Oct. 15 is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, a health care observation recognizing one of the most emotionally difficult experiences that parents and medical professionals can face. There’s no way to make up for the loss of an infant, but hospitals can guide and support families throughout the grieving process. UAB Women & Infants Services provides support specialists as part of its comprehensive bereavement care for families.
The loss of an infant during or right after birth is an emotionally devastating event. The number of stillbirths, miscarriages, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) cases, and deaths by other causes is greater than many people might expect. There is a lack of awareness, because these deaths and their effect on parents are uncomfortable topics. An effect of this particular loss is sometimes called “silent grief,” because a grieving mother may keep her emotions to herself if she feels others do not, or cannot, fully recognize her loss. In the face of these difficult circumstances, parents, friends, extended family, and even members of the care team may struggle with how to respond. And sadly, there are few support systems and resources available to help families.
Fortunately, UAB Medicine provides comprehensive bereavement care for families who have lost a baby. Kristy Benefield, RN, the bereavement coordinator for UAB Women & Infants Services, says the issue of “silent grief” does indeed emphasize the need for guidance in the grieving process.
“The bottom line is that people, understandably, often just don’t know what to say to parents in this situation, so they tend not to respond at all,” Benefield says. “We know from experience that mothers find this extremely painful, because it creates a sense of isolation. They actually do want that child to be acknowledged. They want to hear that child’s name spoken by others. But people naturally fear making things worse, so they may avoid communicating. Part of my work here is to help everyone involved understand that sometimes more communication, not less, is needed.”
Benefield says creating ways to acknowledge the life of that baby can enhance such communication.
“When a child of, for example, eight or nine years of age dies, there is a history and there are memories,” she says. “With an infant, or with a child who dies in utero, you don’t have that. So, we try to help parents create some memories of a lifetime in just a few short days. This helps build recognition of the loss, and it may be the beginning of ways for others to share their sympathy with the parents. This might involve photography, footprints, handprints, and moldings to show that that child existed and is acknowledged. We encourage them to spend time with that baby, because bonding is so important for the grieving process. They can also have siblings and other family members meet the baby, take photographs, and simply make memories with the infant. Basically, we help them parent that child in ways they certainly never expected to have to do.”
Team Effort, Team Empathy
Benefield says the success of UAB Medicine’s bereavement care is rooted in its comprehensive approach. In other words, it’s a team effort by which staff and support specialists collaborate to guide families through a uniquely difficult grieving process.
“Our medical staff is truly amazing in their sensitivity and their extra efforts to assist parents,” Benefield says. “As for our Spiritual Health team, that group brings great comfort through expertise, as their staff are specially trained in infant loss. We have wonderful assistance from the Music Therapy team. Everyone involved is prepared, and to make sure of that, we conduct a division orientation call once each month with all new staff at the UAB Women & Infants Center. Our system functions well. If I’m here when the mother comes in, I will go to her and provide comfort. We flag the door when a baby dies, so that staff will know before they walk in the room what to expect and how to be sensitive to the family’s needs. If I’m not here at the time, the medical staff will place a referral to me. I will in turn send referral to Spiritual Health, and I will also contact the team in Music Therapy.”
Because the medical team is involved with the care of the infant at all stages of birth, they often are vulnerable to the emotional impact of an infant death too, Benefield says.
“The staff becomes very important to parents because they are witnesses to that child’s life, as brief as it might be,” Benefield says. “So, there are times when our medical staff finds comfort in talking to me about a loss. Our Spiritual Health team is there to help staff with any issues, as well. To go from the expectation of the happiest moment to the worst possible one — that can be a huge emotional shift for caregivers. It’s such a helpless feeling for them, so it’s therapeutic to know that a team is on the way to help parents, now that there’s nothing more the medical staff can do. There’s an emotional toll over time, too. We are a regional referral center, so we see more losses than the community hospitals do.”
An essential part of bereavement care involves following up with the families, Benefield says.
“My office number is called our ‘bereavement hotline,’” Benefield says. “Families can call us any time, and for the first few weeks we are in frequent contact. At three and six months, we call the family to check in with them. At one year, I will conduct an official final follow-up. That only means that the process ends, but the relationship with that family never does. They can always reach out to me. One thing that has been truly rewarding for me is when a family calls to let me know that they have had a healthy child. I will get to visit with them and meet that baby, and I guess it helps me heal to some extent, too.”
Click here to learn more about the comprehensive care provided by UAB Women & Infants Services.