Programs Help Families Navigate Most Devastating Thing

By Donna Olmstead / Journal Staff Writer

Leaving the hospital with empty arms after losing a baby is devastating.

Local care providers have established programs with links to resources to help families through their tsunamis of grief.

Jen Barrows, a labor and delivery nurse, runs a grief support program at Lovelace Women’s Hospital.

“As a mother, I feel losing a baby is the most devastating thing that can happen. It’s grief for the baby who’s lost and especially grief for what this baby will never become,” Barrows says.

For many reasons, 25 percent of pregnancies end either with a miscarriage earlier on or a decline in later stages, leading to a stillbirth or an infant that doesn’t survive long after birth, experts say.

“Each situation is different. We try to be honest about what they can expect. The baby may be born alive and it may not. We meet with the couple to discuss what they would like and what they don’t want,” Barrows explains.

From comfort care to medical intervention, a family can decided what’s right for them. “If a couple wants to do everything possible, we will. That’s still their baby. We will respect that infant as their baby. We want them to have a say.”

“The mother can hold the baby as long she wants. We can get photographs and handprints and footprints. It’s very bittersweet,” she says. “At any point they can change their minds about what they want.”

Anna Wallin, a labor and delivery nurse, started the HUGS bereavement support group at Presbyterian Hospital several years ago after her friend lost twins in her 21st week of pregnancy.

“I wanted to start the program after seeing how she handled it and how things could have been better,” Wallin says. The program helps parents understand their options and helps connect them to the community for support during and after their loss.

“It’s absolutely the hardest circumstance to grieve. They have all these plans, but they have no memories to hold.”

She says she and the labor and deliver team try to do whatever they can to “make it slightly less unbearable for them.”

“The loss is hard, but it’s harder because these parents have no one to talk to. It’s a taboo subject in our society,” she says. “It makes other people uncomfortable and they sidestep the issue, but what they need to know is bringing it up is therapeutic. It’s significant. It’s a loss they will never get over. They are thinking about it anyway and they are hardest on themselves. It helps to talk to family and friends.”

A cadre of volunteer photographers with a national organization, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, come to local hospitals as quickly as they can to get photographs of infants so they can be remembered, especially for parents, whose grief and shock can blur their fleeting memories of their babies.

Desiree Jones, who owns Jones Photo Art with her husband, Seth, and coordinates volunteers for the organization, says she started volunteering about seven years ago after a friend lost her baby.

“In some situations I just have to cry right along with the families,” she says. “Sometimes it hits me harder than others. The families really appreciate what we do.”

Dr. Rebecca Moran, who heads the perinatal hospice program at the University of New Mexico Hospital, says the organization helps families make memories when they have such a brief time to share with their babies.

Remembering the baby is important, not only for parents and grandparents, but for siblings.

Sisters and brothers like to know if they are the only child in the family or if there was someone else, no matter how briefly: “It alters our place in the world.”

“These families’ grief is so multilayered. There’s grief and self-blame,” Moran says. “There are things you don’t think about. Everyone touches your belly when your pregnant. What’s that like for someone who knows their baby is going to die? It’s not understandable to anyone who hasn’t been through it. I don’t know how they carry their grief.”

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