1. Be with the baby
Hours before our first baby was to be born prematurely, and knowing that he would die shortly after birth, a midwife asked us if we would like to see the baby once it had been born or if we wanted him to be taken away. Through all the emotion and confusion we immediately agreed that the baby should just be taken away out of sight. Fortunately, the midwives had the wisdom to keep him in a cot in the room next door and I went and held his hand for about 45 minutes whilst his heart was still beating. After that I took him through to my wife. Losing a child at birth is the most painful and joyful experience I've ever felt, both emotions happening at the same time. If it happens to you, do everything you can to maximise the joy of the child’s birth through all of the pain. When we lost a second baby, we were more prepared. We had him in a basket on the bed with us for about an hour after he was born just enjoying his company.
2. Have baby photos taken
This will be one of the last things on the minds of parents who are experiencing a premature or still birth but having photos taken of the baby is priceless. Charities like Remember My Baby, offer a free professional grade photographic service for situations like this. Having a word with the midwives as soon as possible about the options for remembrance photography will improve the chances of securing the services of a photographer in time.
3. Brace yourself for people avoiding you
My wife and I both noticed how people deliberately avoided us once we returned to daily life, especially men. This is probably true in many situations of bereavement but it was pronounced with the loss of a child. Friends and colleagues simply didn't know what to say and so avoided contact. A smile, a little hug, a touch on the arm or perhaps a simple card is all that's needed in most cases to acknowledge someone like a colleague in a situation like this. Avoiding the issue is not a solution.
4. Brace yourself for well-meant but hurtful comments
Comments or advice like, ‘It was probably God's will’, ‘At least it wasn't a proper baby yet’, ‘So and so had it much worse than you did, their baby died a few months after it had been born’, and ‘You need to move on and forget about it now’ are likely to be fed to you from colleagues, friends and even family members. You'll never forget these comments but do your best to forgive the ignorance of those who made them.
5. Connect with others
When we lost our first son, I struggled to go in to work for about six months, I just wanted to lie in bed all day. I tried to find some help but couldn't find any, let alone something specific for fathers. Since then, things have improved in the UK and there are charities and organisations who can genuinely help. It's unlikely that anyone's grief will be 'fixed' through counselling, but connecting and sharing with others in a similar situation brings much relief in the midst of pain, even many years later.
Mark Shepherd and his wife Desiree have lost two sons - the first through premature birth and the second through still birth. Mark is the father of two daughters and works as an an architectural surveyor. In 2019, Mark established Bonded, a once-a-month support group for grieving dads based in Richmond, Surrey.
See Bonded Support Group on Facebook for more details.