Making bereaved parents’ voices count at the Stillbirth Roundtable

On Tuesday 12 February the Government will convene a round table to address the rate of stillbirth in Australia, following recommendations made in the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education’s 2018 report.

In collaboration with clinicians, researchers and advocacy groups, the round table work to develop a National Action Plan to set funding priorities and decide how those recommendations will be implemented.

Sands Australia CEO, Ms Jackie Mead, says it’s crucial the voices of those who’ve actually experienced stillbirth are considered when decisions about the future of education, counselling, research and clinical care are being made.

“There’s no doubt that research to minimise preventable stillbirth is paramount, but we must not forget to address the needs of the 143 families whose babies will be stillborn as each month of 2019 passes as well as the many thousands who’ve already experienced the tragedy of going home from the hospital without their baby,” said Ms Mead.

“Significant investment is required to support bereaved parents who are experiencing stillbirth now.”

In a recent survey of over 1000 parents who’ve experienced stillbirth, Sands found that respondents overwhelmingly identified grief education, acute bereavement care and practical assistance returning to ‘normal’ life as the key priorities that would make a difference to their experience.

Sands currently provides training and professional development opportunities to health care workers in the principles of best practice bereavement care in maternity settings, but Ms Mead says we need to raise the bar once more.

“We know that bereaved parents support needs don’t end when they walk out of the hospital doors,” said Ms Mead. “They’re ongoing – sometimes for a very long time and there is currently a real gap in services bridging that hospital to home divide.”

One of the major milestones for which bereaved parents seek Sands’ support is returning to work after the death of their baby.

“There is a real opportunity for Sands to provide parents and their employers with greater support when returning to work through the provision of workplace education and support programs.”

"At work I needed help communicating to colleagues and clients on how to ‘be’ around me and how to talk to me,” said one respondent, echoing calls from more than half of the total number of respondents for more flexible work practices.

“Whilst the statutory right to equal leave provisions for parents affected by stillbirth is crucial, it’s not just how much time they are able to take off work that makes a difference but the work practices and culture that support their eventual return to the workplace,” said Ms Mead.

Melbourne mum, Margaret Polacska, describes returning to work after the death of her baby son, Noah, as “difficult”.

“Although my manager and colleagues were very supportive, facing people around my workplace who had known I was pregnant and didn’t know my baby had died caused me great anxiety. I knew I would be potentially asked how my baby was.”

Margaret said her employer’s willingness to provide her as much flexibility as possible made a huge difference in reducing her stress.

“For example, focusing on the task at hand at times was almost impossible.” she said. “I had to run a writing workshop a few weeks after returning to work and my brain was unable to think more than 5 minutes ahead. It was extremely challenging to do tasks that previously were second nature. I needed to adapt to take this into account and my employer’s expectations therefore had to adapt too.”

Recognition of the long-term impact Noah’s death would have on Margaret’s life has been an important deciding factor in her employment choices as time has gone on, too.

“There’s no time limit on grief,” she said. “Each year, for example, I take leave on the day of the anniversary of when my son was stillborn. It’s just as important for workplaces to recognise that bereaved parents require time off work for milestone days even years later, because these days are so emotional.”