The death of a baby is a traumatic experience and one that hospital staff may find it difficult to deal with. They are geared up to deal with the joy of birth and not the tragedy of death. At the same time, doctors and nurses may be consumed with the aftermath of the delivery or in trying to save a baby’s life. They have little time for the mother and father, leaving both in a state of uncertainty:
“The delivery was awful and he was rushed off to the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] the moment he was born. I remember they were all fussing around, giving me stitches and cleaning me up, but nobody mentioned the baby. I just assumed he was dead; at first I couldn’t believe it. I felt numb, and then I started crying. Nobody said anything to me and my husband went off to find someone who would tell him what was going on. Then they came to take me back to my room and I said, in tears, ‘I’m not going, I’m not going to the ward to see those mothers and babies.’ ‘Why not?’ they asked. ‘Because my baby’s dead!’ I bawled. At that there was a flurry, and someone came to say he wasn’t dead at all! He was in intensive care but they were sure he’d be all right, and I could go back and look at him later. It was, in fact, touch and go, but they didn’t say so at the time.”
If a woman is kept uninformed and uninvolved, the consequences can be quite tragic:
“It was obvious that something was wrong as soon as he was born. He was taken to the NICU immediately. There was some confusion over what different doctors said about whether he would live or not and that was hard, because I didn’t know whether there was hope. Meanwhile I was in the regular maternity ward with mothers and babies. I wasn’t with him when they disconnected the life-support system and let him die-there was no point in doing anything. If I had been more involved and helped by them, I think I would have chosen to be with him and to have held him when he died.”
There are probably many women who would have very similar feelings and reactions. Until very recently parents were not encouraged even to see their baby, who was whisked away as soon as it was confirmed that the baby was dead. Today, hospital staffs are increasingly aware that many parents want to see their baby, accept its death and have time to grieve. This applies even if the baby is born with a congenital abnormality. The imaginings of someone who has given birth to a baby with physical abnormalities are likely to be much worse than the reality; again, seeing, being with and holding the child can help parents accept the situation:
“They said the baby was deformed and [so] I didn’t want to see her. But my husband did, and he said, really it’s all right, she’s quite beautiful, you can look. They had wrapped her up so that her face and arms and tiny feet showed. She was very beautiful, and her face had a peaceful expression that made me immediately feel much better about her death.”
A mother whose baby has died can ask not to go to the postnatal ward, but to be given a room of her own or perhaps go to the general gynecological ward. Hormones can be given to suppress the milk supply, though this is less typical now because the drugs can have side effects. The mother may continue to produce milk for some days, to her great distress. The mother whose baby has died will have all the usual hormonal and emotional changes following a birth, but no baby; she is in a kind of emotional limbo, neither a mother nor not a mother.
If the baby has died because of some lack of intervention or action by medical staff, parents usually take out their anger on the hospital. This can make the situation worse immediately after the baby has died: “They should have figured out he was in distress. I can’t forgive them.” Anger is a normal part of the grieving process; being able to blame someone can help the situation seem more bearable for the parents in the short term. Most stillbirth or neonatal deaths, however, could not have been prevented, and blaming the hospital will not bring back a baby who has died.
How the hospital staff deals with a tragedy can make an enormous difference to the experience. If you have worries, it can help to talk to your team in advance about what you would like to happen in the event of the baby’s death, even if this sounds as if you are being unnecessarily morbid:
“I told them that if the baby was dead I didn’t want them to whisk her away. I would like to see and hold the baby right then and deal with my emotions then and there. They brushed this aside and said of course nothing will go wrong. In fact, my baby was born perfectly healthy. But I felt it was important for me to say what I wanted in case the unthinkable happened, so we knew where we stood and I wouldn’t be faced with half-truths or well-meaning attempts to protect me from reality.”
Women-and men-who have experienced a baby’s death are often told by doctors, hospital staff, relatives and friends to “forget about this experience-you’ll have another baby soon.” This is very distressing for the parents, who need to acknowledge the death and mourn the loss of their baby before going on to another pregnancy. Some hospitals will help the parents by encouraging them to see and hold the baby, perhaps taking a photograph they can keep, and discussing what sort of funeral arrangements should be made. Hospitals usually arrange for a cremation or burial free of charge, but some parents find they hastily go along with such arrangements and later are distressed because they did not attend a ceremony and because the baby is buried with others or in an unmarked grave.
You will also need to register the baby’s birth or death. You can ask that the baby’s name be recorded so that he or she can be acknowledged as your child, a real individual, and not just “a baby.” If you feel the hospital is not paying attention to your wishes, be firm and ask for what you want. Taking action in this positive way may help you feel a lot better about the experience when you look back on it and help you in the natural process of grieving. (See Further Reading, starting on page 165, for helpful books.)