Seldom discussed, and rarely acknowledged: in the United States, approximately one in four pregnancies ends in a loss. This means that in addition to the 4.3 million live births annually, nearly 900,000 women will experience a miscarriage (loss at less than 20 weeks gestation), and 26,000 babies will die in the womb before birth. Still 19,000 more infants will die within the first four weeks of life. Our culture does not have a space to hold these deaths: there is no protocol in our modern world for what to do when your baby dies.
“I don’t know what to do”.
These are the words that come from many parents, when this happens to them. They are grief-stricken, and unsure how to proceed. Well-meaning family members and friends may tell them, “You can always have another baby.” But they wanted this one.
Empty Arms Bereavement Support holds space for parents to honor their pregnancy, experience their baby, and grieve their baby’s death. We reach our fingers deep into our community - across the Pioneer Valley and creeping into Connecticut and Vermont- and exercise as many ways as we can to support families, care providers, and communities when a baby dies. We help families figure out what to do.
A call comes in.
When a baby dies, healthcare providers themselves sometimes are unsure how to best support a family. The peer support that Empty Arms can provide is essential. Last spring at Holyoke Medical Center, a baby was born with a life-limiting condition. The staff knew that this baby would not survive, and the Empty Arms team had met on several occasions with both the parents and the health care team to plan how to make the most of the family’s time together.
When the labor began, Empty Arms Peer Companions were able to come in to offer support and to provide professional photography for the birth and the time that followed. Photos of mother and baby, family members peering in to meet the newborn, and other priceless mementos were taken. Tiny casts were made of the baby’s hands and feet. A lock of her hair was cut. Precious time was spent together.
This baby had a brother, and he was grieving, too. His world hadn’t prepared him for the reality that his sister might die. His parents didn’t know how to support him. He was afraid to see his sister, and to hold her. He had never before seen someone who had died.
Empty Arms Peer Companions invited this little boy to help with an art project. Together, they used paint to put his handprints on paper- and then invited him to help make similar prints of his sister’s hands. Over the course of an hour, his enthusiasm grew- soon he was painting her feet, and gently washing her off. At the end he sat in a rocking chair with his baby sister on his lap. The photographer captured it. He was a big brother. None of this could have happened without Empty Arms.
When it was time to go home, the family knew that Empty Arms would continue to support them. The organization had helped them to fundraise to pay for their baby’s funeral expenses. They would be there to photograph the funeral. They would be available- by telephone, email, and at monthly support groups- to support this family in whatever they needed. This family was not alone in their grief. Imagine how isolated they would have felt if they had just been discharged, sent alone back to their home.
From peer support, to our five regular support groups, to individual consultations, to help finding a therapist- the staff and volunteers at Empty Arms are constantly in a flurry of activity trying to meet the needs of our growing community. We offer educational workshops and seminars to health care and birth providers, and find that a wide range of people- from acupuncturists, to birth educators, to obstetricians- crave the need to hone their own ability to work with bereaved parents. It is our privilege to offer as complete a spectrum of support as we are able to each and every bereaved family in the Pioneer Valley who needs us.
For more information, please go to www.emptyarmsbereavement.org.
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