By Terry Goodrich
With the rate of stillbirths now topping that of infants who die before their first birthdays, employers — and society in general — must become more empathetic to families grieving the death of a baby through stillbirth or miscarriage and, in many cases, facing a crisis of faith, a Baylor University researcher said.
While infant mortality in the United States has declined 11 percent since 2006, little progress has been made in reducing stillbirth and miscarriage rates, according to a recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Research shows that approximately one in four women will experience a miscarriage, a loss before the 20th week of pregnancy, but it’s not something that we are comfortable talking about,” said Joyce Nuner, an associate professor of child and family studies at Baylor. “It’s a silent sorrow.”
Nuner helped form Cradled, a Waco-based nonprofit serving bereaved families.
“Many people struggle tremendously,” Nuner said. “This leaves many of our group members asking big questions about God, about religion and about spirituality in general. … Our goal is to provide a safe place for all — all denominations, all beliefs systems and all parents suffering the loss of a child. We give them the space to talk about it.”
Perinatal bereavement is minimized in the workplace, she said. A recent article by The New York Times that explored Amazon’s treatment of employees noted workers who suffered from miscarriages said they were evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.
One mother whose child was stillborn — “the most devastating event in my life” — said she left Amazon after being told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.”
Lack of sensitivity
“Such actions and attitudes are not as unusual as we might think,” Nuner said. “In our support groups, I’ve been shocked by the stories of some parents and how they have been treated at work by supervisors and co-workers. Many report a lack of sensitivity, empathy or even recognition that their baby has died.”
Nuner, a mother of three, who also lost a baby girl at 16 weeks, is conducting research to learn how and when attachments are formed with a baby during pregnancy, how maternal mental health is affected by a loss, how the loss impacts future parenting — and how healing can be promoted.
“Through my research and work with Cradled, I am interested in providing parents a place to tell their story,” Nuner said. “This is often a subject that many are hesitant to talk about … even taboo.”
According to the American Psychological Association, 15 percent of women will experience clinically significant depression and/or anxiety after a miscarriage or stillbirth that can last for up to three years.
Even if people wish to sympathize, they may not know how.
Wrong things to say
“They may say things like: ‘You can always have other children.’ ‘You have two children.’ ‘It’s God’s will.’ These were not helpful things to say. What you’re saying is that the child is replaceable — but every child is unique, distinct and irreplaceable,” Nuner said.
Cradled, founded by Baylor alumna Rachel Craig, a counselor in Texas School Neuropsychology, offers confidential support through peer groups, a six-week bereavement curriculum and individual meetings with families who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, death within the first year of life or infertility.
The organization, which also has a Tennessee chapter, offers in-hospital services, such as photography; memory-making, such as handprints and footprints; and emotional support during delivery, if requested.
“As a bereaved mother, there were things that I wished I had said or asked for when I was delivering our baby girl,” Nuner said. “I wanted pictures of her, and I wanted to hold her. I did ask for those things, but I had to ask. I felt so uncomfortable, and later I looked back and wished I had asked for hand and footprints. These are not things that I had to request after the birth of my living children.”
May harm future parenting
The experience also may harm future parenting.
“They may put up an emotional wall to protect themselves from getting too attached,” Nuner said. “The other end of the spectrum is when we see parents react to the loss of their baby by acting highly anxious during subsequent pregnancies, for example, going to the doctor every week to be sure the baby’s heart is still beating.”
Cradled volunteers assist in planning individual memorials. As an organization, they recognize Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day annually on Oct. 15 with a community event and hold a remembrance service each December.
For families that want to plan a memorial service, “we’ll help them walk through that. Rituals are part of the grief process,” she said.