Why Are We Compelled to "Protect & Direct" Grieving Parents?

Uncover the core beliefs and assumptions that prompt us to protect and direct.

Posted Dec 09, 2019

The previous post looked at the power of our words when offering support to grieving parents, and the value of becoming mindful of our intentions. This post explores the commonly-held beliefs and assumptions that drive our urge to “protect and direct” bereaved parents.

After a baby dies during pregnancy, labor, or shortly after birth, bereaved parents can benefit from our support. Whether you are a professional caregiver or a concerned friend, you may feel the urge to “protect and direct,” as in, protect parents from emotional pain and direct them toward feeling better.

This urge can be strong, largely because it’s hard to witness parents in pain. Plus, “protect and direct” can seem like a sensible way to alleviate their suffering. But this approach is flawed because it is based on certain myths or narrow minded beliefs about bonding, death, and grief.

These five beliefs are especially common:

  1. Parental bonding develops mostly after the baby’s birth.
  2. Death is frightening; it should be hidden and avoided; it’s rude to talk about it.
  3. Dead bodies are germ-ridden and decompose quickly. 
  4. Expressing painful emotions is a sign of weakness or failure.
  5. Healthy adjustment entails focusing on hope, silver linings, and moving on.

If you subscribe to any of these beliefs, you are not alone. They are widely held, and even considered conventional wisdom by many. You may have been explicitly taught these ideas, or simply absorbed them from your family, society, media, or culture. These beliefs can be influential, shaping the assumptions you make about bereaved parents, what they experience, and what they should do.

Listed below are these five beliefs, along with the common assumptions they inspire. As you read through them, observe how your brain responds. Take note when you find yourself thinking, “That sounds right.” Or, “I never thought of it that way, but yes, that makes sense.” Or, “I agree.”

1: Parents bond with a baby mostly after birth.

Common assumptions:

  • When a baby dies before birth, to the parents, it never really lived.
  • It was just a miscarriage.
  • Parents won’t be affected much, because they never got to know this child or develop a bond.
  • They won’t feel much like “parents,” as they never really got to be parents to this child.
  • After birth, if parents spend too much time with their dead baby, they might become “too attached,” find it harder to say goodbye, and then grieve more deeply.

2 & 3: Death is scary; dead bodies are gross.

Common assumptions:

  • It’s better to not talk about death or dead bodies.
  • Viewing a dead body is just morbid.
  • Especially when a baby's body is underdeveloped, deformed, or deteriorated, parents will feel frightened, guilty, ashamed, or horrified by what they see.
  • Spending time with a dead baby can be dangerous due to contamination and rot.
  • An autopsy requires the body to be refrigerated in the morgue as soon as possible after death.

4 & 5: Wallowing in grief should be avoided; healthy adjustment entails hope, silver linings, and moving on without delay.

Common assumptions:

  • Parents shouldn’t dwell on a pregnancy that is over and done with. “Don’t cry over split milk.”
  • A baby’s death is easier to accept when it’s framed as “a blessing in disguise” or “God’s will.”
  • A good coping strategy is to look on the bright side and see the positives.
  • It’s best for parents to forget, move on, and have another baby.
  • When parents hold it together rather than falling apart with grief, they are being “strong.”

How many of these beliefs and assumptions do you have about bonding, death, and grief? And how might these ideas prompt you to “protect and direct” bereaved parents?

The next post takes a detailed look at how these core beliefs and assumptions translate into “protect and direct” practices.