The only pictures a Manawatu family have of their first-born child who died in 2013 are of her in hospital, covered in tubes.

Now they are grieving all over again, after a commissioned portrait of her and her siblings was damaged in transit, and New Zealand Post refuses to return it.

To mark their fifth wedding anniversary last month, the parents commissioned a hand-drawn sketch of their dead baby daughter, with the three siblings she never got to meet.

However, the sketch was badly damaged by NZ Post during delivery from Auckland.

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NZ Post apologised and offered to compensate the family, but said its policy was not to return damaged items.

"We are absolutely gutted," said the mother, who asked not to be named.

"It is so precious to us and no one else. It is priceless, and has so much sentimental value. [This process] has just caused a whole lot more grief.

"Even though it is damaged, it would still be nice just to have, to hold and look at.

"I understand they have policies but surely they could have a bit of wiggle room when it is something like this. It just seems very heartless to me."

Their baby daughter was born with health complications.

"She was born with half a heart, and we later found out she had a very rare lung disease. It was fatal."

The only images they have are of her were with tubes coming out of her body.

They wanted something special to remember her by, to sit on the wall in their lounge next to their other family photos.

They commissioned Auckland artist Christine Rowntree to do a hand-drawn sketch, based on photos they sent her, with her siblings - twin girls and a young boy, whom she never got to meet.

Rowntree sent the finished portrait through Courier Post to the family in Manawatu at the start of last month.

"When I saw the picture all I could do was cry and cry as it is the only picture with her eyes open and no tubes," the mother said.

"She was just as I remembered her. It was very emotional, and really special. It brought back a lot of memories of her in hospital."

The sketch was rolled up in a cardboard tube, but had been crushed.

Rowntree contacted NZ Post on April 6 about the damage and they asked the family to send the painting back for assessment.

"I had only shown the picture to my husband and my dad, so it was really hard to send it back as we just wanted to keep looking at her with the other kids," the mother said.

"I took a picture of [our daughter] and I have it on my phone so I can look at her."

Rowntree said NZ Post then took nearly a month to get back to her - and only after she emailed them to follow up.

NZ Post agreed to pay the $280 cost of the painting, but would not give the portrait back.

In emails viewed by the Herald, the NZ Post claims administrator said the item could be returned, but there would be no compensation.

When Rowntree asked if NZ Post would destroy the portrait, the claims administrator said, "We have not yet decided what we will do with the artwork".

Rowntree said she would make another painting, free of charge, but that NZ Post's policy needed to be more compassionate.

"This isn't some chain store trinket. Why not just give it back to the mother? Mother's Day is just around the corner too."

NZ Post's apologies were "completely insincere", she said.

"How many other people have had sentimental items damaged that they never got back again? Their terms and conditions show no compassion."

A New Zealand Post spokeswoman said the company was "very sorry for the distress this has caused, especially so given the sentimental value of the item."

One of the conditions of the company's compensation policy was that if compensation was paid in full for a lost or damaged item, that item became property of NZ Post.

"Essentially we buy the damaged item from the customer - much the same way as an insurance company."

There were exceptions where an item was able to be repaired, she said.

However, all claims were assessed on a "case-by-case basis".

"Our team will contact the customer to sincerely apologise and discuss a suitable resolution."