Not Just Another Doula: Bereavement Doulas Supporting Families


Clare Collins, midwife and owner of After Birth Cork, describes this sensitive service supporting bereaved families in Ireland


*** Trigger warnings for miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death


Infant loss whether during pregnancy, as a stillbirth or following birth is absolutely devastating. For every familiy who loses an expected, unexpected or born child, the circumstances are unique and so too are the emotional, physical and psychological grief they experience.


          My intrigue with birth began with my mother’s birth stories; I was fascinated by them and she couldn’t tell them to me enough times. My mother gave birth in a time when infant loss was very much all hushed tones and not discussed.  During that time the care model was, the less fuss made about the baby lost, the easier for the mother to move on. My mother had an amazing obstetric history and even then, the early little midwife in me craved the details about her care.

When my mother would discuss the births of two of my sisters who passed, she would be able to recount the smallest of details about both births, even down to the shoes and attire her consultant wore when he was called in, in the middle of the night to help my mother birth her very sick little girl, who would later pass away in Crumlin. What struck me most about this, beside the fact that my mother’s births were engrained in her mind, was the lack of support and care for this grieving mother. This is where my passion to become a midwife came from, because our mothers, my mother, deserved better.

During my midwifery training I learned about the importance of a woman’s birth story, the reason some women can recall every little detail and how the retelling of their birth story could be healing. Once I became a qualified midwife I experienced that the support for parents with a loss had evolved and was very different to my mother’s births. I experienced the fantastic work of the specialised bereavement midwives who supported and guided parents in such a difficult time. It did make me wonder about the women who don’t present to the maternity services, who are treated by their GPs for early miscarriages, women who may have refused support services at the time of their loss, women who were bereaved long ago but are only now grieving. What support, if any, do they avail of?  So began my journey into bereavement support and my training as a bereavement doula.  


So What is a Bereavement Doula?

          Whether or not a loss is expected, parents can be plunged into such a chaos of emotions that they would not often remember there are outside supports that they can avail of.  This is where a bereavement doula can help. A bereavement doula is a trained, compassionate individual who is willing to be by a family’s side to help however they may need, during one of the hardest times. A bereavement doula supports mothers and families in a range of circumstances, and can assist with the family’s specific needs, offering a wide spectrum of emotional and physical supports. With an estimated 14,000 miscarriages occurring every year in Ireland, there are so many mothers and families experiencing pregnancy loss. Many mothers need to carry a baby who has passed to term, or experience stillbirth, and there are those who undergo an expected or indeed an unexpected loss after birth. There are also parents who are grieving after the birth of a child with an illness or disability, and they too are grieving a type of loss, a living grief.  

Bereavement for parents comes in many shapes and sizes and no one-size-fits-all approach will do. This is why I chose to begin my bereavement doula training, as it was personalised care that can be provided to any parent who is grieving for any one of the many reasons, and not just the ones society tells us is “worthy” of grief.

Early Term Losses are Also Losses

          In Ireland today, expectant mothers who experience loss in early term pregnancy can often be faced by some insensitive and hurtful comments and reactions. Society’s apparent sympathy can seem to be directly relative to ‘how many weeks gone’ you were at the time of loss, as if loss in the first trimester isn’t worthy of grief. A bereavement doula understands that this isn’t the case and such displays offer a complete lack of empathy or compassion.


What Does a Bereavement Doula Do?

          A bereavement doula is with families as an emotional and physical support during a very traumatic time. Whether it is being by someone’s side at the hospital during labour, during a medical procedure or even doctor’s appointments, a bereavement doula can act as a companion and emotional support. If a person needs help facing relatives with the sad news, or needs to talk about their grief, a bereavement doula will be there. She can be in the NICU with parents, or just to sit and listen to a family’s story with empathy and compassion. She can also help families acknowledge and celebrate their baby, help make mementos and keepsakes, help to say goodbye and help reach out for professional support if needed. Something that is important to mention in case a parent is considering reaching out to a bereavement doula is that bereavement doula support is often free of charge.  

Doulas are not a new concept but are only in the last few years gaining the exposure and acknowledgment deserving of the work they do. There are many types of doulas in Ireland, and specialised bereavement doulas are here too- not as many as in other countries but they are here quietly working with families. Their numbers are small but their work is immense. In all my training as a midwife I had never heard of a bereavement doula, until l came across one lady online, when doing another training course for supporting parents during loss. She was so kind in explaining her work and introducing me to the many other doulas working in this sensitive area. I immediately registered for training and am currently completing my training. I really feel bereavement doulas can help stand in the gap between hospital support services and the community, help support parents through their own personal and unique grieving process, and help direct families to services available to them.


I hope this blog piece will help create awareness around infant loss & bereavement and help introduce one more invaluable type of support service that is available to grieving families. If anyone was affected by any of the content, please get in touch with one of the support links below or contact your nearest bereavement doula.


Written by Clare Collins from After Birth Cork

Midwife, Mother, Postpartum Doula, Placenta Remedies Specialist, Infant Massage Instructor