My Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine has experienced the loss of a child. What do I do?
As a supervisor, the most important thing you can do when supporting a military member after the loss of a child is to understand that this loss is significant. Regardless of whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned, and regardless of the length of gestation, your military member has lost so much more than a pregnancy; they have lost an entire human being.
Learn About Child Loss & Grief…
In addition to reading the blog post linked above, it is important to read other blogs and books, and even talk to other families you know who have experienced this loss. They will be able to provide context to educate you on the enormity of the grief.
…But follow the grieving person’s lead
An ancillary and equally important part of this same conversation is to understand that different people will experience and respond to the same things differently. This means that while there will be generalizations you can make from your research (and some generalizations will be presented here), it is important to understand that every family is going to have different preferences. Above all, follow the preferences expressed by the family in front of you.
Some specific actions you can do in the early days to support a military member after the loss of a child:
Call, text, and visit
Grief is hard, and one of the things that helps the most is having a supportive community. Especially in the early days, please call, text, and visit your military member often. You may not always know what to say, and that’s okay; your presence alone speaks volumes. There are also some tips, below:
Call – Phone conversations are sometimes awkward for the bereaved. Call anyway. If your military member doesn’t seem interested in talking, it’s okay to keep conversations short. Follow up with texts or visits.
Text – Texting is easiest for many. You can use text to say, “I’m thinking of you.” You can also use text to offer practical assistance like food delivery or to arrange times to visit. Understand when texting that your military member may not have their phone handy 24/7, and/or may not feel up to responding right away. Allow grace in response times, and be okay with minimal or non-responses.
Visit – Please visit your military member during their time in the hospital or at home, and attend the funeral if invited. Visits can be short stops to drop off food or other necessities. They can also include longer conversations. Follow your military member’s lead.
When you visit, do everything possible to take the burden off of your military member as a host. Understand the home may be messy. If you brought food or groceries, ask if you can put everything away. If it feels appropriate, offer assistance with small chores like dishes or taking out the trash.
Please also ask to see photos of the child, and/or ask to see the child’s nursery or space. Your military member will likely be thankful to be able to talk about them.
If you have gifts that were prepared prior to the child’s death, it is okay to bring them with you! These gifts are signs the child was loved; the parents will likely still want them.
Related: Write Your Grief: Baby Things
While it may seem counter-intuitive, do not offer assistance with packing or donating the child’s things. Many bereaved families will want to do this on their own. If you offer, they will feel pressure to do this before they are ready.
Deconfliction of visits – If you work in a large organization, you may be worried about overwhelming your military member during this stressful time. It is okay to deconflict your visits with other members in the office, but please use caution—if your military member turns down one visit, please don’t assume they don’t want any. Unless they have said otherwise, please continue to offer visits regardless of past reception.
Bring food & offer other practical assistance for your military member
In the early days of grief, time passes oddly. Grieving parents may busy themselves with housework or yardwork, or they may stay in bed for days or weeks. They may also start a new chore or project, and then quickly run out of energy. Regardless of their intentions, please understand that grief is often draining, and one of the best things you can do in the early days is to offer practical assistance.
Bring food and/or arrange food delivery – If you visit, offer to bring food with you. Take-out is generally a good option, with enough for leftovers. You can also bring ready-to-eat groceries like packaged meals and salads, and pre-portioned snacks. Think of things that are easy to open and eat without preparation. Also remember to take into account any dietary preferences of your military member or their family. If you aren’t able to physically bring food, offer gift certificates to services like Door Dash or Uber Eats.
Childcare – If your military member has other small children in the home, they may welcome the offer of childcare for a few hours during the day. Depending on the age(s) of the child(ren), they may be overwhelmed or confused with the emotions and different levels of activity at home. Offer to take them to the park or even just to spend some time reading and playing with them at home so the parents can take care of other matters.
Chores around the house – Yardwork, housecleaning, laundry and dishes can quickly become overwhelming. Even going outside to collect the mail or pull the trash cans in from the curb can be difficult in the beginning. Offer to help, and/or offer to send a professional service to do things like housecleaning. If they aren’t sure what or when they need assistance, then keep offering, or provide an open-ended gift certificate.
Practical assistance for other things – There are often other items where the bereaved family could use help. Depending on the length of the pregnancy, they may need someone to cancel maternity photos, or to go through email and snail mail and unsubscribe from baby-related advertisements. They may also need help planning or making arrangements for the funeral. Let them know you are available for these things.
