What to do if you, or a friend, delivers a stillborn child



A while back, Good Housekeeping ran an essay of mine, "Loving Lucy," that was timed to appear around Father's Day. Though it was written to answer a lot of questions, there are a few that remain--including, if you've not read the piece, the question, "what's all this about?"

It's about Lucy, our first child, who was born, and died, in 1998. My wife and I have been fortunate since to enjoy the arrival of three more daughters, and also to publish a few books, including my first, The Cloud Atlas.  And though a novel about World War II bomb balloons would seem to have little to do with a little girl, the truth is that that book has everything to with her. (If you've read the article, I do urge you to read the book; you'll see it through different eyes than most readers.) If we had not lost her, I would likely still be working at the wrong job, seeking the wrong goals. Losing Lucy definitely helped my wife and I reorient our lives. Things have worked out well, which is lucky, or rather, it's not--it's the result of a lot of hard work. I wanted to talk a little bit about that hard work here, including some of the hard-won knowledge we've gained. (For the full story about Lucy, here's a PDF of the Good Housekeeping piece.)

I offer the advice below quite humbly--people experience, and deal with, tragedies in different ways. What worked for us may not be right for you, or your friend. I will say, however, that of the many e-mails I received in response to the article all seemed to agree on several key things, and I've tried to distill those here. 

What to do if you, or a friend, delivers a stillborn child

First, if you yourself have recently lost a child, my heart goes out to you. I don't mean that to sound trite--"my heart goes out to you"--because it's not, it's true. You may not realize it yet, but there is a vast, and mostly invisible community of parents who've lost children to stillbirth: trust me, you'll feel their hearts reaching out to you soon, if you have not already.

If you have a friend or family member who has suffered such a loss, again, my sympathies. I hope the advice below helps. Don't be shy about reaching out to them, but don't be upset if they're not ready to receive you yet. Less intrusive means of communication--a letter, an e-mail--are usually more welcome than calls or visits, but again, this varies from person to person.

Things to do immediately

  • Take a photo. We never got a photo of Lucy, and it's something we'll always regret. Even if you don't think you'll want the photo, allow a nurse or family member to take a picture anyway and hold onto it. Maybe you'll want to see it in a year, maybe you'll never want to see it, but you will want the option. No matter what condition the baby is in--and some deliveries, some circumstances can leave a stillborn child looking rather wounded--take the photo. If possible, ask the hospital to get the ink impressions of the hands and feet that they do for live newborns. (If you or the hospital don't feel up to the task, try calling on the brave and wonderful volunteer photographers associated with the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation.)
  • Hold your baby. No hospital should deny you this; sometimes, they may try, if they think you are unprepared to see a baby who is not "normal", healthy and pink. Consider their advice, but please, please, consider mine: hold the child. Have those with you hold it.
  • Name the baby. This is your child, a real child. Part of the process of making him or her real involves naming. You need not use the name you'd planned on if that makes you uncomfortable, but don't leave the child unnamed.
  • Hold a funeral, and burial. Even if you are not religious, you may find some sort of ritual comforting. Cemeteries, morticians, and even stonemasons are usually incredibly kind and generous to parents who have lost infants. They will often dramatically reduce or eliminate the fees charged. (If they don't, or they don't treat you well, stop dealing with them immediately and find someone else--this is too important.)
  • Buy cabbage. No one ever told us this, and we wish they had, my wife especially. There's nothing more painful, mentally and physically, than breast milk building up with nowhere to go. Fresh cabbage leaves, placed against the breast, help dry up the milk. You may also check with your hospital to see if they accept donated breast milk. Some do not, and you may also simply not be emotionally ready to do this. Don't worry; do what's right for you.

Things to do later

  • Talk to someone. Talk to a counselor or therapist or some other type of professional. Find a support group. And: both of you should go. There's often this sense that only the mother needs to grieve, or will be affected. Both parents are affected, and in different ways. Both should go.
  • Wait on your next child. If you are planning on trying again to conceive, wait. You would have waited if the child had been born alive; every child, even those stillborn, need time and space in your lives. The next child will not be a replacement (despite the occasional assurances of the well-meaning, but ill-informed). How long should you wait? Your doctor may tell you a year, or at least long enough so that the pregnancy won't be on the same schedule. I would only say, wait until you are ready, and if you never find yourself ready, that's fine, too.
  • Read. Sometimes the easiest solace to receive is from books. Books we liked and recommend to others are Silent Sorrow by Ingrid Kohn et al., and Empty Arms by Sherokee Isle. The first is encyclopedic, the second intimate, and both are helpful.
  • Reach out. If you are a friend of a couple who's lost a child, don't worry if you have trouble reaching them in the early days. They will need to hear a friendly voice weeks, or months on--by that time, the immediate tidal wave of caring has passed, and it's often a time when the couple feels most lonely. Don't be shy about contacting them on Mother's Day, or Father's Day, or the child's birthday. Never worry about bringing the topic up--if they don't want to talk about it then, they won't. People sometimes worry, "oh, but I don't want to remind them of this horrible thing." Believe me, you're not reminding them. I've received emails from mothers who lost children 20 years ago and they think about them every day. Of course they do--is there a day you don't think about your kids? And if you're someone who has lost a child, be there for the next couple who hears the horrible news. I can't tell you what relief it has brought my wife and I to try to bring relief to others in the years since we lost Lucy.

This page is readily indexed by and reachable from search engines, but I don't prominently link to it from my website, because it's not for everyone who visits my website. If this was information you were looking for, however, I hope it's helpful to you. 



PS Thank you to all who have written over the years.