The Harmful Effects of Protect-and-Direct Bereavement Care

There are many reasons to avoid protecting and directing grieving parents.

Posted Mar 09, 2020

When we offer support to bereaved parents, we are guided by our ideas about parental bonding, death, dead bodies, grief, and adjustment. Unfortunately, many popular ideas are contrary to the actual experiences of bereaved parents. And when these ideas prompt us to “protect and direct” parents, we end up offering the opposite of what parents actually want and need.

But isn’t protection from pain valuable? And aren’t parents lost and bewildered and in need of direction? Particularly if your culture values keeping a stiff upper lip, emphasizes looking on the bright side, or insists on trusting medical practitioners to “know best” or take charge, you’ll naturally assume that “protect and direct” is the correct method—as well as a kindness.

In fact, “protect and direct” is harmful. Why? Primarily because protecting and directing puts us in charge of the parent’s journey, assigning us the roles of

  • empathizing
  • judging how they are doing, and
  • fixing what we deem too painful or wrong with their coping skills

But isn’t that our job? Unfortunately, when we empathize, judge, and fix, we are actually taking over, which violates healthy boundaries, robs parents of their power, and increases suffering. Indeed, when we protect and direct, we inadvertently

  • dismiss parents’ harsh realities
  • discount their profound grief
  • undermine their competence, and
  • isolate them

None of which supports their ability to cope.

Listed below are 10 common examples of protect-and-direct actions and the harmful effects on parents. Among the actions, note the themes of protecting parents from pain and directing them toward “moving on.” Among the effects, note the themes of parents feeling dismissed, misunderstood, undermined, abandoned, alone, crazy, and judged. While these effects are never your intent, these are the actual results of protect-and-direct bereavement care.

  • Don't bring up their baby’s death.  Effects: When we don't broach this topic, we are trying not to trigger grief. But we are actually demonstrating that we are not a reliable source of emotional or spiritual support. Avoiding this topic, especially when parents are in the thick of grief, can make parents feel incredibly abandoned and isolated.
  • Employ softer language such as loss, passed, and angel.  Effects: When we talk in euphemisms, we are being elusive and inaccurate, which ignores the reality and gravity of their baby’s death. As a result, many parents feel angry that the truth is being skirted, and/or feel judged for being so profoundly distressed over something treated as slight as “a loss” or as blessed as “an angel.”
  • Use clinical terms such as the pregnancy, blighted ovum, fetus, or products of conception so as not to conjure up "a baby."  Effects:  Especially when you hear the parent refer to “my baby” and/or uses their baby’s name, these clinical terms are impersonal and insulting. When we avoid the term “baby” or the baby’s name, we are redefining or rejecting their baby’s existence and importance.
  • Be careful about parents spending time with their dying or dead baby.  Effects: Any worry or hesitance often translates into asking parents “yes or no” questions, such as whether or not they want to see their baby. Unfortunately, parents are likely to reply, “No,” which is a typical reaction during times of tragedy and shock. Then, if we insist they see their baby, we are taking over. Either strategy is likely to result in parents feeling unsupported, controlled, and regretful. Plus, any underlying hesitance to simply place their baby into their arms or into their view can imply that spending time with the baby is frightening or disgusting, rather than a natural event that follows birth.
  • Take parents through a protocol of activities during the time they spend with their baby. Effects: Protocols have their place, but when it comes to emotional/spiritual components of care, one size never fits all. Focusing on planned activities can also be another expression of hesitance or worry around parents spending time with their baby. Or the institution may require it. But when we provide the agenda, we are robbing parents of agency and a clear sense of themselves as The Parents. Plus, instead of trusting parents to determine what’s meaningful for themselves, we may be pushing activities, mementos, and timeframes that are meaningless. This is a waste of precious time and opportunities.
  • Don't let parents spend too much time with their baby; remove their baby sooner rather than later. Effects: Rushing is yet another expression of discomfort, often exacerbated when parents are intensely emotional. And by taking away their baby, we are discounting the depth of their parental bond, cutting short the precious moments they can experience, and denying their right to determine how, when, and where to spend with their little one. We are also robbing them of the comfort of grieving while still in their baby’s presence.
  • Cover up the parts of the baby's body that are underdeveloped, deformed, or deteriorated. Effects: When we are hesitant about parents seeing their baby’s body, we relay the message that their baby’s appearance is unacceptable, shameful, icky, or scary. We are also robbing parents of the opportunity to look at their baby through eyes of love and pride. And we deny them the chance to meet and know their baby more fully.
  • Don't burden parents by inquiring about their baby or their journey. Effects:  Even when you intend to keep parents from dwelling on their painful memories or grief, they'll do that anyway as part of the natural process of adjusting and coming to terms with their baby's death. When we don't inquire, that's when we burden parents, as we're isolating them and conveying the message that their memories, thoughts, and feelings are off-limits. We also deny parents the chance to talk about the joys they experienced as parents to this baby during pregnancy or after birth, or the growth and epiphanies they experience as they grieve. As a result, parents feel ignored and abandoned around this pivotal experience in their lives. 
  • Encourage parents to buck up and “be strong.”  Effects:  We may tell them, “Aww, don’t cry,” or “It’s meant to be.” But we are merely disconnecting from them and their grief, and judging them, either as “falling apart” or “emotionally weak” or seeing them as “failing to accept” or “not having faith.” This can make parents feel alone, misunderstood, and crazy for grieving deeply or for months on end.
  • Offer silver linings such as: “You’re young, you can have another” or “It’s a blessing in disguise.” Effects: These platitudes try to "fix" parents or their grief by pushing them to “feel better.” But wanting them to "be over it, already" is another way to disconnect from parents and their grief. Plus, parents can only discover silver linings for themselves, when they are ready. Until then, platitudes can worry parents about being crazy for grieving so deeply or for “too long.” Platitudes can also elicit rage and make parents reluctant to confide in you, which only makes them feel even less supported.

This list could be entitled, “What Not To Do, and Why.”

Unfortunately, “protecting and directing” can be a longstanding, unconscious habit that is hard to break. How can you begin to change your practice? Turn to the next post to get started.