As a reminder, please do not offer assistance with packing or donating the child’s things. But if you have shown yourself available in other ways, the parents may ask you for help there when they are ready.
Connect your Military Member with Military-Specific Resources related to the Loss of a Child
Something that is not widely-known in the military community is that there are military resources available to support parents after the loss of a child. Not only counseling or chaplaincy, but financial resources too. This is a good time to involve your unit’s First Sergeant, and ensure your military member is aware of everything available to them.
Options for Counseling Services – Military members may be reluctant to seek the support of behavioral health, or they may find it difficult to make that first connection. If so, offer your assistance in making that first appointment for them. You can also let your military member know about other options for counseling, including Military and Family Life Counseling (MFLC) through Military One Source, community support groups, and religious or secular support available through the chaplain. Finally, if your military member is interested in formal counseling but would like to speak to someone who specializes in child loss or grief, help them to coordinate an off-base referral.
Casualty Assistance – One of the little-known services available to military members is the transportation of the remains of their family members from the hospital to the funeral home or mortuary. Casualty assistance can coordinate the transportation directly, or they can reimburse the member for transportation-related expenses. Casualty assistance will also handle the initial paperwork for the FSGLI.
FSGLI – Another little-known benefit of military service is that if the military member has elected for coverage under the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI) policy, the policy will automatically include coverage for a fetus once pregnancy has reached 20 weeks gestation. Coverage is in the amount of $10,000. While it may feel uncomfortable for bereaved parents to discuss initially, these funds can be useful when planning and paying for the child’s funeral. Many parents find comfort in donating the remaining funds to charity or to using the funds for something that honors their child.
Related: Resources Blog: Planning a Funeral for Your Infant Child
Related: Resources Blog: Ways to Honor Your Child
External resource: FSGLI for Stillborn Children (Military.com)
Chapel/Chaplain Resources for the Funeral – Your military member may have strong preferences regarding their child’s funeral or they may be open to suggestions. Please ensure they are aware of the option to use the base chaplain and chapel for the funeral, should they desire.
Funeral Details – If your military member would like to invite coworkers to the funeral, please offer to facilitate invitations. Also offer assistance with logistical items such as food, programs, or transportation for family members traveling from out of town.
Coordinate time off – It is important to understand that regardless of the length of gestation, the pregnant parent will experience many or all of the physical aspects of being postpartum. If the pregnant parent is the military member, please ensure they are approved for the appropriate amount of convalescent leave.
Related: Physical Body After Loss
For both parents, please ensure they are able to take sufficient time off of work for grieving. Specific policies regarding grief and parental leave are currently varied across the services, but parents will often want and need the full term of normal parental leave following the death of their child. If your service policy feels insufficient, work with your commander to get your military member the time off that they need.
Things to do in the Office or Workcenter after your Military Member loses a Child
It is natural to celebrate the impending arrival of a child in military units. Units often schedule baby showers, and expecting parents often post ultrasound photos or even games to guess the child’s weight and birth date.
Unfortunately, there is an assumption that once a child has died, he or she should never be mentioned again. While you should absolutely work with your military member to determine their preferences, many bereaved parents do not want to pretend their child never existed.
Work with your military member on how best to communicate the loss – If your military member was early in their pregnancy, they may want to keep the news quiet, or they may want the workcenter to know why they are sad. Please ask. If your military member was later in their pregnancy, particularly if they were wearing a maternity uniform or discussing the coming child, they will likely want you tell everyone. In this case, please work with the member on who to tell and the specific wording to use. Remember that if your unit shares space with other units, it may be wise to ensure the information is communicated to all personnel in the vicinity, and to customers and vendors as well.
Encourage calls and visits according to the military member’s preferences – Many military units will designate a single POC to call and visit the grieving family. Please don’t do this. Unless your military member has requested to be left alone, ensure all unit members are aware of the preferred means of contact and allowed to call and visit as appropriate. You may deconflict calls and visits and offers of food and assistance, but please do not limit them unless the member has requested you to do so.
Your military member’s workspace – If your military member has a designated workspace, leave things as they were when your member last left work. Ultrasound photos may feel sad or depressing to members who remain in the space, but removing them without permission may be hurtful. If you are worried about the impact of these things when your military member returns to work, wait until they are closer to their return date and ask what they would prefer.
When your Military Member Returns to Work after the Loss of a Child
The biggest thing to understand about any type of loss or grief is that grief is permanent. Especially with the loss of a close family member like a child, your military member is likely going to be permanently changed. These are some things to remember and accommodate as they return to work.
