July 20, 2023

Stillborn grief process

It is with the heaviest heart that I share on the topic of Stillborn Grief. I have had the opportunity to support two families through the birth of their sleeping babies.

Stillborn grief process

It is with the heaviest heart that I share on the topic of Stillborn Grief. I have had the opportunity to support two families through the birth of their sleeping babies. It is an opportunity, because it is an honor and privilege to be able to walk with families through something so tragic. Stillbirth is devastating, crushing, heart-wrenching.

The first time I experienced a stillbirth I was guided to take time away from birthwork. The experience sent me on my own inner journey, it forced me into new places. I wouldn’t have started Tourmaline Birth and Wellness Collective or Box for Loss if I hadn’t experienced the loss of baby Kellan. Stillborn babies leave an imprint on all those connected,  like a stone tossed in a pond; the experience has the potential to create ripples and waves in distant places.

Stillborn or Stillbirth is when a baby dies before or during delivery. In America, Stillbirths occur in 1 in 175 births a year. 21,000 babies in the United States are born sleeping each year. The topic of stillbirth is often not spoken about, it is a tragedy. Other countries have much higher rates of Stillbirth, it is more accepted, and understood. The people in countries with high stillbirths have a clear understanding that no life is guaranteed.

Grieving looks different for each family, and varies from parent to parent. It takes time to cope with the stillborn grieving process, and there is no right or wrong way to go through this process.Box for loss is dedicated to talking openly about this difficult topic, and hopefully this post can offer some insight for families experiencing a stillbirth, as well as support and compassion.

Stillborn Grief Process

Stillborn Grief Process

I wish I could outline a list of what you will experience and feel through this process, it isn’t straightforward, and there isn’t a recipe for this grief. What I can share is that you will experience grief, immense grief, you will probably be flooded with questions, with why me? How? What could I have done differently? It will be surreal. All your plans are suddenly severed, and you are left with all the reminders, the carseats, the strollers, the clothes, blankets, everything. Everything but your baby. Actually, those that experience a stillborn later in pregnancy may have their baby, they birth them, hold them, carefully look over them, graze their face, hold their hands, kiss their tiny foreheads, and eventually have to say goodbye.

There are four stages of Grief after stillborn, but parents find these are nonlinear and the stages can spiral through the process. Studies show that the grief you experience begins to decline after 2 years after experiencing the loss.

Grief; Shock and Numbness

Feelings of shock and numbness are the most intense in the first two weeks. This stage can last hours, days or weeks. Shock is a normal response to the overwhelming experience of losing your baby. Parents find themselves numb, it is difficult to make decisions, and they are easily overstimulated. Families are in disbelief and can experience powerlessness, exhaustion, restlessness and confusion. Parents are in a fog of disbelief, their world is shattered and the mind is resistant to stimuli.

The body is overwhelmed by the shock and this numbness is how the body protects itself.

When caring for families, it’s important to understand this, and anticipate what they might need. Like a warm meal, clean clothes, moving baby things. Self care for the recovering mother, her mind will be blindsided, she will completely be focused on her baby and she and her partner may not be able to tune in to her physical recovery following birth.

You may want to ask to move to a private room, or if there is a different floor for her recovery, as the sound of other crying babies can be triggering.

As a midwife, I tried my best to take tons of the birth and pictures of Kellan, knowing that these would be some of the only tangible memories the family would have. I made sure we did what we do with all babies born with us, and took his footprints. I asked the nursing staff what other things they could help with, and we were able to get casts of his precious hands and feet.

Make sure to ask the birth place what kind of bereavement care they offer. In my experience, I found there are certain nurses that are attuned to help families after stillbirth. The family during this stage may not be able to verbalize, or even think of these requests, the shock is so strong. As midwives, friends and family members we can help by requesting these providers. Just ask if anyone in their facility specializes in infant death.

Grief: Search and Yearning

When the numbness begins to wear off, you may start to feel very empty inside. You begin to search for answers and yearn for what you planned for, your baby. During this stage you may search for answers, or someone to blame. You may feel anxious, guilty, or jealous of others. You may search mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. You will search for your child and for answers to why.

Parents may search for answers in the health care they received, they may question their own choices and their providers, but rarely is death anyone’s fault. This is a good time to request clear explanations from your providers and seek genetic counseling if necessary.

Disorganization/ Disorientation

When the searching and yearning is over. Once you have overturned every stone, gone down all the rabbit holes, you are left with the reality. Your baby died. Disorganization and disorientation is a difficult time. It’s harsh. You may be returning to”normal” life, but it sets in that it is forever changed. As you go back to day to day tasks, grief tugs on your heart. It’s raw, life is left feeling harsh and abrasive. This is a great time to check in with your mental health, couples will benefit from therapy.  It is at this time that parents become self-centered and relationships between partners and families begin to wane. You may not feel fully understood by other people.

This stage can encompass guilt, anger and depression.

Feeling guilty is a natural emotion when losing a baby. A sense of feeling like you could have done something, and replaying the outcomes and scenarios. You must recognize that there is nothing you can do to change the outcome. Spend time working through these feelings, but you cannot punish yourself or your partner for your stillborn baby.

Anger is also a normal emotion, but you must move through your anger. Acknowledge and express it, share your feelings. Suppressing your anger can cause other health problems and damage relationships.

Depression is common and can be lasting, you want to give yourself time to heal but support will be essential. Talk to a doctor or a therapist, a support group may be another way to help move you through the disorganization/disorientation phase.


