Baby loss is a distressing, but not uncommon event. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage and in the UK, 15 babies die before, during or shortly after birth every day. You or a partner may have experienced a miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy or stillbirth; or perhaps a friend or colleague has gone through this. On your campus, it is likely that many students and staff have been affected.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in the US, with Baby Loss Awareness Week running from 9-15 October in the UK. Charities, organisations, parents and health care workers will come together to raise awareness of pregnancy loss. Now is a good time for individuals, university staff and leadership to consider whether they are offering support to those that need it – particularly if it is an issue that they have not previously sought help for or have ever considered.
What do you know about loss?
You may want to be helpful, but equally may not know much about pregnancy loss, particularly if you have not experienced it yourself. Charities such as The Miscarriage Association, Tommy’s, Sands and Antenatal Results and Choices are good places to start if you want to learn more. Their online resources provide information about the different kinds of loss, the care required and how to support people during and after their losses. They also provide training that is primarily aimed at health professionals, but could also be adapted for academics, supporting staff and students.
Breaking the silence – making loss awareness visible
Pregnancy loss is common, but not so commonplace that it can be ignored. People who have experienced loss have to process a range of emotions from fear and grief to anger and numbness. They often feel invisible or unable to ask for help, so creating spaces where this can happen is important.
You could do that with posters; emails to students or staff noting where support can be accessed; liaising with staff and student unions plus medical and counselling services that can offer support when required; and communicating that there are dedicated people within your department who are willing to discuss loss-related issues with those who need it.
Notifying colleagues about a loss
Reporting mechanisms need to be made clear so that anyone experiencing a loss can let others know if they are having medical appointments, treatment or aftercare that requires time off work. Needs will vary in terms of how much they want to disclose about their loss or related health care (some may not wish to reveal anything). Making it easy to have time for physical and mental health care is vital.
These guides provide more information for employers: Miscarriage in the workplace: a guide for employers and Information for employers: helping a bereaved parent return to work.
Remember that many staff who experience an early loss may not have told others of their pregnancy, and may subsequently struggle to report a loss. This may be a particular issue for staff on insecure contracts, people being bullied at work or students afraid of losing course places, who may avoid reporting for fear of reprisals.
Minority staff – those who are disabled, in same-sex relationships, or people of colour – may feel particularly excluded by the care and support that they receive after pregnancy loss. Aside from the situation having a negative impact on their mental health, their physical health may be compromised if they believe that they have to continue working through a loss or encounter unsympathetic colleagues.
People may not want to discuss much, but they may not want to have their loss ignored either. However, be mindful of offering platitudes – telling them that their loss was “for the best” or “God’s will” is highly distressing. If you have had a loss, what worked for you may not suit other people’s preferences or situations.
Increasingly, our workplaces are rightly being encouraged to be more baby-friendly, with facilities to express milk or crèches at conferences. It is time that we also make our working environments more baby loss friendly.
Petra Boynton is an agony aunt and social psychologist working in international health care. She has recently published the book Coping with pregnancy loss.