What do you say to a colleague coming back from maternity leave when their baby has died?

Article Seldon-Rosser-What do you say to a colleague coming back from maternity leave when their baby has died?

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month and, having experienced this myself, I want to contribute to breaking the taboo on this topic.

My son died shortly after birth at full term in 2016. I choose to come back to work 6 weeks later and it was tough. The timing meant that on my first day back I attended an industry conference and networking event – which meant I was able to make a lot of people aware of the situation at once. As a recruiter, there were diverse groups of people who knew I’d gone on mat leave and so it wasn’t as simple as having my manager tell the team.

Telling colleagues/clients about your loss is made harder by the fact that people will inevitably start the conversation with the excitement of “how was mat leave, how’s the baby?!”. It then falls to the bereaved parent to sensitively navigate each conversation allowing each person to receive and process the bad news.  It can feel like a burden on the shoulders of the person who is grieving – but it is possible to relieve some of that person’s burden by the way you react to a colleague in this position.

I have such empathy for the fact that most people don’t know what to say. I was in that position when this happened to a friend a few years earlier and I had no idea how to respond. It’s awkward. And I was terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing.

And so, ever the pragmatist, I thought it would be useful to share my insights as a bereaved parent into what you can do or say if a colleague’s baby dies.

It is important to say something, not nothing

“I’m sorry for your loss.” It’s so simple and often all that’s needed. Think about modelling how you would react if their parent had died (which wouldn’t feel awkward or difficult to navigate).

It is absolutely okay to say “I don’t know what to say” because that in itself is saying something. And for bereaved parents the taboo nature of what they’re going through means they are often just in need of acknowledgement of their loved one and of their grief.

If you want to empathise further – ask them what their baby was called, then tell them it’s a beautiful name (even if it’s not). All bereaved parents enjoy using their baby’s name and, whilst this may feel difficult or unnatural for you to ask, it is a gift to them and will bring a moment of genuine joy.  (My son was called Ivor John Redman – and that was a joy to write here.)

Part of the reason it’s so hard to know what to say is that there is a genuine risk of putting your foot in it.  And from speaking to other bereaved parents I’m aware that there is consensus around some lines I’d recommend you avoid: “I know how you feel”, “everything happens for a reason” and “you’re very strong”.

If you feel you have said the wrong thing, it’s actually easy to fix by just ‘calling it’ and apologising – your bereaved colleague will be grateful you cared enough to follow up / change tack in the conversation and will be happy to move on.

Allow them to be their professional selves and get on with the job

I found it would often come up at the start of a meeting and I would subtly need to reassure the room that it was okay to move the conversation forwards into work matters. For those of us lucky enough to enjoy our work, our professional lives can be a source of focus and comfort in tougher times. Whether your colleague has (hopefully) chosen to come back as they felt ready, or, financial or other drivers have forced the issue, chances are they just want to be allowed to get on with the job.

Share stories sensitively

In my experience of telling clients and candidates, some would be grateful of me moving the conversation on quickly, others would want to speak at length about both mine and their own experiences. Personally, I was very happy with either and valued each approach; it is my nature to be comfortable when the person I’m with is comfortable. I was grateful to those who felt able to share their own stories – they were comforting and they helped me to realise how common this actually is.

That said, from speaking to other professionals who are bereaved parents I know that we all react and experience this journey differently. And so, I’d recommend bringing your emotional intelligence to the interaction to assess how you’re being received.

It can be good to get ‘buy-in’ before launching into a deep discussion and sharing your own story – ‘do you want to talk about it or just move on?’; ‘something similar happened to me – I’d be happy to share it with you at some point if it would be helpful’ and see how your colleague responds.

What else can I do?

People can be unsure about whether gifts are appropriate – but anything that shows that you care will be well received.  I was very grateful of the community of people, personal and professional, who sent flowers and care packages. And the donation to an infant loss charity and planting of a tree, both in our baby’s name meant a lot. A couple of charities are at the bottom of this post for reference.

For closer colleagues you might ask them about their support network and ensure they have people around them who they can talk to. Perhaps they need one of their colleagues to really have their back right now at work, and perhaps that person could be you.

How do I manage a team member going through this?

Navigating the very first phone call with your team member sensitively is important.  As well as telling them you are sorry for their loss, you can also:

  • Ask them if you’re able to check in with them every few days to see how they are.
  • Make sure they know you and the team are covering their workload and they do not need to worry about work – until they choose and want to.
  • Ask them how and what they would like you to say to the business and their team.
  • Ask them what else they need from you.

Your team member may choose and need to take the same maternity leave period they had planned, or, they may ask to return to work quickly and appreciate the distraction; they may also appreciate a slower transition back to the workplace. They are entitled to do either and your HR team will advise you on this.  Either way, your team member will appreciate having their choice validated and supported by you.

When they get back, it is important to be guided by your team member about what they can take on – one person may appreciate you diverting some of their workload elsewhere, another individual would be upset by this, particularly if it happened without consultation (however well meant) – and so having an open, honest and respectful line of communication is key.

Your HR team will help you navigate this and your firm may offer services such as bereavement counselling.  One thing worth remembering is that your bereaved team member will commemorate their baby’s birthday / date of their passing and so be ready for a one-off leave day request each year – which they will be grateful if you quickly approve.

I’m hopeful that this article helps engender some understanding about what to do and say when a colleague’s baby dies.  Bereaved parents risk feeling somewhat like pariahs in society broadly as well as the workplace and it can feel like a real battle to reintegrate and be ‘accepted’ again. The more we talk about this issue and understand how to interact with each other when it happens, the easier and more comfortable it will be for us all.

Further information on this topic is available from:

Thanks for visiting our site. We’d love you to stay in touch. If you’re not ready for your next job, follow us on social media or sign up for our jobs & news so you can watch the market. When you’re ready, contact us for a confidential discussion about your next role.