternity ward. Flagging the chart or door can help prevent staff from making inappropriate remarks about breastfeeding or infant care.
  • Be available to listen – Let parents know you are available upon request. Visit regularly and ask questions about their feelings and experience. Even if they are not responsive, they can benefit from your caring presence and your touch.
  • Limit sedative use – Parents who regularly use sedatives will have more trouble working through their grief than those who can experience the intensity of their emotions. It is especially important for parents to be alert when making decisions or spending time with their baby. However, an occasional sedative can be useful for getting much-needed sleep.
  • Make follow-up contacts and referrals – Follow-up calls from medical staff or parent groups can be helpful in reminding parents that shock, denial and overwhelming despair are necessary, but temporary, parts of the grieving process. A referral to a mental health professional can ensure that parents receive proper follow-up care. Make sure counselors understand the significance of the death of a baby.
  • Provide information about additional resources – Recommend books, articles or pamphlets that discuss pregnancy loss or infant death. These can reassure parents that their grief is normal and that they are not alone. Support groups can also be another valuable source of comfort. Organize staff support. Caregivers may find it difficult to handle the variety of parents’ needs or be sensitive to every patient’s individual preferences. Having regular perinatal mortality rounds is one way for staff to gather ideas and insight into supporting parents.

Davis, Deborah L.. (1996). Empty Cradle, Broken Heart. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing.

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Last Modified: Thursday, 12-Jul-12 11:44:34