Grieving moms donate breast milk to honor their baby’s memory

The day her daughter Skye was born, Staci Sessler began pumping her breast milk. She pumped throughout the newborn’s multiple hospital transfers-from the facility in their small town of Bureau to a larger hospital in Rockford and later to the neonatal intensive care unit at Lutheran General in Park Ridge.

Several times a day for the 12 days Skye held onto life, Sessler pumped, holding out hope her child would soon be able to reap the benefits a mother’s milk provides.

Sessler’s hopes were never realized, but when her baby died on May 2, 2006, the routine and rhythm of the ritual calmed Sessler, so she continued pumping.

“I had a hard time accepting the fact that she was gone and if I was still pumping, it was like she was still sort of with me,” Sessler says. “Every time I pumped I had her little blanket with me.”

After Skye’s death, Sessler sought advice from nurses at Lutheran General on how she might donate her stored milk.

“It was important to me that I passed something on of her that someone else could use. It might be able to save someone else,” says Sessler, who has three other daughters.

Sessler was directed to the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank, where she met Clinical Director Donna Miracle. Although the bank hadn’t yet been open a year, it had already received several inquiries from bereaved mothers looking to donate, says Miracle, who has a doctorate in human milk studies.

In fact, Miracle received the very first call-from Milwaukee mom Theresa Stiper-just weeks after the milk bank opened its doors. The conversation so inspired Miracle, she decided to examine the desire for bereaved mothers to give away the milk intended for their own children.

For two years, beginning March 2007, Miracle interviewed 17 mothers who lost children and donated breast milk to the bank.

“The reason it’s important to do research about donating milk is there’s some resistance to even offering it as an option to mothers. If it’s not offered as an option and later these moms find out that it was, it can be devastating,” Miracle says.

Moreover, feelings of despair ensue when a woman’s need to feel like a mother following childbirth is not fulfilled, says Miracle of her research findings.

“The mothers said things like, ‘I had a baby, the baby was real and my body was continuing to act that way; just because my baby died doesn’t make it not real’,” Miracle says.

“(Pumping) gives tangibility to the intangible; especially when they lost a baby very early, it gives them another mechanism of feeling like a mother.”

Donating breast milk also provided mothers with a kind of memorial.

“When I wrote the research proposal, I thought I would be about dealing with loss and sharing the milk, but it actually was about honoring the baby,” Miracle says. “Donation is one more way to memorialize their babies, to give their lives meaning.”

For Stiper, pumping and donating milk she had hoped to give her son, Garrett, who died in utero at 41 weeks, imparted tremendous value to her son’s life.

“(Garrett) influenced our lives greatly without being out of my uterus and to be able to add to the gifts he was able to give and expand it to another family was very good for my heart and soul,” Stiper says.

While the donations undoubtedly benefited other babies, the process was central in helping many moms through their grief.

“It was my anchoring point, it gave me purpose and without it I don’t know how far I would’ve sunk,” Stiper says. “Everyone was grieving with me, but there’s only so far they could reach. It’s not a good thought in my brain to think of not having that purpose, that continuity, that positive outcome of such a negative. It was very empowering.”

Stories like Stiper’s resonate throughout Miracle’s research project, which involved interviewing the bereaved mothers about the process, benefits and challenges of donating breast milk. The study was presented at the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation in Perth, Australia.

Miracle’s findings are also being used to create a Web site for mothers who lose their babies and providers who care for the mothers. The Web site will provide education on perinatal loss for parents, physicians and nurses with an interactive link for providers on how to talk to parents about the dying process.

A brochure for parents will describe the trajectory of losing a child and what parents might witness when a baby dies, says Miracle.

“All of the mothers wanted to know what death was going to look like-what would it be like for the baby to die, if the baby would be in pain, what would they see; they wanted to know if their color would change. They talked about the decision to take the baby off of the machines and whether they wanted to hold the baby or not.”

Reliving the death of a baby was tremendously difficult for every one of the mothers, she says.

“I’m sure Donna thought I was a basket case, but there was no hesitation in my mind that if I could use my experience to help someone else, I was all for it,” Sessler says. “Even if it only ends up helping one person, that’s a tribute to Skye.”

Sessler’s thoughts of Skye will always be tinged with sadness. “But (participating) helped give me some closure and peace of mind to know that I could do this one last thing for her,” she says.

Robin Huiras is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Evergreen Park.

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