When parents receive a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis for their precious baby, their world changes drastically. Their focus shifts to research, in a desperate attempt to understand what is happening to their baby. These parents are now facing unimaginably painful and difficult decisions as well as on-going appointments with doctors and specialists. In between research, decision-making, and doctor's appointments, they are also trying to make the most of the limited time they will have with their child.
The months that follow a diagnosis are fraught with stress, worry, fear, and grief. As the weeks and months pass, the parents are acutely aware of impending labor and delivery. What should have been only a beginning will now be both a hello and a goodbye. There is no easy day for these parents during their carrying to term journey, and the grief they face during pregnancy is only compounded after the loss of their child.
These experiences alone are enough to overwhelm the parents. Now, imagine how overwhelming their lives are considering they are walking an impossible journey while also still being responsible for everyday life and work. Some days, it feels like an impossible feat to simply get out of bed in the morning which is why it is so important that families have a network of support around them as they navigate carrying to term and the bereavement period that follows.
As the employer of a parent facing a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis, I know that there is only so much you can do when it comes to job requirements and expectations. I am not asking that you give the parents paid leave for the entirety of the pregnancy and bereavement period. Rather, I am asking you to consider and implement the following strategies to help ease the transition back to work following the diagnosis and loss of their baby.
If you are not currently or have never been an employer of a person facing a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis or the loss of their baby, this insight is still helpful for you. After reading this post, I encourage you to consider putting some guidelines in place to ensure that, if the time comes when you do have an employee facing these experiences, you will be ready.
A supportive, open, and kind office environment has the power to shape how parents grieve, adjust to life after loss, and feel equipped to navigate the expectations of the work they do. These simple acts of support and empathy ease the transition back to work, thereby, helping parents do their job well despite the circumstances they have faced. Cared for people make engaged and productive employees, so not only do the following strategies benefit your employee, they benefit you and the work you all do.
Ask what the parents need
Often, the best way to prepare for supporting parents facing this type of loss is to go directly to the source. As the employer, I encourage you to reach out and ask what the parents need. There is no expectation that you should just know how to handle this type of situation. There is no expectation that you should fully understand what the parents are going through because you cannot fully know what you have not experienced for yourself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with contacting your employee directly to learn how to best support them as they return to work.
If your employee has made a point to inform you of the diagnosis and/or loss, I encourage you to specifically ask how you and their fellow co-workers can best care for them in the months ahead. Here are a few ideas of questions to ask:
- Do they want to inform their co-workers about the diagnosis and/or loss? If so, how do they want to approach it.
- It is perfectly acceptable and kind to offer to help them navigate or even handle informing the office, their department, or any co-workers about what is going on or what has happened.
- Do they want to talk about the diagnosis, their pregnancy, and/or their baby on an on-going basis?
- Not all parents will be open and willing to discuss details about their experience. Some parents find comfort in sharing while others process better internally. Do not simply assume that a parent will or will not want to discuss their baby. By asking this question, you are giving the parents permission to share their preferences and establish boundaries. Offer to help communicate these preferences and boundaries to anyone relevant in the office or provide them with the option to send an email to the office or their department addressing their experience.
- Do they need help navigating time off policies for appointments, personal days, and leave following diagnosis and/or loss?
- Be sure that your employee knows what is available to him or her in terms of vacation days, sick days, maternity or paternity leave, and bereavement leave.
- How can you make the transition back to work following delivery and loss easier for them?
- I encourage you to call or email a few days or a week before they are expected to return and check in. Ask if there is anything they need or you can do to help make their first day back at work less overwhelming.
These questions are a good start. Use them as a guide, and allow the conversation to inform you. Communicating with grieving parents can be incredible difficult to navigate. You may feel as though you do not know what to say or that you are saying the wrong things. These are normal feelings. I encourage you to lean into the discomfort and engage the parents with open, empathetic, and genuine communication.
A good rule of thumb is to always use the name(s) of the baby or babies. If you do not know the name, refer to the baby by "he" or "she." Always avoid referring to the baby as "it." Be careful about prying question that might imply blame. Avoid clichés, platitudes, overly simplistic religious statements, or talk of future pregnancies. For more information on how to communicate well with grieving parents, read out post found here.
If you have followed the first strategy of asking the parents what they need, you are well on your way to implementing this second strategy of being prepared. The first place to go for information about how to care well for your employee is the employee themselves. Second to that, I encourage you to spend some time doing a little research.
