How Certain Thoughts Translate to "Protect & Direct" Actions

Looking at why we do what we do when we protect and direct bereaved parents.

Posted Dec 24, 2019

The previous post outlined the common beliefs and assumptions that drive our urge to “protect and direct” grieving parents. This post explores how these beliefs and assumptions translate into specific ways of offering support.

Whether as a professional or a friend, when you offer support to parents whose baby has died, your efforts are guided by your beliefs and assumptions about what the parents are going through and what is best for them. Your thoughts translate into actions. Becoming aware of how you think about this type of bereavement can help you understand why you do what you do—for better or worse.

Listed below are a dozen commonly accepted thoughts about parental bonding, death, dead bodies, grief, and adjustment, followed by the common “protect” or “direct” actions they inspire. Some obviously apply to professionals; others can apply to everyone who offers support. See if any resonate as true for you.

Thought: "The topic of death is best avoided."     

Action: Protect parents by not talking about it, or at least softening hard truths with euphemisms like “loss” and “passed” and “angel.”

Thought: "It’s just a miscarriage." Or, "the parents haven’t yet envisioned a beloved baby."      

Action: Protect parents by using impersonal or medical terms, such as “the pregnancy,” “it,” “blighted ovum,” “fetus,” or “products of conception.”

Thought: "Parents who spend too much time with their babies will get too attached and grieve more deeply."     

Action: Limit the time parents spend with their baby; hastily remove the body.

Thought: "Parents will be frightened or disgusted by their baby’s dead body."     

Action: Protect parents by removing the baby from view before talking to them about seeing their baby.

Thought: "Parents will be horrified by a less-than-perfect baby."      

Action: Protect parents by covering up parts of the baby's body that are underdeveloped, deformed, or deteriorated. 

Thought: "Distressed parents can't make good decisions." 

Action: Direct parents by encouraging them to at least see the baby, telling them they'll likely regret it if they don't.

Thought: "Bereaved parents aren’t really full-fledged parents. They don't know what to do."     

Action: Direct parents by busily running them through a protocol of activities during the time they spend with their little one.

Thought: "Dead bodies are full of germs."     

Action: Direct parents by urging them to say goodbye to their baby as soon as possible.

Thought: "Dead bodies decompose at a rapid rate."      

Action: Direct parents to relinquish the body to the morgue or funeral home sooner rather than later.

Thought: "Parents shouldn’t dwell on their baby."      

Action: Protect parents by not using their baby’s given name and refrain from asking them what happened or how they’re really doing.

Thought: "It's counterproductive for parents to be 'too emotional' or to fall apart."      

Action: Direct parents to buck up and remember, “It’s for the best,” or “It’s God’s will.”

Thought: "It's a kindness to offer hope and silver linings."       

Action: Direct parents to “feel better” by offering them platitudes like, “You’re young; you can have another.” Or, “It’s a blessing in disguise.”

Notice the overarching themes: When we think "a baby's death is insignificant," or "parents don't know what to do," or "parents shouldn't suffer," we become intent on protecting and directing by (a) not making a big deal about it, (b) limiting their exposure to the baby, (c) telling them what to do, and (d) encouraging them to move on.

Unfortunately, parents report that “protect and direct” practices do far more harm than good. Interestingly, parents are often surprised by this observation, because before their babies died, they protected and directed the bereaved parents they encountered. But after their babies die, parents realize that “protect and direct” is not therapeutic support.

Why isn't “protect and direct” beneficial to parents? Well, remember those ideas—the common beliefs and assumptions—that drive this approach? Bereaved parents report that these ideas are off-base, not even remotely describing their actual experiences, desires, or needs.

So when we offer support inspired by these ideas, we are essentially using myths and misinformation to guide our interactions and interventions with parents. Indeed, because all those ideas are the exact opposite of what parents are actually experiencing, this means that “protect and direct” is the exact opposite of what parents actually want and need.

The next post looks at specifically why “protect and direct” bothers parents and the particular harm it does.