When a baby is miscarried, stillborn or dies shortly after birth, parents are in a state of shock that such an event has happened. The natural order of life has been broken, and the last thing you ever imagine is to be planning a memorial or funeral for your baby.

It is one of the hardest things to arrange a service for your precious baby who should have been born and outlived you. Parents struggle with this every day across Australia, as approximately 2,000 babies of 20 weeks or more gestation are stillborn or die within 28 days of birth.

The number of babies miscarried is an unknown number, but the often quoted figure of one in four babies conceived miscarries, makes the total number of babies that do not survive pregnancy very high. Registration of the birth of babies with a gestation of 20 weeks or more means that parents will receive a birth certificate for their baby, and also a funeral or cremation is a legal requirement for these babies. For this, often we seek advice from others who have ‘been there’ or from the professionals (funeral directors).

Knowing what is the ‘right’ thing is hard for newly bereaved parents and often decisions are made in haste. Having options is a good start for planning a service, and then being given time to consider these options is most beneficial. SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support) has been supporting families since 1983, and have collated many ideas for parents arranging their baby’s memorial or funeral, such as songs, readings, themes etc. Babies who are miscarried have none of the legal requirements of the babies of later gestation, but many parents feel they would like to celebrate their baby’s short life with some words and flowers; a service.

Parents may take their miscarried baby home and bury him/her in their garden and acknowledge their feelings for their baby with some heartfelt words, play some music, have siblings draw pictures and say something, and often release a balloon. Some choose to plant a special shrub or flower, and some parents have a garden ornament. Even if you do not take you baby home, you may like do some or all of these things.

There are many more things you may like as this is not a finite list. Whatever you choose is the right decision for you. A funeral or memorial service is the ritual of goodbye that we have in our western society, and a baby is to be remembered and acknowledged whatever the gestation. It is an acknowledgment of what they meant to us, and how happy they made us for the short time they were here.

Joanne’s baby son was born at 16 weeks gestation and she writes I carefully arranged a large old wooden jewellery box with a clean nappy and some flowers, placed the container holding Bradley in the jewellery box and sprinkled some baby powder. Then placing my son’s “coffin” in a towel, I closed my eyes and cradled it in my arms, imagining I was holding a little baby boy near my heart.  The next day Martin and I gently placed “our baby” in our front garden and planted a beautiful camellia in his memory. 

That’s all we have of Bradley, there are no photos or memories and yet he feels such a part of our lives.  Rebecca tells of her daughter’s funeral I requested that everyone who attended to wear bright colourful clothes, no black allowed! We released brightly coloured balloons and I read out a letter to by beautiful baby girl.

My kids put some sand on her tiny white coffin. It was one of the most painful weeks of my entire life. Including siblings in the service can make the death more real to them and gives them something special to remember about their brother or sister. Annika’s daughter was brought home in her casket a few days before the funeral. It was a tiny white casket with a beautiful satin and lace lining that just fitted our precious little girl.

We found some photos of her mum and dad, a little teddy she had been given by her grandparents, a little rattle we had bought for her and wrote lots of cards with poems and notes to her from ourselves and our family and put it all inside the casket. Eight days after she was born we had a small and very beautiful funeral service for her with only some close family and four of our best friends attending.

The placing of special items in the coffin makes each baby’s service unique and adds meaning for the family. Veronica‘s son was dressed in a beautiful smock and I had bought a medallion of Mary and Jesus, which had been blessed by the priest. We put this around his neck. We placed him in his white coffin, and our family gave us things to send him on his way- a Richmond scarf, a blanket, a wedding photo, some booties and a bonnet along with a letter we wrote him. Many people include a balloon release with messages attached for their baby, and watching the balloons disappear in the skies signifies the release of the spirit. It is quite moving watching a number of balloons flying away. Some people decorate the coffin with brightly coloured or themed stickers, or have other children draw pictures on it.

The service becomes a celebration of the life of the baby, however short. Many people also choose a symbol such as Dannielle who tells us about her son Rhys’s funeral. The lady who conducted his funeral was a wonderful caring person who made this day so special.  She likened the loss of our baby to a butterfly, it lands on you for such a brief period of time but leaves a beautiful lasting imprint on your life.  We now just love butterflies, they are a symbol of Rhys’ short life.  We have a butterfly tree in our bedroom and had them as a theme for our daughter’s first birthday.

Another decision for parents is cremation or burial, and if burial is their chosen option, then a cemetery needs to be chosen. This can be a positive experience for some parents as Stephanie shares. We needed to find Jacob a final resting place. Finding the perfect place for Jacob gave me some strength. Amongst other babies, surrounded by flowers and gum trees, and a pretty fountain with birds and butterflies dancing around, and some cheeky bunny rabbits to keep him company, I found that place.

Whatever decisions parents make for their babies, they are made with love and caring. In the midst of grief, decisions can be hard but we make the best decisions we can at the time. SANDS is there for parents – for support, for information and to listen. Note: extracts quoted in this article are from SANDS (Vic) publication Our Babies Have Died which is available for purchase from the SANDS (Vic) office. To contact SANDS in Victoria, please call (03) 9899 0217 or email info@sandsvic.org.au or visit our website www.sandsvic.org.au  For other states please visit www.sands.org.au for details of your local office.