If your employee has shared with you the diagnosis they have received for their baby, I encourage you to do some reading on what the diagnosis means. You do not have to become an expert, and I absolutely encourage you to honor your own capacity, emotions, and boundaries. I simply encourage you to do some research to gain insight into what this experience might be like for your employee. I also believe that doing some reading can spare your employee from bearing the responsibility of educating you on the diagnosis and decisions to be made. It can be emotionally and mentally draining for parents to answer questions or tell the story in detail over and over again.
By reading, providing that information to your other employees, or encouraging them to read on their own, you are showing the grieving parents that you care and want to be informed on what is happening in their lives. The biggest caveat I will give you when it comes to doing your own research is to avoid the temptation to share your research, articles, or advice with the grieving parents. Trust me, they are already overwhelmed with the information they have read themselves or have been given by their many doctors and specialists.
If your employee has not given you the specific diagnosis, you can still do some reading on what it is like to carry a pregnancy to term despite a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis as well as what they will be facing after the loss. Our Carrying To Term blog has an entire section of posts dedicated to parents, which you can find here. These posts cover aspects of this journey from the day of diagnosis through the bereavement period that follows the baby's death. We also have a section of posts dedicated to informing and equipping the parents' network of support, which you can find here. These posts will serve to help you understand how to care well for your employees in the hardest experiences of their lives.
I also encourage you to reach out to experts to help you understand and navigate this experience with your employee. Your Human Resources department is a valuable source of information and insight. Reach out and involve them. If your place of employment does not have a Human Resources department, seek out administration, licensed counselors, or other relevant personnel to help you.
In addition to reaching out to relevant personnel, I also encourage you to contact organizations like Carrying To Term who have extensive personal and professional experience in this area. We are here to answer your questions, provide resources, and be a sounding board as you support your employees. You can reach me directly here.
Finally, be prepared for unexpected emotions that may or may not make sense to you. Parents walking through this process will experience a wide range of emotions, often when they least expect them. The world after a loss of this magnitude is full of triggers- or memories, emotions, or even flashbacks that bring you back, mentally and emotionally, to the moment of diagnosis, loss, or intense feelings of grief.
Coming back to work can be a trigger itself. Be prepared for your employee to exhibit a range of emotions as they navigate this transition. It is important to know that triggers are beyond the control of the person experiencing them. They cannot just ignore it, move past it, or react differently to it. This is a process that takes time, so please be prepared for it and practice patience as your employees navigate their grief.
The strategy of being flexible may or may not be possible to the same extent in every workplace. I am not asking you to disregard policies, make inordinate exceptions, or put more work on the parents' co-workers. When I say, "be flexible," I mean whenever and however possible. If your workplace currently has nothing in place to accommodate bereaved parents, I strongly suggest reviewing those policies and putting some infrastructure in place to support bereaved parents.
When it comes to being flexible, here are some suggestions:
- Offer your employee, without expectation or judgment, the freedom to cut their leave short.
- Some grieving parents find that a sense of normalcy, like work, helps them process what is happening, establish a sense of balance, and give them a break from the realities of their experiences. It is important to express that you do not expect or require them to cut their leave short. You will not think less of them or fire them if they choose to take the full allotted leave time. Some parents may feel they need your permission to return back to work if they feel ready before their original scheduled return date.
- When it comes time for your employee to return to work, offer, where possible, a gradual return.
- A gradual return can take two forms. One, you could offer your employee the option to return on a part-time basis, at first, for an agreed upon time. Two, you could offer your employee the option of returning for one or two days the first week, and then gradually increasing the days until they have adapted to being back for full work weeks. Not all parents will want this option, but by offering it, you are demonstrating to your employee that you support them and want their transition back to be as easy as possible.
- When possible, consider starting your employee back with a lessened workload.
- Similar to a gradual return, stagger the workload by having your employee resume their full job responsibilities over time. This allows your employee time to adjust to being back at work and focused on something other than what they have been through and who they have lost.
- Allow your employee the freedom to come in late, leave early, or take extra breaks on hard days.
- There will be good days and bad days on this journey, so try to adapt if your employee needs more understanding on some days. A day might start out strong and focused, but a trigger or wave of grief may mean that the parent cannot make it through the rest of the day. This is particularly true on important dates like due dates, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays.
