When a baby dies, faith and medicine aim for compassion

Credit: Alex Krisan/Shutterstock
Credit: Alex Krisan/Shutterstock

.- Grieving a miscarriage or stillbirth can be heart-wrenching. As awareness of that difficulty grows, medical professionals and clergy strive to offer meaningful ways to help parents mourn.

Frequently periods of mourning after a stillbirth or miscarriage are quiet, and perhaps too quick. Now, new medical devices allow parents of stillborn babies to spend more time with a stillborn baby’s earthly remains, possibly giving new ways to aid grieving families.

“To God, no life is lost, no life is insignificant,” Fr. Christopher Zelonis, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown in Virginia, told CNA. “Parents who have suffered miscarriages are parents and have every right and, we would say, need, to regard themselves as such.”

“The community around them, in doing the same, would create greater reverence and respect for the life that those parents have carried. Certainly, no parent wants to bury a child or wants to grieve that loss,” said Zelonis.

The priest spoke about the significance of stillbirths and miscarriages in the life of parents, community, and the Church. He has been a priest for 15 years and a part-time hospital chaplain for the last four years, in addition to his current duties as a parish pastor.

Newly developed cooling cots, also called cold cots, aim to help parents of stillborns. The New York Times profiled an eight-pound device called the CuddleCot, a describing it as a “kind of refrigerated baby bed that helps preserve the body of a deceased newborn for days.”

“The device gives parents a chance to bond with their babies — to love and hold them, take pictures, even take them home and take them for walks, creating memories to last a lifetime,” the New York Times personal health columnist Jane E. Brody wrote Jan. 14.

The twin babies of Chris and Emily Fricker of Pingree Grove, Ill., were born too early to live longer than 90 minutes. The Frickers said the CuddleCot helped them so much they donated one to an Illinois hospital.

“I can’t imagine not having one, it helped us so much,” Emily Fricker told the New York Times.

“Brittany, our labor and delivery nurse, told us we could spend as much time as we wanted with our babies,” Chris Fricker said. “We held them, told them how much we loved them and had them baptized. We got to choose when to say goodbye to them, about 12 hours later.”

The bodies of babies who die in utero or during delivery are often quickly placed in hospital morgues, and parents cannot spend much time with them. Parents are sometimes discouraged from seeing their babies.

“When women find out that they’re pregnant, they immediately begin making plans for the baby,” Dr. Tracy Arghavani, obstetrician-gynecologist at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital, told the New York Times. “When they lose that baby, it’s like someone stole their dreams. The loss of an unborn child can be just as heart-wrenching as the loss of a born child.”

For Fr. Zelonis, parents’ various responses to grief and loss “just reflect the variety of people.”

“I don’t know if there’s any right or wrong or better or worse about it,” he said.

Physical contact with the baby is considered important at a “crucial bonding time” that happens with mothers and fathers after a typical birth, and the new devices could help.

“That could certainly make the actual humanity of that child, which was always present at every stage, more palpable to the parents,” he said.

The U.K.-based manufacturer of the CuddleCot, Flexmort, says 92 percent of British hospitals have at least one device. The device costs about $2,700. It is designed to be cleaned and sterilized for reuse.

“Dealing with the death of a baby is clearly an incredibly difficult event for parents and bereaved parents should be given the option of spending time with their baby,” the CuddleCot website said. “This is usually in the hospital maternity/labor ward or hospice but increasingly babies are also being allowed home.”

This time helps the family bond with the baby and helps them deal with the loss, the manufacturer claimed.

The CuddleCot site cited a testimonial from Sutton Jones of South Carolina: “I can’t even explain how helpful the cuddle cot was to us. We have memories with our daughter that we never would have had. We got to hold her, kiss her, change her, take pictures with her, spend the night with her, just love her as our child.”

Zelonis said that after the loss of an expected child, parents can react in any number of ways. The loss of a child is grievous in itself, and grief over lost dreams and expectations for the child also follow. Feelings of guilt are also possible, with parents’ thoughts focusing on “anything they may or may not have contributed to the death of the child.”

“There can be anger at God for allowing it to happen,” he said. “You might hear sometimes the phrase ‘taking away their baby,’ as you might hear from any loved ones who died regardless of age.”

“I tell people who are grieving that God is big enough to handle it,” the priest told CNA. “I think people get angry with God and then get ashamed or afraid for being angry with God.”

Parents who miscarry should show “compassion towards themselves.” The should also respond with “candor with God.”

“Regarding miscarriage, no life is lost in the sight of God, though a life might not have reached full maturity,” Zelonis said. “No life is lost. God knows. In heaven, that child may for all we know come to possess full understanding and insight in the presence of God, with God completing any defects or any deficits in understanding and freedom.”

“And if not, either way, this is a person loved into existence by God and by his or her parents.”

Zelonis said Catholics should respond to the loss of a baby with compassion, understanding and “respect for the life that was and is present to God, even if it is no longer present to the world.”

Medical professionals also have guidance in responding to stillbirth or miscarriage. The CuddleCot website links to a copy of the National Health Service Scotland and Children’s Hospice Association Scotland January 2016 document “Collaborative guidance for staff to support families who wish to take their baby home after death.”

The document aims to make parents aware of their choices following their baby’s death and to “support their decision-making.” It aims to “ensure that the baby and their family are treated
with dignity and respect.”

Staff should advise parents that their baby’s body will undergo changes after death, and should reassure them and instruct them on how to minimize these changes.

It notes that taking a baby home after his or her death is “not the right choice for every family” and this should be respected. To ensure a dignified, respectful treatment for the baby and his or her family, the guidelines said, “the use of the baby’s name acknowledges their baby as a person and affirms them as parents.” Parents have a role in caring for their baby and hospital staff should remember “to respect their choices at this difficult time.

Zelonis said the Church has “prescribed rites and proper prayers” for infants who pass away.

“Catholic cemeteries have plots for infant and fetal remains, with some people who assist in donating resources the space and services,” he said.

Those who suffer the loss of a baby in miscarriage “should certainly allow themselves to give voice to any feelings,” he continued.

“Certainly, they should have patience and be willing to, in an appropriate time, not according to a timeline, work through those emotions.”

Insensitive responses from clergy or lay Catholics can have such severe effect as to drive people away from religious practice, warned Zelonis, saying this happened in his own family history.

There is also a temptation for both the chaplain and the lay person to “default to platitudes.”

“I think of the friends of Job who before opening their mouths first sat with him and said nothing,” he said. “They were just there.”

Even though it can be uncomfortable to be in the presence of such loss, he encouraged people to resist the temptation “to speak too much or not enough.”

“Well-meaning people might rush to rationales, presuming the mind and will of God,” said Zelonis. “As a chaplain I try to steer clear of that… Better, I say little or nothing, except to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of life—our own or the child’s—asking the Lord of the living and dead to receive the child as His beloved and to receive us in all our emotions, and unfulfilled expectations.”

Tags: Parenting, Catholic News, Mourning, Healthcare

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