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Spiritual support

11 March, 2014

Spiritual support

The death of a baby is a devastating event. Drawing on interviews with bereaved parents, Mark Newitt describes how chaplains can provide support regardless 
of their religious belief.

Midwives magazine: Issue 2 :: 2014 The death of a baby is a devastating event. Drawing on interviews with bereaved parents, Mark Newitt describes how chaplains can provide support regardless of their religious belief. 

Having discovered that they are pregnant, most parents start to make plans for the future. As Broderick and Cochrane (2012: 2) state: ‘There is a collective myth, at least in this society, that getting pregnant, staying pregnant, giving birth to a live baby… is simple, despite clear evidence that this is not the case.’

This myth means that the death of a baby can be a devastating shock, even at early gestation.

Parents often feel a loss of control when they lose a baby. As much as they might wish otherwise, there is nothing they can do to alter events. Feelings of helplessness can be compounded by a difficulty in knowing what to do. When it comes to dealing with the death of a baby, as Father 1 puts it: ‘There are no kind of guidelines.’

Parents often feel isolated, yet talking about their experiences is not always easy. Some parents feel that family members and friends do not fully grasp what they are living through.
Mother 1 says: ‘I just thought nobody is understanding where I’m coming from.’ Similarly, Mother 2 describes how people ‘sort of shy away from it because they don’t want to bring things up’.

Even when friends and family do engage, as Mother 3 says, their attempts to help can be ‘quite crass sometimes’. She was left thinking: ‘I can’t believe you’ve just said that to me.’

Broken dreams
Having begun to plan for the future, the death of their baby leaves parents feeling a loss of meaning and purpose. Father 2 speaks about being left with ‘all these broken dreams’ and thinking about the experiences that would not happen. And, because parents expected a healthy baby, they sometimes experience guilt or feelings of failure.

Mother 4 explains how she blamed herself and wondered if there was something more she could have done. Kelly (2007) found that some mothers were so affected by their loss that they experienced suicidal impulses.

Fathers suffer too. They can feel unable to fulfil the male protective role. 

Father 3 says: ‘For the first time in my life, I was out of my comfort zone. I felt isolated. I was trying to be dad and partner in the relationship and I’d kind of lost that. I guess I failed.’
In response to the different experiences of loss, parents often feel the need to do something; either for their baby or to mark what has happened. The desire to do something for their baby tends to be more important for those who identify with a religious faith.

Often, this was related to the eternal destiny of their baby. As Father 3 explains: ‘I’ve always had a faith. I felt blessing baby was an important part of that. If there was anything I could do for his journey now, it would be to set him on the right path,’ he says.

Parents who do not have a religious understanding of life, such as Father 4, speak more about wanting to do something to mark what has happened.

‘It felt important to do something proper to mark that this person was there,’ he says.
And Mother 3 says: ‘It’s another marker that our child existed.’

Chaplaincy support
The ceremonies provided by a chaplain help meet parents’ desire to mark an important event. However, chaplaincy support also benefits parents in a number of other ways.
The simple act of choosing to have a ceremony begins to give an element of control back to parents. Where parents feel a massive sense of loss, naming and blessing ceremonies enable them to carry out symbolic acts of parenting. A blessing ceremony is also something that they might have done with their other children. Blessings carried out by a chaplain also help parents affirm their beliefs about the value of life, however brief.

Alongside ceremonies, parents value mementoes, such as naming and blessing certificates provided by a chaplain. For those whose baby died before 24 weeks’ gestation, this is the only tangible evidence for the existence of their baby. Mother 4 says: ‘The certificate is the only recognition I have got of him. Obviously I don’t get a birth certificate, I don’t get a stillbirth certificate or a death certificate. There was nothing like that so that’s my recognition that he was here.’

After a hugely emotional and disappointing time, when parents would have been expecting to introduce their baby to friends and family, a certificate also means they have something to show others.

Mother 3 describes returning home with a certificate: ‘That night we had to leave hospital and I had something to show my children and my own parents,’ she says.

Listening is support
In addition to the ceremonies, parents say that they value the chaplain’s ability and time to listen. For a minority of parents, this is in contrast to their perceptions of other staff. Mother 5 says that it is as if hospital staff have seen the loss of a baby on so many other occasions that they come across as unconcerned.

The importance of listening is highlighted in research carried out by Healthtalkonline (2006), which reports that chaplains are able to provide comfort ‘because they were used to “taking on others’ sadness” without trying to “fix everything”’.

Yet parents often have very low expectations of chaplaincy support. When these expectations are explored it is often that they were worried that the chaplain might be crass and judgemental or ‘Bible-bash’ them.

However, regardless of religious belief, parents report that their experience of chaplaincy support is the opposite. Those who were not religious speak about how the chaplain fitted ceremonies around their particular beliefs in a way that was suitable for them. And they describe how approachable they found the chaplain.

Father 2 says that he expected the chaplain to be more religious: ‘But they weren’t – they were just like a person.’

Chaplaincy support
► Chaplaincy support is appreciated equally by those who practise a faith and those who do not – it should be offered to all parents
► Poor expectations mean there is an important role for midwives in reassuring parents that chaplains will not preach at or judge them
► You cannot fix a devastating loss, but attentive listening will help support and comfort parents.

Mark Newitt
Chaplain, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield


Broderick S, Cochrane R. (2012) Perinatal loss: a handbook for working with women and their families. Radcliffe: London.

Healthtalkonline. (2006) Ending a pregnancy for fetal abnormality: treatment, care and communication. See: www.healthtalkonline.org/Pregnancy_children/Ending_a_pregnancy_for_fetal_abnormality/Topic/2006/ (accessed 25 February 2014).

Kelly ER. (2007) Marking short lives: constructing and sharing rituals following pregnancy loss. Peter Lang: Oxford.


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