For my sister Fi, going back after her baby died felt almost impossible.
It’s Baby Loss Awareness Week. Very sadly, my big sister (and Skin and Blister co-founder) Fi lost her son Lincoln in 2012. I sat down with her to talk about her experience, both to keep Lincoln’s memory alive, and in the hope that it may help other bereaved working parents.
Hi, Fi. Can you tell us a bit about Lincoln?
It was 2012. My husband and I were thrilled to be expecting our second baby. We had a healthy 2 year old and no reason to suspect anything worrying this time around.
Then, at our 20-week scan, our lives changed forever. The sonographer’s casual chat suddenly went quiet, and we knew something wasn’t right. She was concerned that our baby wasn’t growing properly. A second opinion was requested. After a consultant confirmed her worries, we were referred to King’s College Hospital, London.
The next 10 weeks were a roller coaster of appointments. One-minute, good news, the next minute, bad. We saw every possible expert, who treated us so compassionately. I can never adequately express our gratitude to the incredible people who work in the NHS.
Finally, at 31 weeks of pregnancy, we received the news we had been dreading. Our baby was not developing due to a very rare condition. We had an agonising decision to make. We chose to experience the pain, so that he would never have to. In April 2012, our baby boy Lincoln died, and he was stillborn 2 days later.
How was it returning to work after losing your baby?
The first weeks after Lincoln died felt like torture. You’re experiencing labour afterpains, while organising your baby’s post-mortem. A midwife calls who hasn’t read your notes and accidentally congratulates you, while you are planning your baby’s funeral. You’re thinking about one day at a time - there’s not much room to think about work.
Going back to work was gut-wrenching. It can be difficult to find the confidence to return to work after having a baby, in the best of times. When your baby has died, you have lost not only your child, but all the dreams for your baby and your planned future life together. I was blaming myself, questioning why, feeling guilty, overwhelmed and sad. I had panic attacks and anxiety. I was also worried about how my husband and eldest child were coping. It’s hard to support another person when you are grieving at the same time.
Another challenge I hadn’t considered was that my job involves building relationships and being client-facing. You need to be the positive representative for your company. In times of grief, it’s hard to get out of bed, let alone walk into a meeting with a smile and a switched-on brain. It was daunting.
What can employers do to make it easier for bereaved parents to come back to work?
Honestly, a baby dying is one of the hardest things to talk about, so lots of people avoid it. Fight against your instincts to do this. One of the greatest things you can do is acknowledge that your employee’s baby existed. After your baby has died, it means the world for somebody to say his or her name. The first time you speak to your employee, say “I’m so sorry about [Lincoln]” or, even, “I don’t know what to say”. That is so much better than someone pretending it hasn’t happened, because it won’t make either of you feel any better.
Listen. Let them know that you are there if they want to talk. Resist offering advice or trying to fix things, unless this is asked for.
Allow your employee to set their work schedule around what they feel able to do. Be as flexible as possible around their needs and the times when they are able to work. For instance, they could start by working from home, just for a couple of hours at a time. They might like to work in the evenings, or early in the morning, if they are struggling to sleep. Perhaps they can support in the background, before returning to face colleagues and clients.
With your employee’s permission, let the whole team, and key customers and partners, know what has happened. Personally, I found it easier to not to have to tell everyone I worked with individually. Some people would just give me a hug when I first saw them, and it was a comforting way to acknowledge what had happened.
What advice would you give to bereaved parents, who might be worried about returning to work?
Everything you are feeling is normal. Be kind to yourself and take each day as it comes.
When you feel strong enough, arrange an initial phone call or off-site meeting with your line manager. Chat openly about how and when you can return to work.
When you start work again, and you have moments when it all feels too much, take a break. Go for a quick walk, or have a cry in the toilet. No one will judge you for this. You are human and hurting. Be honest and let your colleagues know if you are having a bad day.
Is there anything else you’d like to say, Fi?
Please don’t forget the other partner in a couple who have lost a baby. In my experience, a lot of focus falls on the mother and how she is coping. Often their partner thinks they have to be the strong one. If your employee is a bereaved partner, try and give them opportunities to talk and let them know it is okay to not be okay. If your employee is a bereaved mother, ask her how her partner is doing too. The same goes for other family members, who will want to be strong, but will be grieving too.
I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Matt McCarty, Kelly Underwood-Fone and Alex Fone. I was working with Matt when Lincoln died, and I didn't have the strength to go back to work for a while. I had an open chat with him and he was amazingly understanding when I needed to finish earlier than planned. I went back to work later at Lime with Kelly and Alex, who were both flexible and caring. They were also incredibly supportive of Katie (who also worked there) and how she was coping too. It would have been so much harder without these kind and considerate people.
Finally, are there any charities or organisations that can help offer advice or support?
These are some charities that we’ve turned to in the last 7 years. Your healthcare professional can also point you in the direction of bereavement counsellors, and local charities and support groups who can help.