The government recently announced that parents dealing with a stillbirth or infant death will be entitled to 12 months of unpaid parental leave. But advocates say there is more we can do for bereaved families. By Cat Rodie.

Support after a stillbirth

Laura Portch nurses her  baby, Lola.
Laura Portch nurses her baby, Lola.
Credit: Karen Anderson / Heartfelt

On a warm February evening in 2018, in a discrete section of Manly Hospital’s maternity wing, Laura Portch, then 34, became a mother. Her baby, Lola, whom she describes as “a strong, beautiful girl”, was stillborn at 20 weeks.

While Portch says losing Lola began the worst week of her life, she notes that she was shown great kindness by the hospital staff. She was given a cold cot so she could spend time with her daughter, and a bereavement-trained photographer from the volunteer group Heartfelt came to take photos.

Just 15 days later, Portch returned to work. “I was told that I’d exhausted my sick leave,” she recalls.

Working as an account director for a company that was part of a global media and digital marketing communications organisation, Portch assumed her employer was doing all it could to help her.

“It’s not that they weren’t supportive – they were, their hearts were in the right place. They said that I could work from home, for example. But they didn’t tell me what leave I was officially entitled to,” Portch explains.

“I was back at work, full-time, doing the best that I could, but not doing very well.”

As Lola’s official due date approached, Portch requested a month’s unpaid leave. “I was struggling and needed time out,” she says. “I really saw [Lola’s due date] as a milestone in my grief journey.”

When her leave request was denied Portch went looking for information so she could plead her case more strongly. “I knew that it wasn’t right to deny me the time off,” she says.

She called Fair Work Australia and the Stillbirth Foundation and discovered she was actually entitled to government-funded paid parental leave, then six weeks’ pay at minimum wage. Armed with this information she went back to her employer and requested full-paid parental leave in line with the organisation’s policies.

Portch’s employer came through and offered her 16 weeks’ paid leave. It was a bittersweet victory. “I wouldn’t have got it if I hadn’t fought for it,” she says.

Six babies are stillborn every day in Australia at a rate of 6.7 per 1000 births. The risk is increased for Indigenous mothers.

New legislation announced in early February means bereaved parents will no longer have to fight for time to grieve.

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said the Coalition would increase provisions for families dealing with traumatic situations, stating that the current guaranteed entitlement of six weeks’ unpaid leave for a stillbirth or infant death was “insufficient for many parents who need more time before they return to work”.

He continued: “The government understands how devastating losing a child can be.”

The new laws, entitling parents to 12 months of unpaid leave after a stillbirth or infant death, will be introduced during the autumn sitting of parliament.

Leigh Brezler, the chief executive of the Stillbirth Foundation Australia, says leave following stillbirth was one of the key issues raised by participants in the 2018 stillbirth senate inquiry. “The foundation has been making the case to our political leaders that parents of stillborn babies need the same time and certainty that a parent of a live baby receives,” she says.

The existing Fair Work Act, which says leave can be cancelled if a baby is stillborn, is, as Brezler notes, “a bit of a minefield”. She hopes that with a new, fairer policy in place there will be more consistency across employers.

It’s not just about consistency, though. Brezler notes that the new leave entitlements recognise bereaved parents as mothers and fathers. “It validates their experience as parents, despite the fact that they do not leave hospital with a live, healthy baby,” she explains.

Claire Foord, founder and chief executive of Still Aware, a stillbirth awareness charity, echoes this when she says the new legislation will make bereaved parents feel equal to parents of healthy babies.

“Parents who have experienced loss have equally experienced life and had the life of their baby stripped from their grasp. But they are still parents. For every stillbirth that occurs there is also a baby birthed,” she says.

“It offers bereaved mothers of stillbirth the right to be seen as a new mother, which of course is exactly what they are.”

Foord is all too familiar with this experience. In 2014, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Alfie. Without any leave entitlement she resigned from her job and took six months off. “I was supported by family and friends who allowed me the time, rather than [by] my employer,” she says.

Had 12 months of unpaid leave been available at the time, Foord says she would have accepted it with gratitude. “[Twelve months’ leave would have] relieved the undue pressure of even having to contemplate returning to my workplace, which brought with it high levels of anxiety.”

But while Foord welcomes the new legislation, she also notes that employers can do a lot more to support employees affected by stillbirth or infant death. “The workplace can be an area where stillbirth stigma exists,” she says.

A big step towards destigmatising stillbirth would be for employers to educate their staff on how to empathise and interact with bereaved parents who are returning to work after a loss. Brezler notes that this will help create a psychological safety net.

“Many workplaces will have at least one employee who has experienced this tragedy. The main thing is to give all employees the language to engage with, not avoid, bereaved parents and to demonstrate that the workplace is inclusive and accepting of their circumstance,” she says.

There are lots of options for employers. “Some organisations host lunch-and-learn sessions to educate employees about infant and child loss, while others host fundraisers or encourage workplace giving to charities that conduct research and/or education into stillbirth,” says Brezler.

For bereaved parents facing the aftermath of stillbirth, 12 months’ leave will allow more time to grieve. Is there enough support available to them? Brezler says there are several organisations that can help.

“Many hospitals have grief-after-loss groups that meet frequently. Sands has a peer-to-peer support model and is a national organisation, as is Red Nose, which provides professional counselling. In addition, bereaved parents are entitled to a mental health plan subsidised by Medicare, which offers 10 sessions with a qualified therapist,” she says.

There is also a thriving online community, with many Facebook pages and groups dedicated to sharing personal experiences and growing through grief. “The generosity and strength of bereaved parents who share their stories and grief to support others cannot be underestimated,” says Brezler.

This support, and time to grieve, was crucial for Laura Portch. “The [16 weeks of paid leave] was so important. I was able to spend time with my family in the UK and take stock of what had happened,” she says.

“People think that you just get over it – but I’ll never get over it. Lola will always be part of me.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 29, 2020 as "Time to grieve".

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