Sharing the loss
Program helps parents grieve and grow
Monday, February 25, 2008
A silver frame with a photo of their newborn daughter, Elliana, sits on a nightstand in Rachel and Jeff Reicherts’ bedroom. In the picture the 6 pound, 6 ounce infant with thick dark hair and closed eyes is snuggled in a green, white and yellow crocheted blanket a neighbor made in anticipation of her birth. Rachel sleeps with the blanket now, a small comfort to the fact that Elliana should be down the hall in her yellow-painted nursery with a jungle animal wallpaper border.
But Elliana never came home. She was stillborn at 38 weeks due to unknown causes.
"I think about her all of the time," says Rachel who had an uncomplicated pregnancy. "Sometimes I think about events that happened while I was pregnant with her or all of our hopes for her, or everything we planned to do. I don’t understand why this happened, but we try to focus on the good even though it’s totally not what we wanted."
Part of the good, Rachel says, comes from their involvement with SHARE, a national pregnancy and infant loss support group started in 1977 at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. SHARE has since spread to other health care centers, including Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, where Rachel gave birth. The program provides various services to grieving parents, from collecting memorabilia and taking pictures for parents like the one that sits on the Reicherts’ nightstand, to monthly meetings that bring couples in similar circumstances together. "SHARE took an awful situation and they didn’t change it for us, because no one could change it," says Rachel. "But they made it the best it could be."
Bringing parents together is one of the most important aspects of SHARE, according to Pat Vaci, the coordinator of perinatal support services at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. SHARE provides a place for couples to talk about their feelings on a common ground. "It’s hard to process your grief in isolation. They really want to know the hopes and dreams that other couples had for their babies. There’s something reassuring about it," Vaci says.
Mourning the death of an infant and remembering his or her life is crucial to help parents heal, says Dr. Roneen Blank, a psychiatrist and the clinical director of perinatal services at Advocate Good Samaritan. Until the 1970s when the SHARE program and other support groups were created, many hospitals had little, if any, support to offer parents whose babies died. Parents were often told to try and move on. "People tend to think if you don’t talk about something, it goes away," Blank says. "It doesn’t. It festers."
And Blank understands how a baby’s death will never fade away. She still remembers delivering a premature baby in South Africa 28 years ago while on an internship. Although the baby was born alive, it didn’t survive. "I didn’t know what to do with it," Blank says. "I still see that baby. I wish I had wrapped the baby up and given it to the mom so at least we could have known the child together, even if it was for a short time."
Part of the implementation of the SHARE program includes exposing the medical staff to the idea that it’s important to take pictures and allow parents to see and hold their babies, even if they have or will die. SHARE also urges obstetricians to call and follow up with parents whose babies die, rather than avoid them because of liability issues or their own grief. "It’s better to mourn a loss than to pretend it didn’t happen," Blank says.
Rachel Reichert agrees. The first-time mother hates when people avoid asking questions about Elliana. "They are devaluing her life by not asking," Rachel says. "Just because it was short doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter … People would ask about a normal baby, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t ask about ours."
And although the Reicherts only have a few mementos from Elliana’s life, including a lock of her hair and a birth certificate, it doesn’t mean she will ever be forgotten. "Even though she’s not here physically, her life continues to go on," Rachel says.