It is important to understand that not every bereaved parent will need this type of flexibility from their workplace. Most parents will not need all of these suggestions. I am encouraging you to simply offer these options without expectation or judgment. Understand if they refuse your offer, and make a point to let them know that these options are available to them if something changes.
While there is no timeline for grief and every single parent will grieve differently, I am not suggested that you offer these flexibilities indefinitely. I cannot give you a standard time frame. What I encourage you to do is create an open and empathetic dialogue with your employee, so that you can discuss their changing needs as time progresses. Only you and your employee can determine which strategies they will need and how long they will need them.
Be sensitive and empathetic
By taking the time to ask what the parents need, doing some research to inform and prepare yourself, and being flexible, you have already demonstrated sensitivity and empathy. You have laid the foundation for a work environment that is supportive, understanding, and sensitive to the unique needs of carrying to term parents. There are a few other ways that you and your employees and co-workers can continue to be sensitive and empathetic when a bereaved parent returns to work:
- Consider appointing a Human Resources liaison to help facilitate the transition.
- This HR employee would be beneficial as a point of contact for the parent as they manage the transition and their grief. This HR employee would also be beneficial for your other employees and co-workers as they navigate their own emotions, fears, and communication about and with the bereaved parent. Consider having this HR employee offer a brief training to your employees on sensitivity, grief, and loss before your employee returns to work. Allow the co-workers time to express their own feelings and ask questions in a safe environment.
- Make a point to validate the bereaved parents' emotions if they show them in the workplace.
- As I mentioned earlier, bereaved parents will experience a range of emotions from diagnosis through life after loss. Sometimes, their grief will manifest in public tears. Crying can be an incredibly uncomfortable experience for both the bereaved parent and the co-worker witnessing the emotion. It is important to validate that tears are a normal experience of a love and loss of this magnitude. There should be no shame felt or given when a bereaved parent expresses their grief in this way. As the witness to the emotion, you do not need to change the subject, try to alter their emotions, fix the situation, or say something perfectly. The best gift you can give to parents in these moments is your support and validation, whether verbal or non-verbal.
- Seek to know your employee and respect their boundaries and preferences.
- For some parents, work is an escape. They need this time to simply put their head down and focus on something other than their experiences and feelings. For others, they will want to talk, share, or have their child remembered. It is important to know the parents' preferences and boundaries while also honoring the capacity of you and your other employees and co-workers.
- Remember that your employee's world has been turned upside.
- They are in transition. They are relearning themselves as well as what matters the most to them. It is not uncommon for bereaved parents to have a changed view of priorities, sense of urgency, or ability to focus. The most precious thing in the world to them has or is going to die. That changes everything. Give your employee time and understanding as they navigate balancing work, which may seem insignificant in light of what they are facing.
- Honor a bereaved mother's right to pump.
- Some grieving mothers choose to pump and donate breast milk as a part of the legacy they are creating for their baby. Bereaved mothers should be afforded the same rights that non-bereaved breastfeeding mothers are given in your workplace. Just because a woman's child died does not mean that her body stopped producing breast milk. This can be an emotionally devastating experience for women, so be sensitive to mothers who opt to honor their baby by the selfless act of pumping and donating breast milk.
- Offer tangible support.
- As a team, consider sending something in acknowledgement of the diagnosis and/or loss. Consider doing the same when the parents prepare to return to work. Something as simple as sending flowers or putting their favorite snack and a card on their desk as a "welcome back" gift is incredibly powerful and supportive. For more information about how to support grieving parents, read out post found here. For more information on giving acknowledgement gifts and keepsakes, read our post found here.
This list is in no way exhaustive. These are simply suggestions and strategies shared with the intention of easing the transition back to work for everyone involved. It is my hope that everyone feels equipped to navigate this aspect of a parent's carrying to term and infant loss journey.
I can imagine that this might feel like a lofty ask of you as an employer. I can understand why you might feel that way. I want to encourage you to take a moment and just process this information. You do not have to implement every single suggestion at one time. This is a guide meant to help and encourage you.
What you may not understand is that the world often uses returning to work as a benchmark in grief. Many falsely assume that by the time a bereaved parent returns to work, they are (or are expected to be) done grieving. The reality is that returning to work often comes far earlier in the grieving process than many parents are ready for. It can be a terrifying and emotional experience.
You have the power to ease this fear and weight for parents who have already experienced so much. These simple and easy to implement strategies cost you virtually nothing, and they have incredible impact on the lives of the parents.