It may seem impossible, but there is a time where you will come to accept the loss of your stillborn baby. It takes time to heal, and will take a conscious effort to move through to this phase. You will begin to reorganize your experience. It is a time of letting go, this can be especially challenging. It can feel as if saying goodbye, or letting go means forgetting your baby. You will never forget, and as you come to accept your loss, often families find new ways to celebrate and remember their lost baby.

It is during this stage that families may begin to plan for future pregnancies. Remember to give yourself time, it is not advisable to get pregnant in the first year following an infant death, as it can interrupt this process. Spend time connecting with other support families, focus on mental health, your personal relationships and good nutrition. This is a way to take care of yourself and also make sure your body is ready for future pregnancies.

Tips for Stillborn Grief

Take time to sit with your baby.

Some people experiencing this grief may want to move through it quickly and start making the plans for a funeral or ceremony. It is essential that families take the time to sit with their baby and take in every part of them before they start the cremation or burial process. We never get these moments back, and not taking the time may cause guilt later.

Support person.

Delegate a support person or team. I recommend having one to document those early days;  take pictures, ask questions. This could be a friend or family member, doula. You may decide to seek a bereavement doula. I also recommend delegating someone to take care of your basic needs, making sure you are fed and hydrated. You may not have much of an appetite, but nourishment is important for mental health following a stillbirth. Equally you are recovering from birth

Plan for Breasts and milk.

You may request medication to help dry up your milk. Some mothers decide to pump milk and donate it to other baby’s. I met one woman who fed many babies with her breast milk by providing donations to other women in the community. This isn’t for everyone, but it was part of her healing process, and she made friends with other women and their babies. Sage Tea or Sage tincture can help dry up milk supply and cabbage leaves can help with engorgement

Plan for Sharing

It can be helpful to create a plan to share the news with family and friends. People may have questions and it will be challenging to retell your story, all while dealing with your grief. Whether you delegate a person or share something via social media, delegate someone to interface with your community. I strongly recommend this person give your community a task. Like having them sign up for a meal train. People will want to support you, but also won’t know how. Gift certificates to self care are also helpful, acupuncture, therapy, cranial sacral therapy, pelvic floor physical therapy, postpartum bereavement doula, massage, all modalities can help nourish and support the body during this time.

Decide what you would like to do with your Baby Stuff

It may be helpful to have someone move your baby things out of your space, because when you leave the hospital it can be very hard to come home to your baby’s things with the task of boxing them up, or selling them. Some find it helpful to take the time to process and pack things away; while others don’t want to see any of  it ever again.

Schedule a visit with a therapist or mental health professional

I recommend doing this immediately, even if you aren’t ready to dive into all the emotions, having a scheduled time will help you move through your grieving process in a supported way. I have found most people who specialize in infant loss, have a very personal experience around infant loss.


How will you memorialize and celebrate your baby? Your baby lived, kicked, and also moved inside of you. How do you bring your baby into your life everyday? Kellan’s family had painted a bright orange wall in their home as a memorial to their son.

Check out our our recent blog post, “What is A Grief Box”

Where to find Stillborn Grief Support:

  • First Candle
    This nonprofit organization comprises parents, caregivers, researchers, and government, business, and community service groups that are working together to advance infant health and survival. The Grieving Families page provides resources for families who are grieving from the loss of a baby, including a grief counseling phone line.
  • The Compassionate Friends
    The Compassionate Friends is a support organization of and for families who have lost a child.
  • Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support, Inc.
    This organization supports families who are grieving the loss of an infant or a pregnancy.
  • International Stillbirth Alliance
    This organization promotes and supports research on stillbirth and works to develop methods to prevent stillbirth. The Resources  page provides information about support services, memory-making, advocacy, and other resources for bereaved parents.
  • Empty Cradle

Southern California Organization dedicated to supporting, educating and remembering infant loss.

  • Breaking the Silence of Stillbirth
    In this post on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, one mother tells her story of stillbirth and advocates more conversation about this common problem.
  • Stillbirths: Breaking the Silence of a Hidden Grief
    This editorial in the medical journal The Lancet shares the stories of parents who have experienced the loss of a child through stillbirth and talks about the importance of bereavement support and prevention efforts. (Access to the article is free, but readers must create a login and password.)
  • Star Legacy Foundation
    This organization supports stillbirth research and education and offers resources for parents who have lost a baby, as well as their family members and friends.

For those of you experiencing loss, give yourselves space and time for healing.

Find layers of support, infant loss is a journey like non-other, it’s devastating and surreal. You are not alone.

When Kellan was all dressed in his mothers arms, he was perfect, his sweet little face, tiny lips, he had his older brother’s sleeper on. I felt like I could see him breathing out of the corner of my eye. Like any moment he could startle, breathe, root or cry. I remember the duality of emotions when his mom was discharged from the hospital, she was going home without her baby, and her baby would be cremated. I imagine she almost didn’t want to leave, but at the same time felt relief for the next step of her process to begin. She had an understanding; she had to move through and move on, but she knew the journey ahead was a dark one full of layers of grief, guilt, anger and depression.

We are approaching four years since Kellan was born sleeping, and I am reminded of him often. When I support families through a loss, when the california poppies begin to bloom in spring and in the fall, when orange pumpkins line the streets and stores. Kellan is always around and I am forever grateful for him and for his family. It is with the families permission that I share the story of their son Kellan.

So much love,

Josie Petrich, License Midwife, Co-Founder of Box For Loss