Offer a new schedule or routine – Sometimes after trauma, things need to change. This could be as simple as a new desk or new schedule, or as major as a change in job or unit of assignment. Please ask your military member what they would prefer. Also ensure you build time into your military member’s schedule for medical appointments, to include time for support groups and therapy. These things are essential to mental health and recovery.
In general, unless they have requested it, avoid separating your military member from their support network. Also whenever possible, avoid separating spouses through deployments or TDYs.
Understand & account for the postpartum experience – If your military member was the pregnant parent, understand they are likely experiencing many or all of the physical aspects of being post-partum. Do not expect them to return to full physical activities immediately. Understand also they will likely need time to return to service weight standards. Please ensure they have all the necessary paperwork and exemptions. Finally, be aware that some women may choose to express and donate their milk after loss. In these cases, please provide a private area for pumping.
Understand & account for personality & performance changes – One of the hardest parts about returning to work after loss is that one’s personality and performance have often changed. It is important to recognize that your military member is likely still actively grieving, and even if they want to be at work, they are likely going to perform more slowly and make mistakes. Please understand this is normal.
If possible, work with your admin section to avoid penalizing your military member for lower levels of performance during this time. The Air Force has implemented non-rated periods if a Commander has determined “an Airman is undergoing or has undergone personal hardships during the reporting period” (AFI 36-2406, paragraph 22.214.171.124). Airmen also have the option of writing a letter to the board to discuss the background behind such non-rated periods if they believe the designation will impact the future of their career. It is worth looking into the options for other services as well.
On the emotional front, please ensure you are informed on the many aspects and expressions of grief. Understand that grief is a full-spectrum experience, but not necessarily full-time; it is likely your military member will still smile, laugh, and even enjoy pieces of their day. This does not mean they are now “okay.” Please allow them to experience all of these feelings without pressure to be permanently okay.
Use Caution about Other Babies – If there is a new pregnancy announced in the workcenter, please ensure your military member is aware of it ahead of time. Hearing these things in the moment can trigger painful feelings. Also use caution if any other members will be bringing in newborn or younger children into the workplace for a visit.
Embrace discomfort – Grief is awkward, and we often feel uncomfortable or don’t know what to say. Acknowledge that discomfort, embrace it, and move forward anyway.
Speaking about the child – Understand and remember that the child is real human being. Ask for and refer to him or her by name. Remember that regardless of length of gestation, your military member is still and will always be a parent.
Use Caution with Unsolicited Comments and Advice – It is natural when faced with trauma or loss to want to offer words of comfort. Please use caution here. Military members often hold different feelings about these things. Unless your military member has voiced a particular sentiment first, please do not offer potentially divisive comments such as, “Everything happens for a reason” or phrases starting with “at least”. It is also important not to offer religious sentiments without invitation. This includes unsolicited prayer.
Avoid Questions about the Cause of Death or Subsequent Children – Questions about the cause of the miscarriage or death can feel especially invasive. Please do not ask about the cause of death unless your military member has mentioned it first. Also avoid asking if your military member will “try again” or try for a subsequent child; this implies that their child who died is replaceable. Finally, avoid any words to the effect that the miscarriage or loss will be easily overcome or is “no big deal”. Even if your military member goes on to recover quickly, hearing those words in the early days feels unsupportive and minimizing.
Keep checking in – Regardless of time or return to old levels of performance, understand that grief and loss never go entirely away. Birthdays and holidays may be especially difficult, particularly family-related holidays like Mothers and Fathers Day. Continue to check in with your military member on these days and even on “random days” throughout their time in your organization and beyond.
Resources for Friends & Family Supporting Loves Ones After the Loss of a Child
Miranda’s Blog: The Phone Call You Never Expect to Receive; Supporting a Loved One After the Loss of a Child
Resources Blog: Professional Organizations Supporting Bereaved Families
Additional Resources for Child Loss in the Military:
5 resources for military families dealing with infant loss (Milspousefest.com)
Family FSGLI Coverage; A Procedural Guide (va.gov)
FSGLI for Stillborn Children (Military.com)
Military and Family Life Counseling (Military One Source)
Postpartum Support International – Help for Military Families (please note these resources cover more than child loss; be specific when requesting assistance)
Sesame Street for Military Families – Grief
Star Legacy – Military Families
Star Legacy Information for Military Families Brochure
External Articles about Child Loss in the Military:
Things I Learned About Child Loss In The Military (Still Standing Magazine)
Forever Three: Facing the Loss of a Child as a Military Family
Losing a child when you’re enlisted by Michelle Moskiewicz USMC veteran