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The Loss of a Baby: How Penn Medicine Helps Families Heal

Ha and Bill Lyons have donated nearly 400 blankets in memory of their son

Last January Ha Lyons lost her baby in the third trimester of her pregnancy, leaving both her and her husband, Bill, devastated. In the following months, they turned to helping others to ease their pain, and became a force for fundraising to prevent others from suffering the same sad fate. In March 2018, they raised $8,000 for the March of Dimes. In November, they volunteered their time to help prep food for Thanksgiving dinners served to the homeless.

But, in January, on the anniversary of their son Van’s passing, they wanted to do something extra special. They decided to donate baby blankets to the Mother Baby Unit at Pennsylvania Hospital, where Ha had received her obstetrical care. With the help of an online fundraiser – and other donations – she was able to donate almost 400 blankets.

According to Penn psychologist Thea Gallagher, MD, giving back (volunteering or donating to a special cause) in the face of any “traumatic” event – such as a pregnancy loss – can help ease the emotional pain. “We’re powerless to these tragedies but doing one small thing that helps other people provides some control over their lives,” she said. But, she stressed, while avoiding any reminders and keeping busy to push away feelings “may help in the short term, in the long term, it will make people more miserable.” And could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Processing a loss often requires many resources. Shayna Nagel, BSW, BSN, knows the importance of offering many avenues of support to women who suffer the loss in the first trimester. Nagel is part of a caring team in Penn Medicine’s PEACE program, whose services include caring for those experiencing pregnancy loss.

While perinatal losses are more common during this period, “many grieve it the same as the loss of a child.” Nagel helps in many ways; for example, she often connects a woman to a perinatal loss support group, such as the bereavement support group UNITE, hosted at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), which “helps a woman feel less isolated.” Nagel might also suggest patients take time off from work and will provide a medical excuse note, going so far as to ask who in the family can tell the patient’s coworkers so “she doesn’t have to answer questions after returning to work.” Mostly, though, she just listens, providing “emotional triage.”

“Letting women talk about the loss is healthy,” Gallagher said. “It helps process the loss.”

Validating the existence of a pregnancy is important. One way to do this is by giving “mementos” that connect the family to the pregnancy. Nagel provides a small memory stone and an ultrasound of the baby to grieving parents. Those who suffer the loss of a baby while at HUP receive a small memorial box which includes a small stuffed animal, a knit hat as well as the baby’s hospital ID tag and a copy of the baby’s footprints.

When the loss leads to a spiritual crisis— people start to question their faith — Nagel refers them to HUP’s Pastoral Care Department. “Women feel guilt and start feeling the ‘would have-should have-could haves,’” said HUP chaplain Denise Statham. They ask “Why am I being punished?”

Memory Stone
The PEACE program provides a memory stone and additional resources to grieving parents

“Society has often denied the loss— when people had miscarriages, no one talked about it,” Statham continued. “We give people space to honor that they were – and still are – parents even though the child is deceased. I consider it a privilege to be with them, a sacred witness to their pain.”

To help spiritually heal a grieving family, Statham will hold a memorial service or baptism, in the hospital chapel or a patient’s room. “Burial is a physical release but reassurance of a baby’s soul is a spiritual release.” Once, she performed a funeral for parents who suffered the loss of a full-term baby when their church would not do the service because the couple weren’t married.

Pastoral Care also holds an annual memorial service for families who have lost a baby during the year and for the staff who cared for them. “Fetal loss happens to a family, not just the woman,” Statham said. Indeed, father or partners often suffer in silence. “Culturally we expect fathers to be stoic. They don’t get the chance to grieve,” Statham said. “We give them space to talk about their feelings and validate emotions that they might feel they shouldn’t have.”

While Ha may choose other ways to honor her son's memory in the future, some contributions at HUP have continued for years. For example, there’s a grandmother who has been knitting and donating baby blankets to HUP. She told Kelly Zapata, BSN, who leads Women’s Health Bereavement Support at HUP, that she makes them for all of her grandchildren but the granddaughter they lost “never had the chance to enjoy the warmth and comfort of my blanket.” She wanted other babies to have it. as well.

Another family has been funding the supply of Beanie Babies for Memorial Boxes for more than 20 years. It all started in 1997 when Marianne Bittle, MSN, clinical practice leader for HUP’s Mother Baby unit, took a photo for a patient who had lost her baby. Beanie Babies were all the rage at the time and she had bought one at the hospital’s gift shop for her son. But, right before taking the photo – which was also part of HUP’s bereavement process at the time – she decided to include a Beanie Baby in the baby’s photo. Bittle, who was a perinatal bereavement coordinator at the time, ended up giving the patient the Beanie Baby to take home. Not only was the woman extremely grateful, Bittle said, but she and her family have continuously donated to keep this tradition going.

“We can never replace a baby,” Bittle said. “But we want to give them something to hold onto so they won’t leave the hospital with empty arms.”

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