The meaning of seeing and holding – an anthropological perspective on being with a stillborn baby

The meaning of seeing and holding – an anthropological perspective on being with a stillborn baby

Mathilde Lindh Jørgensen (1), Dorte Hvidtjørn (1)

(1) Unit for Perinatal Loss, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark

For a number of years there has been an ongoing debate about whether seeing and holding your dead baby after stillbirth is beneficial or harmful for the parents’ emotional health, but since Kingdon’s review in 2015 convincing scientific evidence supports the idea of parents being together with their dead children and achieving from the interaction. Bereaved parents are most often young, unprepared for and often inexperienced with death, grief and traumatic loss; hence they are completely reliant on a supportive and compassionate staff. Concluding that parents benefit from seeing and holding their stillborn baby and that hospital staff should support and encourage parental contact with the dead child, the aim of this study was to enlighten how this encounter between the grieving parents and their child’s dead body seems to be so advantageous and also why so many people seem to be so alarmed about it.

Mixed methods, combining a theoretical anthropological approach and an empirical epidemiological assessment, using original research data from the Danish “Life after the Loss” cohort.

In the survey “Life after the Loss” the participants were asked if they saw or held their dead child and for how long: minutes, hours or days. Close to 100% saw and held the baby, no differences between men and women, and 60 % spent days with the child. When asked about who else saw the child 75% reported that their parents saw the child and 25% reported that their friends had seen the child.

Danish parents engage in contact with their stillborn child to a very high degree, including sharing the experience with family. Seeing and holding your dead baby has several purposes, including the use of ritualization to assist the transition into parenthood and allow the parents to benefit from the state of liminality.

Ethics statement:
The study was approved by The Danish National Data Protection Agency (no. 18/15684, 7 October 2014).


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