The death of the twin son of Cristiano Ronaldo and Georgina Rodríguez during childbirth, which they announced on Monday, has been met with worldwide sympathy. But experts say there is still very little public perception of the devastating impact of stillbirth, neonatal death, miscarriage and medical termination on parents, as well as their families and friends.
What most parents who have lost a baby want and need is to hear their baby’s name spoken. However, the loss of a baby is so rarely discussed in society today that it is virtually taboo, say bereavement councillors, leaving parents alienated instead of supported.
“While parents’ lives are irrevocably changed by the loss of their newborn, even those inside the bereaved family can end up saying the wrong thing,” said Jen Coates, director of the bereavement support charity Sands. “Anything that begins with ‘At least’ is usually incredibly unhelpful and hurtful. This can be a particular issue with twin loss where one twin dies and another lives. There is no ‘At least’: their baby died and that’s devastating.”
Nicky Rygielski, a trustee of Sophia Pregnancy Loss Support, agreed. “When a baby dies at any stage of gestation, their parents’ lives are irrevocably changed. Their longed-for baby will never be ‘replaced’ regardless of how many children they may go on to have in the future. If you are supporting a bereaved parent, don’t be afraid to talk about their loss. Help them to find a new normal, which includes their lost little one.”
If, as in Ronaldo and Rodríguez’s case, there is a surviving twin, that makes for a particularly difficult grieving, said Sharon Darke, a bereavement support coordinator at Twins Trust, who lost her twin boys 22 years ago.
“You’ve got the joy of the twin who is alive and doing well alongside the absolute devastation of the twin who died,” she said. “How do you cope with those parallels?”.
In 2020, there were 2,231 stillbirths and 733 deaths of babies born at 24 weeks in England and Wales, a rate of 2.7 deaths for every 1,000 live births that has stayed stable since 2016.
“The loss of a baby is a unique experience but differs from the normal grief felt when we lose a close friend or relative,” said Amy Jackson, a co-founder of the Lily Mae Foundation, named after the daughter she lost in 2010 as a newborn. “We don’t grieve a life that has passed where that individual has fulfilled so much. We grieve a lifetime of a missed opportunity and memories that we planned to make with our baby.”
When Jackson left hospital after the birth and death of Lily Mae, she left “with nothing but a broken heart and our small, but precious memories”. Her charity now helps parents create a memory box to store precious items.
“As a parent you want to protect your child; when you lose a child, you want and need to protect their memory,” she said. “By providing parents with a starting point and ideas we will hopefully make the hard task of memory making that bit easier and give them something beautiful to look back on and remember their child by.”
Ben Moorhouse, a co-founder of the Kallipateira Moorhouse Foundation who lost his newborn daughter at birth, said that while his “shock will last a lifetime with hourly grief”, the pain can be overlooked.
“It is the highest form of devastation and heartbreak you can experience,” he said. “But as a dad I was treated very differently to my wife. I was expected to be strong. Even now people think I’m OK when I’m not: dads are too often forgotten about.”
Grandparents and siblings, too, can be forgotten: “Grandparents are not only grieving the death of a grandchild but also their child’s pain at losing a baby,” said Coates, adding: “Younger siblings will ‘puddle jump’ in and out of grief because they can’t sustain those sad feelings and may need to focus on other things for a while.”
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