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Loss and bereavement

By: Shelley Nortje

The past week at Ububele has been a difficult one for several staff members due to sad stories of loss and bereavement. And then hearing on the radio the tragic story of a baby’s death in a Gauteng public hospital added to my awareness of this theme of loss. For mothers, the death of an infant is both tragic and unthinkable, whether a stillbirth, miscarriage or infant death. I hope that today’s blog can offer some support for those who may have lost a loved one, and also to offer some information about coping with loss.

The five stages of grief:

The experience of grief and bereavement is a universal one. Each individual experiences and deals with loss in a unique manner. The five stages of loss and grief were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” These stages are only guidelines however, to help contextualize one’s experience. Some people may pass through them in a linear fashion, while others will move between them. There is also no fixed timeline about how much time a person should spend in each stage.

  1. Denial and isolation: The first stage is an automatic and temporary response that denies that the event even happened. When one first hears of the death of a loved one, the usual response could be, “no, I don’t believe it” or “if I don’t get up, then it won’t have really happened”.

  2. Anger: The reality of the pain of a loss or trauma may still be too hard to bear in this stage. In order to mask the pain, anger often takes centre stage. Anger can be directed to the loved one who is dying or has passed away, towards family or friends or to objects and complete strangers. “It isn’t fair!” or “it wasn’t supposed to happen to me” might be thoughts one has in this stage. Sometimes the difficult feelings of despair, loneliness and anger can be expressed in other ways, such as headaches, poor sleep and body pains.

  3. Bargaining: This stage is another way to avoid the pain of grief. In this stage one begins to bargain with God or some higher power to avoid the loss. Statements and thoughts such as “if only we hadn’t driven on that road that day”, or “if only I had visited her more in hospital in her last days”. One is filled with feelings of guilt about one’s own role to play in the loss. With the death of a baby, this guilt may be felt even more extremely by parents and fears of not having been a good-enough mother or parent – “I should have eaten different food”, “I should have had more frequent check-ups”, “if only I had paid more attention to him”.

  4. Depression: This stage of mourning can be divided into two phases. On one hand, one makes practical plans around the loss, often including a ritual such as a funeral or prayer service. One the other hand, the depression phase involves a slow process of separation. Reassurance, kind words and even just a hug are important.

  5. Acceptance: This final phase is unfortunately not a phase that each person will reach and each person’s journey to this point may also vary widely. Acceptance does not mean that you are happy or have forgotten the loved one who has passed away. It is instead a time when one has reached a sense of calm and peace around the loss.

Some steps to help you cope:

  1. There is no time frame for grief. Remember to take your time and that each person’s process of grieving is different. Be prepared for ups and downs; good days and more difficult days.

  2. Take time for privacy and alone time to think about the loss and remember your baby.

  3. Self-care (getting enough sleep, eating regular meals or talking a walk outside) and taking time to nurture oneself is also important.

  4. Access and rely on your support system of family and friends. Remember that grandparents, siblings and other friends may also be grieving and struggling to make meaning of the loss. Don’t be afraid to take about the child or how you feel.

  5. Seek professional assistance if necessary to receive grief counselling or assistance in dealing with more severe symptoms of depression.

  6. Support groups such as those offered by Compassionate Friends may provide support and a space to speak to others who have experienced a similar experience of loss. (

  7. Continue with the everyday tasks of laundry and cooking and get back into a ‘normal’ routine, but ask for help with things such as cleaning the house or running errands when things seem overwhelming or you need a break.

  8. Holidays and special occasions mark special milestones in a family’s life. Think about how you would like remember the life of your child in your family story.

Although the death of an infant is both tragic and unthinkable we at Ububele hope to be available to offer support for those mothers, fathers, siblings or grandparents who have lost a little loved one.

“What we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” – Helen Keller

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