Photos, care package, chance to hold baby can help a woman cope with grief of pregnancy ending in death
Before her babies were born, Sharon Smith knew they would die. Smith’s uterus had filled with blood after one baby’s placenta burst, and unable to stop labor, doctors delivered the 17-week-old triplets in December 2006. Each was about the size of a Venti latte, and within minutes, all were dead.
Seven months later, Heather McBride left a Denver hospital clutching a tiny swath of pink fleece. Four months into her pregnancy, her baby was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta — a brittle-bone condition that left most of the child’s developing skeleton shattered. McBride was told Peyton Isabella would not survive, and labor was induced.
The women returned home with packets of grief resources, intended to help them through the healing process. Though about 10 percent of pregnancies end in death — be it miscarriage, stillborn or premature birth — the grief process is still largely misunderstood. Local groups are trying to change that.
“Some people want to push it to the side and pretend like it wasn’t something that really happened,” said McBride’s mother, DiAnna Martinez. “I think that makes it even worse. A lot of people that are in the family or are friends just choose to ignore that Peyton was a person at all.”
Hospitals have protocol for deaths of developing babies and newborns, which includes memorial services, and referrals to grief counselors and support groups. Finding support at home, however, can be a challenge — many women discover family and friends would rather ignore the death than talk about it.
“That’s one of the things that we try to stress in our grief teaching — that probably only the mother and possibly the father are going to feel a strong connection to the baby,” said Sheila-Duran, perinatal care manager in the Memorial Health System. “To everyone else, it’s not a baby.”
It used to be common for doctors to heavily medicate mothers about to deliver dead or dying babies, Duran said. Mothers weren’t allowed to see the baby — and if they did, the medication would likely prevent them from remembering.
It wasn’t malicious. It was protocol.
More than 30 years ago, Duran assisted a delivery with unexpected complications that resulted in the baby dying during labor. The mother, conscious of what had happened, picked up her dead child.
The staff stood silent. Duran watched the mother face her baby, sobbing.
“It was such a shock to me as a young nurse because this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be,” Duran said.
She realized “bereavement was something I really didn’t understand.”
Slowly, hospital protocol changed. Today, staff members are trained to lead shocked mothers through grief with ceremonial gestures and counseling. Mothers can hold their babies if they wish, and nurses take photos.
Volunteers donate outfits to fit 20-week-old preemies.
Memorial Health System oversees about 4,000 pregnancies a year — with about 400 pregnancies resulting in loss, Duran said.
“I personally think we handle it very, very well,” Duran said. “I think the biggest thing is laypeople need to realize a loss of a baby — whether it be four days, four months, four years old or during the pregnancy — is devastating.”
Ten months after losing her triplets, 33-year-old Sharon Smith was in the hospital again, 24 weeks pregnant with twins. Six weeks prior, one of the amniotic sacks broke. She was likely to lose both babies.
Ryan, the firstborn, died after eight hours. His sister, Rylee, was expected to die.
At home, Smith’s husband, Brian, was suffering from terminal liver failure. Smith wanted Brian to see his children before he died. She contacted the Colorado Springs chapter of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a group of photographers who take portraits of terminally ill or recently deceased babies.
The service is provided free, as a way for families to memorialize children. Mothers are given a CD of about 30 black-and-white photos, many that capture details such as fingernails and eyelashes.
Rylee, who was photographed in her mother’s arms, came home Jan. 22 after spending more than 100 days in the hospital. She weighs 4 pounds 12 ounces. At birth she weighed 1 pound 3 ounces.
Ryan was photographed five days after his death. His tiny body is tucked in a blanket. He appears to be sleeping.
“You would never know,” Smith said. “I can display the picture of Ryan, knowing it’s not going to offend people.”
The nonprofit recently created its local chapter. Photos can be taken up to several days after death, but often parents don’t know of the service until it’s too late.
“We try to capture every detail that we can for that family,” said photographer Heather Sams. “It’s such a fast experience most times. They don’t remember those little eyelashes.”
Photographers rushed a print of Ryan to Brian Smith. He was unable to speak, his wife said, but reached for the frame and cried. Several days later, he was buried with his son. Ryan’s twin, Rylee, survived.
Sharon Smith says the photos were the only way her husband could have seen his son — and they’re a way she can remember him.
“In a way,” Sams says, “it’s kind of giving back a moment that you don’t remember.”
Two tiny feet are tattooed on the nape of McBride’s neck — replicas of her daughter’s.
On July 11, McBride went into induced labor and delivered Peyton at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver. The 7.2-ounce baby died 23 minutes later.
“It’s a really strange feeling because it’s so happy and so sad at the same time,” said McBride, 22. “It’s a sense of emptiness when you have a baby like that and you have to leave them at the hospital.”
She kept Peyton until the next day, holding her 6-inch long body. Then McBride went home with Peyton’s blanket.
“Nobody could console my daughter at the time,” said Martinez, McBride’s mother. “The only thing that worked for her was holding on to (Peyton’s) little blanket.”
Hoping to give comfort to other women who suffer the same loss, McBride and Martinez started Peyton’s Footprints, a Colorado Springs based nonprofit that arranges baby boxes for parents of preemies who die shortly after birth. Inside the wooden boxes are a tiny blanket, a beanie, a pink-and-blue bracelet, and a book on grief. McBride is working to deliver 30 boxes to local hospitals.
“It’s to help give them a little comfort, but also to let them know that we looked at your baby the same way that you looked at your baby,” she said. “As a parent, she’s as real as any other kid that you have sitting at home.”
Acknowledging the child existed is an important part of the healing process, said Kerry Mand, president of Pikes Peak SHARE, a local pregnancy- and infant-loss support group.
Mand joined the group in spring 2004, a few months after delivering a stillborn boy, because she “needed someone to tell me my baby was real.”
Though some people might not view a miscarriage as a child, moms do. “When a child dies, it’s a double death,” said grief counselor Rabbi Mel Glazer. “It’s the death of the child right now, today, and it’s the death of the hopes, dreams and aspirations that you had for the child in the future,” he said.
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