By offering flexibility, compassion, and patience, and following their cues, you can help your colleagues feel validated and supported.
(Originally published in HBR. Photo: Todd Warnock/Getty Images)
Tragic. Heartbreaking. Unbelievable. Whatever words we may choose, they fall pitifully short of the devastating reality of losing a baby.
Sadly, this unthinkable heartache occurs more than we may care to know. In the United States alone, approximately 45,000 people lose their babies to stillbirth or infant death each year. Tens of thousands more lose wanted pregnancies to spontaneous miscarriage. Still others are faced with the gut-wrenching decision to terminate their pregnancy for medical reasons.
The loss of a baby is an undeniably singular and terrible loss. For pregnant employees, there is a physical experience that comes along with the emotional challenge. Even with losses before the 20th week of pregnancy, it can take weeks to months for the body to recover and return to normal.
Further, many people can’t understand or might not acknowledge baby loss as a real loss. It is a disenfranchised grief, a term coined by bereavement expert Kenneth Doka to capture the experience that comes from losses that are not openly acknowledged, socially mourned, or publicly supported. Worldwide, grieving parents often feel that they can’t talk about their loss and even unentitled to feel the way they do. It is a hidden, lonesome sorrow.
But as I know from losing our daughter, Anya, when she was only three days old, losing your baby can bring you to your knees. It is a trauma and full grief. Life after Anya died was heartrending, disorienting, and very lonely.
Amid the grief and the physical and emotional challenges that accompany this unimaginable loss, the return to work can feel daunting and nearly impossible. And for those who haven’t experienced this type of loss, it can be difficult to know what to say or do or how to help.
But social support is one of the ways that humans get through grief, and how you respond to your colleague affects their experience of returning to work and overall well-being. Distilled from the experiences of the many parents I’ve met as a member of the club no one wants to join, here are ways you can best support team members who face this devastating loss.
Express your condolences simply.
When someone experiences a loss, it’s human nature to want to alleviate their pain. This can lead us to reach for platitudes such as “Time heals all wounds,” or “You’ll have more kids,” or “I know how you feel.” While well intended, these statements are unhelpful. They minimize the person’s loss and can make them feel even more isolated.
Instead, express a simple message of condolence and don’t press for details. For example, you might say “I am so sorry for your loss, I wish there was more I could do. I’m here if you want to talk or if I can help with anything.”
Consider sending flowers or donating to a relevant foundation, such as the March of Dimes or one that plants trees in memoriam. And keep in mind that losing your baby is often a crisis at home. Grieving parents face unimaginable decisions and a cascade of painful communications, so consider practical support like organizing a meal train.
This grief is unique and different for everyone. While your company may have an official bereavement policy, your best move is to take the individual’s lead on when and how they return to work.
The workplace often contains triggers, and your colleague may need space and time before returning. Pregnant colleagues, office baby showers, and photos of co-workers’ babies adorning their desks can be excruciating reminders of what they no longer have.
Others may be ready to return sooner but want to ramp up over time or prefer to start from home. According to psychologist Dr. Donna Rothert, some grievers find it satisfying to return to a job that they’re good at, where they have some control and their efforts lead to results: “It is the opposite experience of losing your baby, where so much is outside of your control.” Work can also provide a welcome break with something to focus on other than grief.
The simple fact is that one size does not fit all. Consult with your team member regarding a return-to-work plan and let them come back on a timeline and in the ways that they can.
Seek guidance on what to communicate.
Consult with your colleague about what they would like communicated to the team and by whom. Ask if they would like you to send a message to the team or if they’d prefer to communicate directly or have a trusted colleague do so. Be careful not to make announcements you’re not authorized to share.
Especially in larger companies, news may travel slowly, and it can be helpful to share cues for what the person wants. For example, some people don’t want to be asked about their loss. Others want to be asked so they can say their baby’s name and remember them.
There is no right or wrong. Rather, it’s about respecting their personal needs and wishes and the rituals they have chosen.
Follow their lead.
Grief doesn’t operate in neat stages on a prescribed timeline. There can be a wide variety of responses to grief and a person’s needs and feelings fluctuate. Your best course of action is to regularly check in for how you can best support them.
You might say, “I’m glad you’re here and I imagine it’s not easy. Is there anything more that you need from me or the team?”
Some people want the welcome distraction of their work. Others might need a slower pace or fewer responsibilities for a while. Don’t make assumptions and alter their work without consulting with them first.
Returning to work can be an intense experience for grieving parents, so proactively communicate that it’s perfectly okay to take breaks, get out for walks, call their partner, or check in with trusted colleagues over the course of the day. And that if they need to suddenly leave a meeting or go home, to do so.
Remember, too, that at this point your employee may be questioning just how important work really is. While your team member will navigate to the other side of this crossroads in time, your support in the interim can ease their recovery and increase levels of organizational commitment.
Honor the memory of their child.
If your team member has expressed willingness and interest in talking about their loss, don’t back away from the conversation. But be there to listen, not talk. If they have shared their baby’s name with you, you might also ask simple questions such as, “How did you choose that name?” that allow them to remember and talk about their baby.
UCSF clinical professor of psychiatry Dr. Catherine Mallouh recommends continuing to check in every three months or so. Asking, “How are you doing?” or “Would you like you tell me more?” signals you care and haven’t forgotten.
Recognize that the anniversary of a baby’s death can be a very emotional day. Mark your calendar and proactively offer your team member the day off.
While there is nothing you can do to take away your employee’s pain, you can make their return to work more tolerable. By offering flexibility, compassion, and patience, and following their cues, you can help your colleagues feel both validated and supported.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina