Guest Post: 3 Things You Might Not Know About Pregnancy Loss ParentsMarch 15th, 2016
In April 2013, I joined the club that no parent ever wants to be a part of: those touched directly by pregnancy loss. At nearly seven months pregnant, my husband and I lost our first child – a daughter named Lena Grace – for reasons that, despite thorough follow-up testing, remain unknown.
Three months later, I accepted a job in the funeral industry. Recently, as part of the market research needed to launch a new memorial jewelry and gift line serving bereaved parents – Carry Your Heart – I had the chance to speak with dozens of my fellow loss parents on their experiences and how the people and systems in their life could better support them.
The results of this ongoing research have been fascinating. Pregnancy loss parents aren’t a monolith; their experiences vary according to their age, the nature of their loss, where they live and what support systems exist in their area. Despite this, a number of similar threads in our conversations became evident across personal, social, economic and geographic lines, and I’m sharing a few of them here today in the hopes that they help you better understand and serve the pregnancy loss families in your care.
1. We don’t know pregnancy loss is a possibility
As a woman, unless you’re considered high risk or have experienced a previous loss, the possibility of miscarriage or stillbirth is rarely – if ever – brought up by the family doctor or OB/GYN.
Sure, there’s the commonly-held superstition against telling others of your pregnancy before you’ve hit that “magical” 12-week mark that most women hear about at one point or another (though, generally not from official medical sources). But when you consider that one out of every four confirmed pregnancies ends in miscarriage or stillbirth, it sure seems like it’s a consideration that should be brought up more frequently in the context of routine prenatal care.
The result of this tight-lipped nature is that, when things do go wrong, many women aren’t just devastated that they lost the pregnancy – they’re blindsided by the fact that anything could have gone wrong in the first place.
So what does this mean for funeral professionals?
Unexpected deaths aren’t anything new for funeral directors, but do keep in mind that these particular shocks come paired with weeks or months of happy hopes and expectations.
On the surface, it may seem excessive – even unnecessary – to grieve for a person that never took a breath, especially when compared with the loss of beloved family figures or influential community members. Remember, though, that many parents start making memories and forming connections to their unborn children from the moment the pregnancy test reads positive. When these hopes and dreams are brought to an unexpected halt, the parents involved aren’t just losing pregnancies – they’re losing the lifetime of love and memories they anticipated sharing with their children.
And when you aren’t prepared in the first place for such a quick, negative ending, that abrupt dashing of existing love and future plans can be devastating.
2. Our hospitals may not have taken good care of us
Weak links in the medical system don’t just exist before losses occur; hospitals are often just as ill-equipped to manage the emotional impacts of pregnancy loss as their primary care counterparts.
This is starting to change, thanks to more proactive hospital social work programs and, in some cases, the community support groups that are helping them develop and implement protocols designed to support pregnancy loss parents.
These efforts are far from universal, though. Being active in the pregnancy and early infant loss community for the past few years, I’ve heard countless hospital horror stories about insensitive remarks made by staff members, families left without the information needed to make critical decisions, and even medical mistakes made that resulted in post-delivery complications or that failed to gather the tissue samples needed for follow-up genetic testing.
But even in the presence of detailed policies, mistakes happen. Details slip through the cracks. The potential for human error isn’t eliminated, just because protocols have been written.
In our case, the hospital that delivered our daughter was prepared with a binder full of recommendations and had a social worker at our disposal to help us consider questions such as whether we’d pursue an autopsy or whether we’d see and hold our baby after delivery. Even so, I was given the wrong induction medications, turning what should have been a short hospital stay into a nearly three-day ordeal. Like I said, mistakes happen, even to those who seem most prepared.
What does this mean for funeral professionals?
Again, mistreatment by the medical community isn’t something that’s exclusive to the pregnancy loss community. Mistakes can, and do, occur at every level of care, in every circumstance.
But please try to remember that, when we come to you, we may be feeling let down… not just by a pregnancy that was supposed to have a happy ending, but by a medical community that was supposed to take good care of us in such devastating circumstances.
In this regard, you may be the first person to offer us competent care. You may be the first person to really listen to us, rather than to follow a rote series of medical protocols, and you may be the first person to give more than surface-level compassion. That’s not a responsibility that should be taken lightly.
3. This may be our first exposure to death and funerals
Oh, and speaking of that competent care… Know that, for the pregnancy loss parents who choose to pursue traditional funerals, their loss may be the first service they’ve ever attended – let alone had to plan.
For the most part, due to the nature of fertility, pregnancy loss parents are younger. We aren’t yet at an age where we’re making funeral arrangements for our parents, nor are we old enough to start losing friends regularly to cancer, heart disease and other illnesses of aging.
So if we seem confused in the arrangement conference, please know that we aren’t just addled by grief. We simply may not know what’s possible, what our options are or what standard conventions dictate are “appropriate.” And that’s where you come in…
So what can funeral professionals do?
Make sure we know our options, and give us the time to process them.
One of the women I spoke with as part of my research, who suffered two sequential stillbirths, shared that, in the case of her second loss, her directors offered her the option to visit the funeral home and spend whatever time she wanted with her daughter. She hadn’t been made aware of that possibility when she lost her first child, her son, and she wound up grieving the time she felt she missed out on spending with him.
Not every bereaved parent will want to take advantage of this kind of service, just as the families of your older deceased will have different wants and needs. Recognize, however, that pregnancy loss families may not know how you can help them, or what they’re “allowed” to do. Make them aware of the range of services you offer, then give them the time and space to decide what’s right for their families.
Keep things in perspective. The interactions you have with pregnancy loss parents represent a major portion of the memories they’ll have of the child they lost, due to their proportionately shorter lives. Don’t let them suffer in silence, simply because they don’t know they can ask for the services that will help them heal.
Have another observation to share about the pregnancy loss parents you’ve worked with? Share it with me by leaving a comment below.
About The Author
Sarah Rickerd is a freelance journalist for NFDA’s The Director magazine and the owner of Carry Your Heart, a tasteful, customizable line of memorial jewelry and gifts serving pregnancy and early infant loss parents. Visit the Carry Your Heart website for more information on the company’s free series of grief and healing brochures, designed especially for funeral and hospice professionals working with bereaved parents.