Though I’ve been colleagues for several years with the Angel Babies counselors at the hospice where I work, I was, well . . . ignorant.
In my feeble defense, I’m not directly involved with the Angel Babies program. I’m also not a medical expert, and even “easy” terminology stumps me. Additionally, my wife and I don’t have children.
There were a series of unremarkable events—a phone call, a conversation, a few words on a webpage—that led me to learn “perinatal” referred to the before and after time period around the birth of a child. Here’s the sentence from the webpage that I’m sure I’d read before and had—like humans often do—overlooked the words I didn’t understand:
“Angel Babies offers a perinatal hospice program designed for families whose unborn child has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, offering support during pregnancy and providing ideas for creating loving memories.” (Italics added by me.)
I read more elsewhere. The average length of a human pregnancy is forty weeks, or—surprise—nine months. Hey, that’s common knowledge and I knew it as a youngster! My parents announced another sibling would “arrive” when I was ten years old. Though never a math whiz, I handily calculated that I’d be forced to share the home with the new kid by my eleventh birthday. I may have also, ever so slightly, resented that the newest family member would appear in the same month as my birthday. Poor planning on my parents’ part! Whatever grumblings I had about occupying the same space or a birth month vanished when my sweet, cute, and cuddly younger sister was born.
Various references list various times for defining when the perinatal period begins: some say as early as the twentieth week of a pregnancy, others suggest twenty-eight weeks, and still others even closer to the forty weeks. There’s also no set time for when the perinatal period ends, but in my less-than-extensive research, it’s typically around the fourth week after birth.
Are your eyes glazing over yet? Perinatal: the time before and after birth.
But what if one of the worst things any parent can imagine happens during these days? Doesn’t nearly everyone desiring to become a parent long for a sweet, cute, and cuddly newborn? Sometimes, however, this doesn’t happen.
A life that had not fully begun ends before birth.
A new life ends in the moments, hours, or days after birth.
I am humbled to work with colleagues who enter into the perinatal time when dreams have become nightmares; when the plans for where the cradle should go have become the unimaginable search for a gravesite; when the worries of Will I be a good parent? on the morning after birth become the tears of a parent who mourns.
How I wish every community had an Angel Babies program. How I wish every family had access to kind, caring professionals available to support them in the worst of all moments.
Several years ago, I helped at an annual Angel Babies event where hundreds of folks gathered in a local park. Most participants—parents and grandparents, children and teens—had gone through the death of a child. As the activity concluded, I assisted one woman with health problems. She needed someone to escort her through the crowds to where a friend would meet her and drive her home. While walking together, she told me why she’d decided to attend. Let’s say her name was Wilma. It wasn’t. Let’s say she was a month shy of her 70th birthday. She wasn’t.
I’ll make up things to keep Wilma’s identity as obscure as possible. Barely twenty, she became pregnant. But Wilma’s child had died during the birth. Since this happened in a different era, I suppose “when” can be an excuse what came next. After all, we’ve come a long way with technology. Today’s tools may have identified concerns at some point in her pregnancy. But back then, no one anticipated problems until the birth was underway. And so, lying in a hospital bed, exhausted from labor, alone because her husband was in another room, Wilma’s physician informed her that the child—the gift she’d carried for nearly nine months—had died. She didn’t hold or even see her baby, and never had a chance to say goodbye. The doctor never disclosed anything more. Soon, she was discharged from the hospital. No one in Wilma’s family mentioned the baby. Not the birth; not the death. I suppose it could be like that “back then,” before social media and everyone sharing everything, but it can still be like that in today’s world. In certain families and cultures, silence is the choice. Yes we’ve had progress, in our machines and ways of communication, but we often retreat into secrets, lies, and avoidance.
When she moved to this area, a mother and a grandmother now, she heard about Angel Babies. She knew she had to come to one event. She wanted to be with others who’d experienced a heart-wrenching loss. She wanted to be around people who talked openly with tears, with memories, and with honesty about shattered dreams.
She came to hear stories. She came to tell stories.
I got to hear her story. All along, as we walked, winding through the crowd, I listened.
In a precious and profound way, my colleagues in the Angel Babies program helped this woman finally conclude her perinatal journey.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
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The first draft of this essay was written well over a year ago. I let it sit. And then I decided it should be posted around Christmas. Why? It’s not a Christmas story, but only a tale of two strangers taking a brief walk and talking. But I think of how many Christmases “Wilma” went through after the death of her child. Regardless of “Wilma’s” (or your) faith traditions, in every December, a mother-and-child is displayed on cards, in songs, and a thousand other places. This can be the toughest season for grieving parents. But with courage, “Wilma” took a journey—which is using Christmas language—to a place where she experienced a little healing and shared in a little hope. I hope those mourning the death of a child seek support like “Wilma” did and don’t remain silent about one of the most tender, traumatic parts of their life.by