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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Silent loss and the clinical encounter: Parents’ and physicians’ experiences of stillbirth–a qualitative analysis

Maureen C Kelley123* and Susan B Trinidad4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, USA

2 Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Seattle, USA

3 Treuman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, 1900 9th Avenue – C9 S6, Seattle, WA, 98101, USA

4 Department of Bioethics and Humanities, University of Washington School of Medicine, 1959 NE Pacific, Box 357120, Seattle, WA, 98195-7120, USA

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BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2012, 12:137  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-12-137

Published: 27 November 2012

Abstract

Background

In the United States, an estimated 70 stillbirths occur each day, on average 25,000 each year. Research into the prevalence and causes of stillbirth is ongoing, but meanwhile, many parents suffer this devastating loss, largely in silence, due to persistent stigma and taboo; and many health providers report feeling ill equipped to support grieving parents. Interventions to address bereavement after neonatal death are increasingly common in U.S. hospitals, and there is growing data on the nature of parent bereavement after a stillbirth. However, further research is needed to evaluate supportive interventions and to investigate the parent-clinician encounter during hospitalization following a stillbirth. Qualitative inquiry offers opportunities to better understand the lived experience of parents against the backdrop of clinicians’ beliefs, intentions, and well-meaning efforts to support grieving parents.

Methods

We present a secondary qualitative analysis of transcript data from 3 semi-structured focus groups conducted with parents who had experienced a stillbirth and delivered in a hospital, and 2 focus groups with obstetrician-gynecologists. Participants were drawn from the greater Seattle region in Washington State. We examine parents’ and physicians’ experiences and beliefs surrounding stillbirth during the clinical encounter using iterative discourse analysis.

Results

Women reported that the cheery, bustling environment of the labor and delivery setting was a painful place for parents who had had a stillbirth, and that the well-meaning attempts of physicians to offer comfort often had the opposite effect. Parents also reported that their grief is deeply felt but not socially recognized. While physicians recognized patients’ grief, they did not grasp its depth or duration. Physicians viewed stillbirth as an unexpected clinical tragedy, though several considered stillbirth less traumatic than the death of a neonate. In the months and years following a stillbirth, these parents continue to memorialize their children as part of their family.

Conclusions

Hospitals need to examine the physical environment for deliveries and, wherever possible, offer designated private areas with staff trained in stillbirth care. Training programs in obstetrics need to better address the bereavement needs of parents following a stillbirth, and research is needed to evaluate effective bereavement interventions, accounting for cultural variation. Critical improvements are also needed for mental health support beyond hospitalization. Finally, medical professionals and parents can play an important role in reversing the stigma that surrounds stillbirth.

Keywords:
Stillbirth; Perinatal death; Perinatal bereavement; Parental support