Babies matter: a look at pregnancy loss from Sherokee Ilse

Sherokee Ilse  ·  Sep 24, 2018

As a Samaritan Ministries member, I notice the number of miscarriages listed each month. I wonder how members greet those numbers in the newsletter or the names in the Prayer Guide. Do we see the death of a beloved baby, pray, and use the addresses to send notes? Or do we breeze over the numbers and names with little thought? Does our Samaritan community comprehend the depth of these losses?

Sadly, for much of history, the larger community has shown little or no concern over miscarriage, stillbirth, and other early infant deaths. Yet more than 26,000 stillbirths occur each year in the United States, the equivalent of a full 747 airliner crashing every week. Now add in more than 500,000 confirmed miscarriages, 23,000 neonatal deaths, and 3,700 SIDS deaths. We have an undeclared public health crisis! 

Compare that to attention given to 32,000 annual car accident deaths or 55,000 drug-induced deaths, including opioid overdoses, which are labeled a national crisis. Not to minimize these tragedies, but for too long silence has surrounded the unrecognized tragedy of perinatal loss.

Even in prenatal visits, most doctors and midwives do not speak of the potential for such deaths or ways to reduce risks. Although SIDS research has been a priority, until recently stillbirth was not investigated, and miscarriage is still accepted as a normal pregnancy outcome with virtually little interest or financial allocation for care and research on prevention.

It’s true that not every parent sees a miscarriage as a substantial loss, but one study reports that 75 percent felt their loss was significant and painful, and grieved for their child.

My heart breaks for each family. I know all too well the shock, sorrow, and anguish parents feel with a perinatal loss. Our own pregnancy history includes a 12-week miscarriage (Marama), a full-term stillborn son (Brennan), and an ectopic pregnancy (Bryana).

My husband and I also have two living sons with families who brighten our lives. Yes, we are grateful. But no, we don’t forget who came before them and how those precious children changed us forever!

Trying to make sense of such agony, I allowed God to lead me in writing, speaking, and traveling the world, sharing God’s message of love and hope. I am deeply blessed to have had this as my life mission for more than 30 years.

I know well what most families need to navigate the tsunami during and after such a loss. I have letters, emails, pictures, gifts, and memories of phone calls and visits from thousands of parents who hurt more than words can describe.

How can we embrace these families and enhance the care we offer? We must first acknowledge that each child is God’s little miracle. This is a God-created, loved baby who lived and is still a loved baby who happened to die. When parents and community focus on “God’s creation” and “loved baby,” the decisions are clearer and the support flows easier.

We must also understand that the love that bonds parents to their children begins long before their birth. As children we play house, often with baby dolls. Marriage plans include dreams of children. Pregnancy is exciting, bringing deeper bonding. I call this early bonding a gift from God!

Do we measure our love or grief by body size or time? If this were true, then the older child would be loved more than the younger child based on greater height and age.

Anyone who has experienced a loved one dying knows this isn’t true. Comparing is not helpful, or appropriate. We can help parents by embracing the reality that this baby holds a place in their family and that these parents will always be the parents of this baby.

We can also help by being informed of options when a pregnancy loss occurs. Recently, birth professionals and parent advocates crafted a position paper, “Interdisciplinary Guidelines for Care of Women Presenting to the Emergency Department with Pregnancy Loss,” which contains recommendations for care and is endorsed by many associations.

Using these guidelines provides better information and promotes compassionate care for grieving parents. Parents have the right to name and hold their baby, no matter the gestational age. Baby blankets and clothing can be provided. Only parents should authorize testing and taking tissue samples, practices often performed on babies without fully informing parents. And parents should be told ways to say goodbye, including a time at home. For young children, bringing the baby home is especially helpful, providing a familiar place to say goodbye. Parents should also be offered help sending an announcement, writing an obituary, planning a funeral, and burying or cremating their child, if desired. Yet, sadly, these rights and options are rarely presented nor are their importance to healing explained.

Too often others refer to pregnancy loss as an unfortunate event, a bump in the road, or proof that you can at least get pregnant. They may suggest you try again. These well-meant attempts at comfort demean the value of this child’s life and add to the pain.

Most parents see these little ones as treasures who are loved and achingly missed. Dreams are shattered, and hopes are dashed. A future vanishes in an instant when parents hear, “There is no heartbeat. Your baby has died.”

Parents need not bear the burden alone. I invite our Samaritan community of loving Christians to make more effort to understand and share these parents’ burden of pregnancy loss. When we embrace bereaved families, we bring light to their lives, and to our own, knowing we are doing God’s work.

Ways to honor your baby

Parents who experience pregnancy loss discover meaning in creating a legacy to honor their baby, who is now but a memory.

  • Set aside a specific time or place to honor your child in a way that is significant to you.
  • Visit BabiesRemembered.org and BabyLossFamilyAdvisors.org to find free literature and one-on-one support. Learn how to become an advocate, participate in studies, and raise awareness. Consider becoming a certified Baby Loss Family Advisor or a Baby Loss Doula.
  • Reach out to other bereaved parents by sending notes and sharing resources.
  • Help fund a perinatal loss program in your church or hospital. Funds can be used to buy literature, mementos, and supplies, or to train staff.

How to support others through pregnancy loss

  • Let them know you care. “I am so sorry this happened. It must be hard. While I don’t know all you are going through, I am here to help.”
  • Ask “Did you name your baby?” And if so, “May I call him by his name?” Refer to the child by name from then on if given permission.
  • In the future say: “I was thinking about your little Leona. May I talk about her, or would you prefer not to now?” Follow the parents’ preference.
  • Learn the due date, the anniversary of death, and significant family holidays. Remember them with a call, note, gift, or invitation to go out. Most people will not remember the all-important dates, but parents will!   
  • Don’t judge or say things to reduce the pain. You can’t fix this, so don’t try. Sit in the puddle of their pain with a warm, inviting spirit. Listen. Let them tell their story, their hopes for this child. Don’t offer tons of advice.
  • Don’t suggest if they try again, things will be better. You don’t know that, and neither do they.
  • Help families connect with other grieving families. Find a local support group. Search online for a chat room or Facebook group.
  • Pray for families and send notes of comfort. Check with your church, in Samaritan’s Prayer Guide, and for baby obituaries in your local newspaper.

Sherokee Ilse is a pioneer in the perinatal loss field. She is an international consultant, trainer, parent advocate, inspirational speaker, author, bereaved parent and paradigm shifter.

Next year marks the 30th Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month Washington DC Walk to Remember and Memorial Service. In 1989, participants carried 500 baby memorial quilts in a parade on the Capitol Mall. There will be an anniversary celebration in 2019, exact date to be determined. To be on the email list for alerts and event updates, please contact sherokeeilse@yahoo.com.


Related stories:

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Member Spotlight: Sherokee Ilse of Babies Remembered

When it comes to miscarriage or stillbirth, we tend to lack words

Pro-choice concern for miscarriage gives the lie to abortion

Member letters: Samaritan members felt love of others after miscarriages