When the unexpected happens: Perinatal & neonatal bereavement

No one ever wants to consider the worst-case scenario when it comes to pregnancy, but for thousands of American families each year, perinatal and neonatal loss are a sad reality. When the worst happens, know that you aren’t alone. Erlanger offers resources to help you through perinatal and neonatal bereavement.

Each year in the United States, some 24,000 babies are stillborn, while more than 22,000 babies are lost in the first stages of life. The numbers are staggering — and for those families who are affected, it can be immobilizing.

There’s no one right way to handle grieving, and losing a child who you’ve come to know and love during pregnancy is a unique challenge.

For families in the Chattanooga area who are facing this reality, Erlanger Health System offers comprehensive perinatal and neonatal bereavement services designed to help them cope.

Facing the unknown

Learning that you’re going to lose a newborn baby or that your child has already passed away is always jolting and unexpected. Families in this situation feel a variety of emotions — and all are normal.

“Most people who come here are in shock, they’re completely numb,” says Lisa Cahill, RN, BSN, CPLC, bereavement coordinator at Erlanger Health System. “They’re in a bad dream, and they just want to wake up. They don’t know what to do.”

Because of the wide range of emotions that families are facing, the Erlanger support team tries to take some of the uncertainties out of the equation, helping families through as best they can.

“Families come in and don’t know at all what to expect,” Cahill says. “We very gently talk through what they need to know, gradually as they’re able to take it in. We want to be sure they know everything they need to know and that all questions are answered. The unknown can be very scary, so we encourage them to ask questions when they pop into their minds.”

Handling the grief of perinatal or neonatal bereavement

One challenge of dealing with a perinatal or neonatal loss is knowing what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to the grief process. And the reality is, in most situations what you’re experiencing is normal.

“Being shocked, feeling numb, in denial or even angry all are very normal parts of the grief process,” Cahill says. “We talk with families about healthy grieving vs. unhealthy grieving. We also talk with families about postpartum depression. That’s a very real reality for moms who go home with a healthy baby, so moms in this situation are at an even greater risk. We want to make sure family members are aware of what symptoms to keep an eye on.”

Beyond answering questions and helping families handle the logistics of losing a baby, the Erlanger team also provides families with the chance to create lifelong memories. While the first inclination after a death may be to simply “handle” the situation and get through it, not taking the chance to spend time with the baby can be something families later regret.

“We have a program here called Never Forgotten, where nurses are trained to help families at the most terrible time of their lives,” Cahill says. “We try to make the time that the family does have with their baby as precious and special as we can.”

“It’s all about creating memories. This is the time to give them cherished moments to look back at. This may include holding, bathing and dressing the baby, taking photos with and of the baby, making foot or hand molds, or taking foot or handprints.”

While these moments may seem insignificant in the scheme of things, they can actually have a lasting impact.

“We’ve learned that this ‘gift of time’ can really help families through the grieving process as times goes on,” Cahill says. “This time to love on their baby and get to know the baby really will help with the grieving. I’ve never had a family come back and tell us they wish they hadn’t seen their baby — but we do have families who come back and say they wish they had.”

Lasting support

At Erlanger, support for families dealing with perinatal or neonatal bereavement doesn’t end when they leave the hospital. Just like grieving continues on, so do the resources available to help.

Each month, Erlanger hosts a support group that lets families talk with other families dealing with loss. The group is open to anyone, even if they didn’t deliver at an Erlanger hospital.

In December of each year, a candlelight service is held, offering families an opportunity to remember and honor their baby. Each family that attends receives a small memory gift.

If you or someone you know are grieving the loss of a baby during pregnancy or afterward, you may benefit from Erlanger’s Perinatal and Neonatal Bereavement Program. To learn more about the program or the monthly support groups, call (423) 778-5149.